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An ecological future for agriculture?

August 10, 2010

One of the biggest issues our societies face is undoubtedly that of food supplies, in a context of population growth and increasing energy prices. The extensive agriculture model, relying heavily on oil and offering a dubious environmental record, needs to be re-designed. And just as industry needs a “second revolution”, agriculture stands at a crossroads and is entering a defining era. Solutions do exist, and in this field too, the biomimetic approach has a lot to offer. © Joss Blériot It does seem very strange, when considering a natural process like food production, to have to make a conscious effort to revert to nature’s way of doing things. Surely, in today’s world, agriculture is probably the human activity that stands closest to Nature with a capital N? Well, you might think so, but the dramatic changes made over the last century challenge our intuitions and paint a picture that is very different to the idealised idea we have of “farming”. Marketing is partly to blame for our distorted vision – as adverts only show lush green fields and glorious cows under the sun – but our growing disconnection with the realities of rural life also plays a big role. The truth is that food production has risen dramatically over the past century, starting in the USA where the mechanical revolution has allowed to massively increase the cultivated areas. Coincidentally, the use of fertilisers produced by the petrochemical industry has helped minimise the losses in terms of crops (increasing their resistance to pests or harsh conditions), but this system is based entirely on cheap oil and has an important environmental cost: polluted rivers, considerably downgraded soil quality, high CO2 emissions, harmful substances being produced, dispersed and ultimately ingested by consumers… Not to mention the impact those practices have on biodiversity, since vast areas became the home of one type of plant only, the others being systematically eradicated. In other words, modern agriculture is mostly in conflict with the environment and to a certain extent relies on the modification of a number of natural processes (to grow more, bigger, out of season, using synthetic nutrients, etc) to achieve efficiency. © Joss Blériot Closed loop models on the other hand use a life-imitating approach (biomimicry) and believe that diversity is resilience. Biologist Janine Benyus, author of “Biomimicry”, stresses that this innovative way of dealing with the issue has made tremendous progress over the past decade and sees a welcome change of mentality become mainstream. Some ideas, that were very marginal only 15 years ago, are currently being considered by governmental organisations, acknowledging there is a genuine problem with the way food is produced today. For example, the “no plough” approach is gaining more and more converts, as agronomists emphasise its virtues. Ploughing, which has been at the very heart of agriculture since land cultivation by humans started (and for which the industrial revolution is not to blame) becomes problematic when applied on a big scale since it favours soil erosion whilst preventing effective water filtration. In the USA, the Land Institute of Kansas has successfully recreated the productivity of a natural prairie and grows perennial wheat, rye and sorghum, simply by carefully re-designing their arable spaces. This non-profit organisation, established in 1976, has had to wait a long time to see its projects taken seriously, but has nevertheless persevered and stood by its founding principles: “ecological processes have long track records of success in building and conserving soil”, it says, “holding and filtering water and supporting wildlife diversity. An agriculture taking advantage of its roots in those tried-and-true ecological processes can function sustainably.” Even policy-makers now take that dimension into account, and the need for a new rural revolution is clearly identified. French agronomist and economist Michel Griffon, who incidentally heads the National Research Agency and has been involved in the development and optimisation of the European Common Agricultural Policy, explains: “What we need today is to reasonably increase production whilst limiting the extension of surfaces and to increase productivity using methods which are not destructive in terms of the environment’s quality.” In 2008, the institution he heads launched a research programme called Systerra, which includes several projects of bio-mimetic inspiration – and we’re talking about a government-backed €40 million plan, not a marginal community initiative…. His latest book, published in February 2010 and titled “For ecologically intensive agricultural systems” is a manifesto for the future of food production, and a real tool for policy-makers since it points towards practical and realistic solutions. “The landscapes have to be re-designed”, adds Griffon, “for more productivity, more ecological services and increased aesthetics.” His case is interesting because, not coming from a typically “eco” background, Griffon is one of these matter-of-fact scientists who have been open-minded enough to look for alternative solutions despite a “conventional agriculture” heritage – notably he firmly believes in the virtues of the “no plough” technique, and says that it’s vital to revert to the natural biomass cycle, in which decomposing vegetal matter fertilises the soil. Waste = food? Definitely, and in the most primary form in this case. Organic fertilising © Malene Thyssen For 80 years, the soil has been seen like a mineral base in which to inject fertilisers, we are now re-discovering that it’s a living organism (…) For example, if we use what can be called ‘cover plants’, which can naturally fertilise the soil beneath them, it’s possible to drastically reduce chemicals and stop the erosion due to ploughing. That type of approach is inspired by natural processes and it is attracting more and more producers, who consider themselves researchers." According to Griffon, ecologically-driven agriculture is a perfectly credible solution to the crisis our societies are faced with.