The Diversity Of Life

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.

6 thoughts on “The Diversity Of Life

  1. So you seem to have set your self a challenge – in order to ensure that another 18 acres (my memory of the size of your field) of rain forest is not cut down unnecessarily. The challenge being how can an your plot be productive without being profitable. It may sound harsh but there seems to be an implicit moral obligation here. Soya yields in Brazil can reach 3 tonnes an acre so you could start with that as a target at least for a food energy calculation.

  2. You could choose to put it like that, I suppose, if you think that farmers and landowners have sole moral responsibility for the food system and the biosphere. But I think the more significant challenges are (1) how to effect land redistribution in rainforest countries, (2) how to reduce the production of soya-fed livestock, and (3) how to value agricultural production in countries like the UK properly. On the latter point, changing the behaviour of politicians, bureaucrats and the public will I think ultimately prove a more plausible strategy than expecting UK farmers to produce tonnages of soya equivalence for nothing out of a sense of moral obligation. Or to put it another way, if indeed I have set myself the challenge you mention, it’s one that I feel entirely comfortable about failing at unless I get some more help from my community.

  3. “Comfortable”! Really? I don’t believe you. I think it is possible for you to meet your own challenge without the help of your community. After all, as you know, that help is going to be hard to come by. If in the mean time you can get your 3 questions answered then that’s a bonus. Here are my answers. 1/ Produce from your own land thereby reducing the demand on the rainforest. 2/ Don’t buy any agricultural meat, dairy, eggs which has been produced using soya or other concentrates. 3/ Ignore all abstract economic questions because …. because…. because…. it makes me sad.

  4. Perhaps we’re talking at cross purposes here, as we sometimes do, but the issue surely is about individual and collective responses. Yes, it’s a good idea for me to produce on my land and not to buy soya products, but doing so will make absolutely no difference whatsoever to rainforest encroachment, and would therefore be at best complementary to political reform of land distribution and the global soya trade. Point 3 is, for me, very far from being an abstract economic question having recently had to suspend my business as a direct result of the way agricultural production is valued.

    I agree with you that there is a moral obligation to try to prevent rainforest encroachment and to make better use of existing agricultural land, but if you’re implying that the obligation to make better use of my land falls solely upon me as it’s titular ‘owner’, then I disagree – the responsibility is collective. I tried to establish the kind of agricultural business that I think is needed locally, I earned essentially nothing from doing it for five years, and ultimately I had insufficient support from planning officers and local customers to realistically keep it going. Now I find quite a lot of people – not necessarily you, but maybe you? – are telling me what I ought to be doing with it, or what my moral obligations are. I don’t think I’m holier than anyone else, but I don’t think I’m less holy either. We’re currently trying to figure out what the best way forward for Vallis Veg is, and I’m very comfortable about doing it in our own time without feeling any need to produce fifty odd tons of soya equivalent any time soon. In fact, I think it’s almost a given that any kind of long-term sustainable agriculture will take years to figure out and get established, and will in the mean time fail to match current agroindustrial soya yields, if indeed it ever does. So I’d say what John F Kennedy would have said, had he been the president of Frome’s local agroecological box scheme rather than the president of the USA, “Ask not what Vallis Veg can do for you, but what you can do for Vallis Veg.”

  5. You are right. The issue is about individual and collective responses. If everyone stopped buying soya products and produced from their own land the collective impact would ensure that there are no soya barons because they would have had their market removed and seen it replaced by a sustainable alternative. Whether an activist is better to seek to persuade the masses to rise up and wield their collective power or to lobby for political reform is a choice that need not be made. Either way the authenticity of the activist and therefore her effectiveness is enhanced if she is being the change she wants to see. [I am not suggesting that you are not authentic just making a general point].
    The question I most wanted to raise is how is it possible to make good use of land outside of the capitalist system? Once inside the system those who are trying to discharge their responsibilities ethically often die by the sword with which they are trying to live. There must be a better way ?
    Soya is a bit of a toxic substance which therefore carries with it loads of hidden costs which society at large has to bear. I’ll let you off with 1 tonne per acre.

  6. Well I agree with a lot of your last post. There’s much to be said for individual actions, but while it’s true that there would be no soya barons if everyone stopped buying soya products, it doesn’t follow that individual action is the only or the best route for systemic change. And of course an increasingly small proportion of the global population has any land at all from which to produce anything from. All the more reason why those of us who do need to use it wisely – but we need help from the wider community, which too often is not forthcoming. In my opinion, far too much blame is placed upon farmers as individuals for the pathologies of modern agriculture and the food system.The truth is, societies ultimately get the kind of farms or farmers they want, or that they deserve. We need to find ways to work collectively to bring about the systemic change that’s needed – I hope that my work and that of Vallis Veg will continue to contribute to that, and I’m open to ideas from anybody as to the way forward for us. Bear in mind though that all suggestions starting with “You should” will be immediately demoted below those starting “I will”. And make of this what you will, but I’ve put virtually all my energy over the last five years into trying to make Vallis Veg work here in Frome and for the time being I don’t feel an obligation to anybody to produce anything in particular from the site. I do, however, feel that there is a collective human obligation to create a more just and a more sustainable food system, and I hope to play my part as best I can in bringing it about.

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