The future of agriculture; we must all be ecologists

By LAWRENCE J. WINSHIP Gazette Contributing Writer
Published in print: Saturday, November 22, 2014


In the autumn, as our neighbors fill their grain bins with barley, and their cellars with potatoes, I am always amazed at their productivity. What a long, interesting journey we and our food plants have taken.

Yet farms are a relatively recent feature of the landscape in the long evolutionary history of Homo sapiens. Our ancestors carved fields out of natural ecosystems with human and draft-animal energy and with powerful forces like fire.

On our farm, dense stands of spruce trees come right up to the field edges. The “tension zone” between trees and crops is evident on every walk. It’s obvious which group of plants would overtake the other without human intervention. Hundreds of acres of abandoned farmland, now covered by thick forests of pine, oak, maple and spruce attest to the resurgent vitality of seeds, stumps and sprouts.

In many places, many millennia ago, people not that different from you and me walked natural openings, riverbanks and burned ground, paying close attention to patterns. Some plants held onto their seeds as they dried, making them easier to gather for food. Other plants had edible fruits and tubers that were especially nutritious or plentiful.

These early plant hunters noticed; they watched and remembered. They began to intervene to favor potential food sources. They shifted the flow of energy through the ecosystem toward people and away from other creatures. Our ancestral agro-ecologists kept sampling and trying, talking to each other, sharing ideas, stories, seeds, tubers and locations until corn, rice, wheat, barley, apples, squash, beans and other crops emerged from their natural context and joined the march to modern agriculture.
Now, in our specialized private and public institutions,we see a more rarefied and technologically sophisticated version of those very early plant pioneers. Modern food production is part of a continuous braid of applied ecology reaching back before the written word.

Perhaps, as some contend, we have strayed too far from nature’s fields, and our food production process is at risk of collapse or at the very least is unsustainable in its thirst for oil and other limited resources. But we still watch to see which plants do best—which produce tastes or grows or stores best. We talk about it at the farmers market or the agronomic conference, or we blog about it. We intervene where we think we must to modify and adjust plant fitness to our needs — just as our forebears did. On most large farms we increasingly rely on agro-chemicals to keep plant production for ourselves and away from “pests.” Where are we headed?

One hopeful trend is bringing the process of food production back into closer contact with those who do not grow food for a living. Farmers markets, town farms and gardens, and CSAs have popped up throughout New England, with local food as a rallying cry. Some suggest that New England might eventually return to food sufficiency, minimizing or eliminating the need to ship food from faraway places.

Local farms enrich our culture, economy and the diversity of our landscape. This raises an interesting question: How would our landscape change if we were to grow virtually all our food locally?

Brandeis University professor Brian Donohue has concluded that we would have to return to an 1850s landscape, when all but 10 percent of the New England forest land was used for grazing, row crops or field crops. The forests we see around us — and the fishers, bears, bobcats and birds that inhabit them — would once again give way to human needs.

There is much to consider when thinking about land use and food production. How and where do we strike the balance between ecosystem function for our use, and for its use by our non-human compatriots on this finite planet?

Humans have already caused massive extinctions; this can’t continue unchecked. Even in regions of the world where agriculture predominates, few debate the value of the non-farmed land. Indeed, some argue that ecosystem services from natural vegetation are crucial to the health and survival of even the most committed agriculturalists.

Perhaps we will come up with more locally intense, sustainable production methods for growing more food on less land, thus preserving the surrounding space for trees and birds. We might, for instance, substitute solar energy for fossil fuels. It seems on first glance that low-input, extensive farming will place a very large claim on land, even if the economics could be worked out. How locally intense can farming be and not compromise the quality of water, air and soil?

Suppose we returned to the old ways of observation and applied, personal ecological reasoning. If more people watched, and paid attention, might we gain crucial insights that lead to innovation or to sound choices? Historically, the discovery of new foods required open, adventuresome minds plus experience and observation.

A balanced, sustainable landscape with food for all might not look anything like what we have seen before, just as maize is in many ways unlike any wild plant. If we all were practicing ecologists — with an eye toward preserving balanced ecosystems that support all living things — perhaps we might create a new agriculture that sustains people as one species among many.

Lawrence J. Winship, a former member of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment board, is a professor of botany in the School of Natural Science and director of the Southwest studies program at Hampshire College in Amherst.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us

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