Lost in the Bioverse

April 18, 2010

Jimmy Buffet once said these prophetic words:

I don’t know….

I don’t know…

I don’t know where I’m a gonna go when the volcano blows.

As for myself, the answer seems to be “Nowhere fast.” Smoke is pouring out of volcano in Iceland and I am stuck in Rome. My flight home was canceled and under the best scenario I will be spending three extra days in the eternal city.

I’m here for a meeting at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations on “agricultural biodiversity.” This idea goes way back in ag circles, but the meeting here in Rome is putting a rather different twist on it. Aggies have always (or at least for some time) appreciated the need to maintain diverse genetic stocks of the world’s main commodity crops. The big lesson came in the 1970s, when the genetic diversity in corn became so narrow that 70% of the U.S. corn crop was wiped out when a virus struck a particular allele (that’s science talk for a genetic variation of a specific kind) that was widely shared.

It was then recognized that a) it was important to keep a more diverse pool of alleles in the main food crops so that they would not be so vulnerable to a specific disease, and b) it was important to preserve the genes that existed in nature so that plant breeders would have something to work with in case of another catastrophe.

But the new thinking has recognized that farming systems with a more diverse array of plants in them are capable of harboring a more diverse population of native species. This means that agriculture can be made much more compatible with conservation of natural biodiversity. In fact, ecologists have learned that a “matrix” of crops, trees and uncultivated areas is quite effective at preserving endangered species, and a matrix landscape is more able to meet the needs of poor people on the ground in developing countries (where many of the world’s endangered species live) than the old idea of limited nature preserves. With a matrix approach, the entire agricultural landscape can harbor needed wild species.

And with more natural biodiversity comes a more diverse population of soil microorganisms, which in turn means enhanced soil fertility. That’s actually good for the farmers. Then there is the health benefit that comes from eating a more diverse diet, which is what one does when one depends on a variety of plants (including trees) instead of the single commodity crop. In short, the kind of farming that we support through CSAs actually holds great promise for alleviating the tension between agriculture and conservation of wildlife.  Agriculture and environment can be friends.

As for me, I’m waiting for an opening in the volcanic clouds of ash that my plane can fly through. That’s right. Any ash hole will do.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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