Nature’s Matrix: or, of foreigners and Englishmen

My opportunities for writing blog posts are cruelly curtailed at the moment while I try among the other crazy things I do to make a living growing vegetables and to build a house that I’ll have to take down again in 3 years, so apologies for my present intermittency. But I haven’t been altogether absent from the blogosphere – against my better judgement, I got myself involved in another damn golden rice debate on Steve Savage’s blog. This truth I know: don’t debate golden rice with its many ardent fans – the insult to insight quotient will overwhelm you with its toxic magnitude. Still, I might try to derive a few worthwhile lessons from this sorry episode in my next post.

Meanwhile, a much more interesting debate arising from my previous post ensued between Clem Weidenbenner, Ford Denison and myself – at first here on Small Farm Future and then on Ford’s Darwinian Agriculture blog. How refreshing to be able to disagree respectfully with someone and learn from them, in marked contrast to the golden rice brigade… Perhaps one difference lies in debating with actual scientists, who are interested in testing ideas, rather than with people who simply wish to invoke ‘science’ as a magic incantation in support of existing positions. Ah well, more on that next time.

Anyway, time I think for one last walkabout around the theme I’ve been exploring these last two blog posts, for I feel I’ve not yet answered the question Patrick Whitefield posed after my first post – what’s a ‘good’ ecosystem, and what’s a ‘bad’ one?

To be honest, I’m not sure I can answer that, and I’m happy to let the conservationists and ecologists fight it out over the metaphors of flux and balance as applied to wild ecosystems, so long as they don’t go to town on either of them too much, as I previously argued. Consider, for example, this tale told by a friend of mine, who recently had a visit from what he called the ‘Himalayan Balsam Police’ – a local voluntary group of balsam-bashers who informed him that he had too much of the noxious exotic on his land, and threatened to report him to the authorities when he asked them to leave a few plants untouched for his bees. This doubtless exemplifies the problem pointed up by Emma Marris’s ‘everything grows’ critique. It also encapsulates the best and worst of Britain – the proliferation of voluntary groups and the concern for the environment are definite strengths, whereas an unhealthy obsession with the authenticity of the past, the evils of foreigners and ready recourse to higher powers go firmly on the debit side.

Maybe there’s a parallel here with the debate about heritage and the built environment – it’s nice to preserve some old historic buildings, but if you obsess about preserving everything from the past and outlaw almost any new developments you paralyse and reify your society. Part of the preservationist impulse no doubt springs from observing the godawful, cheap, jerry-built crap that passes for architecture in contemporary Britain. But maybe it’s better to focus the activism on improving the new architecture rather than clinging on to the old.

Hold that thought, and now apply it to agro-ecosystems. An excellent book by Ivette Perfecto and colleagues1 previously mentioned on this blog argues that local species extinctions are commonplace: what’s required is the in-migration of other conspecifics from the wider meta-population in order to restore the local population. For this to happen, it’s necessary for the agricultural matrix in between islands of biodiversity or fragments of wild ecosystems to be sufficiently wildlife-friendly to allow migration: a traditional cabruca cacao farm might fit the bill, whereas a giant soya monoculture probably wouldn’t. The book’s focus is tropical, which is where most of the world’s biodiversity and most of its people are, but it would be interesting to consider it in the temperate, post-wilderness context of a place like modern Britain. While the likes of Ford Denison have convinced me that there may not be an awful lot to be gained by polycultures or intercropping at the level of the individual garden bed or farmed field, the likes of Perfecto et al convince me that there probably is much to be gained by diversity at the level of the farm, and the wider farmed landscape. To substantiate that would doubtless require a lot of ecological research, some of which has already been done, with mixed results (though it’s tended to focus on comparing conventional with organic farms, not with small, mixed, ‘agroecological’ holdings)2. But there are wider issues at stake than how many butterfly species you find in two fields from your two respective farm systems. Since there are so many other economic and social benefits to a diverse, small-scale, locally-oriented, peasant rather than productivist agro-ecosystem, until someone proves my suppositions wrong I’m inclined to take Perfecto et al’s analysis as a decent bit of prima facie evidence for the combined ecological, economic and social benefits of small-scale diverse agro-ecosystems in temperate as well as tropical climates (in fact, they make this argument explicitly in the case of tropical agriculture practised by low income small farmers).

Well, I would do, wouldn’t I? Maybe it’s just a case of confirmation bias on my part. And that brings me to the topic of my next post… In the mean time, perhaps I’ll just echo Tom’s sentiments of a couple of posts back, and close with the thought that the good agroecosystem is the agroecological agroecosystem. Now repeat three times.


1. Perfecto, I., Vandermeer, J. and Wright, A. (2009) Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty, Earthscan.

2. Eg.; Bohan, D. ‘Managing weed ecosystem service provision’

10 thoughts on “Nature’s Matrix: or, of foreigners and Englishmen

  1. That’s charming, recognition at last. The missus, who is proper indian indian, finds it amusing when I rail against himalayan balsam clogging up our waterways. But then wouldn’t it be nice if we could save the red squirrel?. But as someone on telly said about himalayan balsam: they are brilliant for bees and the alternative in the river bank context is brambles – which is nicer?. If we cant really do anything about HB then being philosophical about the whole thing shouldn’t be hard to do with those pretty pink flowers.

