Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems With Ecosystems is written by a group of professional farmers, journalist, ecologist and biologists, most of them from the mid-western United States. This is somewhat surprising, since this area is the "corn belt" of America, with vast monoculture plantations of corn and soy-beans, factory farmed animals, and little else. Even most environmentalist consider this area an environmental sacrificial zone, since these vast monocultures are purportedly critical for "feeding the world".

The Farm as Natural Habitat critically examines this status-quo from various angles, and gives numerous examples of eco-friendly and sustainable farming operations in the corn belt that conserve the local land, improve water quality and wildlife habitat, and are highly profitable. Not all of these farms are completely organic, and since they are on the order of hundreds of acres, most of them use machinery to some extent.

The book covers the issue of protecting and promoting biodiversity on farms in four parts:

  1. Agriculture as Ecological Sacrifice
  2. Restoring Nature on Farms
  3. Ecosystem Management and Farmlands
  4. Steps Towards Agroecological Restoration
The first part reviews the current necessary-evil approach to the monocultures and factory farming in the corn belt, and demonstrates that this is not necessary, and is not sustainable in the long run:
  • We should conserve biodiversity not just due to ethical and aesthetic reasons, but also because the natural ecology of an area provides us with tremendous value in natural resources that can not be replaced artificially at any cost once the ecosystems are damaged.
  • While the sacrifice is made in the name of "feeding the world", in reality, about 80% of the grain produced is used as animal feed benefiting only the first world. In fact, world hunger has consistently worsened despite increasing monoculture in the corn belt.
  • And of course, there are numerous catastrophic effects on human health and on the environment due to the industrial approach to agriculture and the associated diet and lifestyle.
The second and third parts review several examples and approaches used by farmers to run highly profitable farms by incorporating biodiversity and eco-friendly practices. The key here is active and unbiased observation of natural systems on the land, and working with the natural ecosystems rather than imposing the latest agri-science fashion. Part four examines the conceptual, social and regulatory shifts necessary for making large scale eco-friendly agriculture a reality. (Perhaps some of the shifts are now happening, like the proposed low-carbon agriculture subsidies.)

The book is written for the lay-person, and most of the data is presented in terms of direct examples, but at the end of each chapter there are a large number of references to books, academic and policy publications, etc. Certainly worth reading for anyone interested in the future of agriculture in the coming low carbon economy.



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