It was in the fertile crescent of Anatolia, a mere 10,000 years ago that the world changed forever. One of our hunter-gathering relatives noticed a few errant wheat seeds sprouting on the footpath where she had previously carried her bounty. She soon realized that saving a few seeds and purposely planting them would lead to regular forages of future wheat.
The dawn of agriculture began thus modestly one seed and species at a time. Agriculture and the taming of all-things-wild spread like a bushfire transforming human culture and the landscape. The very biodiversity of the planet was in peril as agriculture took hold and it’s taken us quite some time to look back.
The Dawn of Agriculture
For 1.8 million years our species roamed the terrain enjoying a varied diet of plants, beasts, berries and seeds. We plucked wild figs and apples satiating our caloric needs as the seasons allowed. The occasional mastodon downed or mollusk plucked from the sea sustained us. We moved through nature taking what was before us with nary a thought to tame the world around us.
It didn’t take long after our ancestral grandmother first sowed for agriculture to take hold with a mighty grip. Only certain plants and animals could be easily domesticated, so we built our agronomy on a philosophy of monoculture. As we planted and furrowed, we set up hedgerows and fences to keep the wild critters from sharing our husbandry. We plucked wayward weeds and insects from our beloved crops. We selected and bred sheep, cows and chickens and protected them from harm with enclosures and our new found friend—the dog.
Modern agriculture runs amok?
It began innocently enough, and today the practice of eradicating everything but the precious yield has reached monstrous proportions. Modern “conventional” agriculture sprays toxic compounds, mainlines nitrogen, destroying native habitat and biodiversity as it plows its way towards an insatiable appetite for increased yields. Farm animals are raised in deplorable conditions, locked up and confined.
The intensification of modern agriculture is now one of the greatest threats to biodiversity worldwide.
Organic agriculture is an answer to the dilemma of our mad rush towards agricultural Armageddon. It is not a return to Stone Age farming but a paradigm shift with the conviction that we can grow food in harmony with the biodiversity of the planet.
Organic farming practices are regulated to enhance and protect biodiversity; it is the very core of organic production. To assist organic farmers maintain biodiversity The Organic Center partnered with Dr. Quinn at Furman University on the Healthy Farm Index (HFI), an assessment tool that helps monitor and manage on farm biodiversity.
In keeping with the spirit of the regulations a recent meta-analysis of 766 scientific papers confirmed that organic farming produces more biodiversity than other farming systems in many ways.
Toxic chemical pollution is reduced with organic agriculture
The prohibition of toxic herbicides and pesticides reduces cancerous exposure to humans, animals, fish and fowl. Not only do we avoid these in our diet when we choose organic but farm workers and their families are less likely to be exposed and harmed by these chemicals.
Small mammals including bats thrive with the lack of toxic chemicals on organic farms. One study found that bat activity and foraging were both more than double on organic farms compared to conventional farms.
Our rivers and streams flourish
The use of organic fertilizers helps foster algae-free streams, rivers and bays reducing the likelihood of dead zones such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico. Organic husbandry affords farm animals more space and greater outdoor access thus reducing the toxic load of animal sewage that traditional CAFO’s produce.
Let me tell you ‘bout the birds and the bees
Organic farms have a more diverse practice of crop rotation and a higher percentage of natural habitats, hedgerows and buffer zones. As a result, organic farms have higher populations and diversity of birds, bees, beetles and spiders. If managed correctly, these species can work to reduce insect pressure and restore the natural balance on the farm. The Organic Center does a good job explaining the role organic plays in supporting the growth and health of our pollinator populations.
Organic farming builds the soil and combats soil erosion
Topsoil is the earth’s fragile skin securing all life on Earth. It is comprised of over 100,000 different species of microbes, bacteria nematodes and fungi. The World Wild Life Organization estimates that “Half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years.”
The answer to the loss of our most precious resource lies in deploying organic farming practices. According to the UN’s Food & Ag Organization, “Organic practices encourage soil fauna and flora, improve soil formation and structure and create more stable systems. Nutrient cycling is increased, and the ability of the soil to retain water is enhanced. This plays an important role in soil erosion control.”
Can organic cool the planet?
Climate change poses another grave threat to planetary biodiversity. The high level of organic matter in organic soil sequesters carbon and reduces harmful greenhouse gases. A report from the Rodale Institute indicates that “…we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices.”
Will our journey lead us home?
The agricultural journey we have taken since she planted that first seed has enabled us to do great things. With more calories, we had more children. More children grew strong with bigger brawn and brains to build combustion engines and toy with nuclear physics.
This progress has come at great expense to our soil, water and air—the biodiversity of the planet.
Perhaps our agrarian journey will lead us to understand that maintaining biodiversity on our planet is essential for preserving the natural processes that enable us to live.
Organic agriculture is an important solution to preserving and maintaining the delicate balance inherent in nature. It just may be the way to secure our future on this unique blue-orb hurtling around a friendly bright star.