By Dennis T. Avery.
CHURCHVILLE, VA (B)--Farming is not natural.
All farming represents an intrusion on the wild ecology.
But modern farming is taking serious heat for growing its crops in monocultures--cultivating a single crop. The eco-activists, who mostly live in cities, say farms should look more like forests, with multi-story canopies and a wide variety of inter-planted crops.
Some farms can. That's a key point made by the important report just issued by the World Conservation Union and Future Harvest, a consortium of major Third World agricultural research and conservation centers.
The report is entitled "Common Ground, Common Future: How Ecoagriculture Can Help Feed the World and Save Wild Biodiversity." The two prestigious international organizations urge a concept called "ecoagriculture."
It recognizes the world will need perhaps three times more food by 2050 and that the world's wildlife preserves are too small, too scattered and too pressured to save all the planet's existing wild species.
Ecoagriculture focuses on high but sustainable yields, since farming already occupies 37% of the world's land area. It works to minimize farm pollution and help farmers save more wildlife habitat on and near their farms.
The eco-activists rallying cry, "Making fields look more like forests," has the most meaning in the tropics and subtropics, where multi-story mixtures of planted trees, shrubs and food crops are found widely on farms.
In Indonesia, one of the world's largest rubber producers, rubber plantations support 250 to 300 plant species and a wide variety of birds and animals, in addition to the rubber trees.
The rubber plantations nevertheless generate nearly $2 billion a year in rubber production and support many thousands of jobs in both the plantations and the rubber products factories in nearby urban centers. The rest of the world gains lifesaving radial tires and latex gloves.
In Central America, shade-grown coffee plantations support almost as many different species as the natural rain forest, which means they contain more biodiversity than any farm field in Europe or America.
The problem has been that yields from sun-grown coffee have been higher, enough to support higher per-acre costs for fertilizer, pesticides and more frequent replanting.
Researchers looking for ways to help shade-grown coffee compete have discovered a fast-growing native tree species, Cordia alliodora, which can be inter-planted with the coffee, has minimal impact on yields and can be harvested profitably for timber.
On 22 million acres of Central American pastureland, scattered trees provide shade for the cattle, as well as timber, firewood and fence posts to farmers.
The trees also provide food for such birds as resplendent quetzals, three-wattled bellbirds and keel-billed toucans as they migrate between mountains and lowlands. In addition, the trees help feed bats and other small animals on the farms and preserve small communities of non-pasture plants.
Some urbanites will hear the advice from "Common Ground, Common Future" and go back to berating their local corn and wheat farmers for planting all corn or soybeans in one field and nothing but wheat in another.
They miss the point that alternating fields of different crops is in itself a form of diversity. Even more important, some fields have soils and climate ideal for growing high yields of key crops. Indonesia would be foolish to attempt corn farming in its rubber plantations; corn needs sun.
An Illinois farmer who can grow 250 bushels of corn per acre is doing the world a favor by exporting his surplus corn to poultry producers in Taiwan or Saudi Arabia who can't grow enough local feed.
If the world was willing to take all of its nourishment in the form of alfalfa pills, we could grow nothing but perennial plants and radically reduce our need for fertilizer and pesticides. But people and animals do not live by alfalfa pills alone.
There's also the problem of labor costs. One reason African farmers interplant different species in the same field is that they harvest their crops by hand. It's slow work under the blazing African sun, but they have no machines or lucrative off-farm jobs.
Still the idea of mimicking nature as far as we effectively can is a good one. That doesn't mean turning the former grasslands of the Corn Belt into pine forests, or growing the French wheat crop under a canopy of oak trees.
Rather, it means modifying high-yield farming to be more eco-friendly without losing the high yields that minimize humanity's cropland requirements.