Here’s a couple of thoughts on E.O.Wilson’s book The Diversity of Life, which I’ve just finished reading – another in the long list of excellent tomes that I should have read years ago.
Wilson – Harvard biologist and founder of the term ‘biodiversity’ – doesn’t have all that much to say about farming in his book except that it tends to encroach on wilderness. It’s this habitat destruction that’s the No.1 cause of contemporary species extinctions, which are proceeding at such a high rate that it seems we’re now entering the sixth major extinction spasm in geological history, the last one being the KT event that did for the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. This one, it seems, is entirely the result of human activities, and past history suggests it takes the biosphere about 10 million years to recover from such spasms and return to something approaching previous levels of biodiversity. Food for thought.
And who is responsible for this dreadful destruction? Well, according to Wilson one of the main culprits is, er… small-scale farmers. He mentions in particular swidden cultivators of the tropical forests, and smallholders moving into and clearing those same forests at the head of an expanding agricultural frontier.
But let’s unpick this a bit. I discussed swidden cultivation in a previous post, and to my mind Wilson’s comments are basically confirmatory of the conclusions I drew in that post from Clifford Geertz’s work. Swidden, practised well in situations of low population density, can be just about the most sustainable form of agriculture possible. But when it’s done badly or in situations of population pressure, it can be disastrous. Either way, it’s not going to play a major role in global agricultural futures so perhaps we can put it to one side.
Smallholder expansion into the forests is a different matter. But what’s causing it? To take Brazil, a key tropical forest country, land concentration is enormous – sources suggest the largest 10% of farms hold 85% of the agricultural land area, or the largest 1% of farms hold 45% of the area, while some 5 million families remain landless (as at 2002 – Raj Patel, Stuffed And Starved p.204-5), and 30 million rural workers have lost their land in the last 25 years. So perhaps the destructive smallholder frontiersmen in the forests are simply the head of a wave originating in the soya and beef heartlands of Brazil’s big agri.
Closer to home I paid a sad visit recently to a 120 acre former dairy farm turned mixed farm and market garden, but now cultivating only an acre or two of its beautiful south-facing edge-of-town land while the rest was going to rack and ruin. If I’m honest, my own land is now similarly underutilised – not because I can’t grow useful crops for people locally using sustainable methods, but because I can’t do it profitably in the topsy turvy world of the present distorted economy (by ‘profitable’ I mean something approaching the minimum wage). It wouldn’t be hard to tell a story that started with doomed and homeless rainforest species, proceeded via homeless smallholder farmers clearing the wilderness and soya barons in countries like Brazil, hopped over to dirt cheap supermarket meat and eggs in countries like Britain, and thence to recreational landownership in the UK and good farmland lying idle here. Worth thinking about the next time you hear somebody say we need GM crops to intensify agricultural production so we can feed the world without encroaching on the wilderness.
A completely different issue raised in Wilson’s book is his emphasis on the extraordinary evolved complexity of wild ecosystems, above all those of the tropical rainforests. I think that raises interesting issues for those of us concerned with complexity in our artificial agro-ecosystems. But perhaps that’s a topic for another time.