April 30, 2003
by Dennis T. Avery
Environmentalists have long contended that sustainable farming must give up “unstable” monoculture crops and mimic natural ecosystems more closely. They offer the ultra-diverse plant life of tropical forests as the ecological model for agriculture.
Prince Charles of England, who is an organic entrepreneur, says farmers must work “with the grain of nature,” and follow the “genius of nature’s designs rigorously tested and refined over the years.”
Dr. Michael Altieri of the University of California at Berkeley claims that monocultures are ecologically unstable. He says they “provide optimal conditions for unhampered growth of weeds, insects, and diseases because many ecological niches are not filled by other organisms.”
But why use tropical biodiversity as a model? Evolutionist Charles Darwin praised the huge kelp beds of the southern Atlantic, a natural monoculture. Darwin said, “The number of living creatures of all Orders whose existence intimately depends on the kelp is wonderful.” Another virtual species monopoly, blue grama grass, used to cover thousands of square miles of the central United States, supporting a rich web of wildlife ranging from huge bison and mammoths to prairie dogs, birds, and grasshoppers.
Dr. Donald Wood, a plant resource expert who has worked in India, Kenya, and the West Indies, says Mother Nature offers other plant growth models that had more to do with the evolution of today’s farming than tropical forests, including natural grasslands and the flood plains of river valleys.
He says the common belief that cereals arose as weeds on the fringes of human campsites is not valid. As recently as a century ago, wild rice dominated the riverbanks in what is now Bangladesh. African wild rice was historically harvested on a massive scale across Africa from southern Sudan to the Atlantic Ocean. Dr. Wood says these “mono-dominant” stands of plant species led to wet rice cultivation, the single most important cropping system in the developing world.
Perhaps the strongest evidence of the natural mono-dominant pattern is wheat. Dr. Wood says that plant explorers have found wheat throughout the Near East in “massive stands covering many square kilometers, with up to three hundred plants per square meter.” Sorghum can be found in mono-dominant stands on the extensive tall-grass savannas of Sudan and Chad.
Dr. Woods says that “environmentally buffeted” areas such as flood-prone river valleys, salt marshes, fire-prone prairies, and regions with highly seasonal rainfall usually have few species. Cereal grasses have grown wild there for millennia, defying Altieri’s claim that monocultures are unstable.
Man simply extended the area of natural mono-dominant ecosystems to support more people on less land. Instead of waiting for floods to fertilize crops, modern farmers mimic nature by adding industrial fertilizer to the soil; instead of waiting for huge prairie fires to renew cereal stands, they plow.
None of the world’s wild mono-dominant regions ever contained the biodiversity of tropical forests. But tropical forests shouldn’t be farmed except as a last resort. To do so represents an environmental tragedy. In a tropical forest farm, the traditional slash-and-burn shifting cultivation disturbs more wildlife species per person fed than anywhere else on earth.
Besides being ecologically unsuited to farming, tropical forests suffer high temperatures and moisture levels that rob their soils of nutrients and structure—and then assault crops with hordes of insects and fungi. While the multitude of inter-planted crops on a traditional slash-and-burn tropical farm may well be the best way to grow food in harsh tropical conditions, this still represents the least successful farming model on earth.
Tropical inter-planting is also ecologically alien to the lands where most of humanity lives. Why would eco-activists reject the ecological insights of the cereal farmers who created sustained human success throughout Asia (rice), the Near East (wheat), Europe (wheat), and most of the Americas (corn and later wheat)? Their agricultural systems clearly mimic naturally evolved stands of mono-dominant plants. The current eco-activist advice to abandon monocultures violates virtually every ecological precept.Are the eco-activists simply rejecting any farming system productive enough to support large numbers of humans?
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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