    So yes, I have resisted the temptation to want England to look like a constable painting but some things need saving.

  2. While discussing Perfecto et al. you said:

    The book’s focus is tropical, which is where most of the world’s biodiversity and most of its people are…

    I will agree with the first half of the assertion, but I’m of the impression the second half is false. I’m thinking there are far more of us living in temperate climes. Am I wrong?

    It may well be there are relatively far more ‘poor’ Homo sapiens between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, but isn’t the total fraction of us either N or S of the tropics closer to 2/3? This can be seen as a significant statistic in the debate over how to solve the puzzle of poverty in the tropics…. for most of us wanting to help have no first hand experience actually living in the tropics. And from the accounts I’m familiar with, living in the tropics is not for the faint of heart. Having oil helps. Coffee, opium, cocaine, and bananas… (things that can be exported to temperate folks) serve as cash crops. Tourism… hosting all those temperate folk looking for a better tan or sight of an elephant… but on the other side of the ledger you have malaria and a lot of other critters and pests hostile to Homo sapiens. I always think of the phrase ‘Out of Africa’ as having a sort of double meaning.

    But Kudos for highlighting Perfecto et al. in the first place. John Vandermeer (second author) has been mentioned here earlier and I’ve made a little progress getting through his blog. He’s been at it (the blog) for several years but is not so prolific there as in academic writing. Still, I’ve seen quite a bit I consider worth reflecting on and nothing I would consider obnoxiously worthless.

    • I like your final sentence, Clem. I hope that when I write my book I’ll be able to entice you to write a similarly ringing cover endorsement for it…

      On tropical populations, yes I stand corrected. I think I probably meant to say it’s where the majority of the world’s poor people live. Or perhaps where the greatest number of people per degree of latitude live – a valuable statistic, I’m sure you’d agree. According to this source, at any rate, the proportion is 40%, set to rise to 50% by 2050 – so there we have it.

      On tropical living, well I’m sure you’re right that it has its challenges. Perfecto et al make the point that tourism, like tropical food crops, has high demand elasticity and is therefore a high risk affair. On the other hand, it took our species several tens of thousands of years to figure out how to colonise Europe (if only because the Neanderthals got there first), and later still for other temperate climes so perhaps it’s no bed of roses here either. Perhaps we’re still profiting from the efforts of our colonising forebears, both ancient and more recent…

      • Sir:
        Once you write your book, may I have a look? If I find it bereft of obnoxiously worthless material I will be happy to testify to the same. 🙂

        On the state of worthlessness – I’m reminded of the thought: No man is so worthless he can not serve as a bad example. There likely is a strong kernel of truth in that. But in the event such a man has even made it difficult to find the example for which he is of no merit… well, he then stands before us as obnoxiously worthless.

  3. On the matter of good vs. bad ecosystems:

    Good: Eden (of Genesis)
    Bad: Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 10th of August, 1945.

    • Agreed: I know which of the two I’d have preferred to inhabit. Not sure it fully answers Patrick’s question, though…

      • Yes, I suppose that particular contrast might post the extremes, all other ecosystems may smartly fall somewhere along a gradient between them.

        For me, to answer Patrick’s question ultimately falls to individual preference. As such markets may play a role in discovering the answer(s) [there being as many answers as there are market participants]

        Trade offs will be required – do you wish Monarch butterflies in your ecosystem? If not, you may dispense with common milkweed. Does ragweed pollen bother you or a loved one to derision? Are you allergic to bee stings? Such a list can go on quite a while. So those among us with the means to move about the planet in search of a favorite ecosystem will do so. Those who have less opportunity will carry on to the best of their ability.

        With over 7 billion opinions to consider I think Patrick’s question will hang out there for a while.

        • >With over 7 billion opinions to consider I think Patrick’s question will hang out there for a while.

          Yes, I think you could be right. Then again, many people want to hold to the notion that there are meta-human – perhaps one might say ‘natural’ – criteria for evaluating ecosystems beyond mere human opinion. I guess I’m probably one of them, although I accept the ground is shaky and the dangers many. William Ophuls writings about natural law are interesting in this regard, as is the neo-Stoicism of someone like Lawrence Becker. I’ll aim to come back to this I think in the future. In the mean time, it’s interesting to see the way that someone like Emma Marris, despite informatively debunking some of the hyperbole of the ‘natural balance’ school, herself reverts to notions of balance and metaphors of natural orders.

  4. Not exactly on topic for this particular post – but worth note for the overall drift of the blog:
    de Snoo et al. Toward effective nature conservation on farmland: making farmers matter. Conservation Letters 2012 1-7.

    Let me know if you have any trouble getting a copy.

    Very briefly – the authors discuss the EU’s agri-environment schemes and other means to incentivize farmers for conservation priorities. Other means are suggested as more sustainable. They discuss Van der Ploeg’s work… which has been discussed here as well (and it was at this point in the read I decided I needed to mention the paper).

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