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Nature's matrix

Nature's matrix

By Ivette Perfecto, John Vandermeer and Angus Wright
Published by Earthscan
Website: www.earthscan.co.uk
2009, 242pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 782 3(Pb), £24.95

Seventy years - two generations - have seen the agricultural landscape transformed from a mosaic of small farms, growing a range of crops and livestock, to large-scale monocultures with a further separation of arable and livestock production. But to no benefit: "An analysis of 15 underdeveloped countries found that yield per acre declined as size increased, and another study found the same thing in the developed world (in the US)," state the authors of Nature's Matrix.

Simultaneously, chemical fertilisers have replaced the fertility regeneration previously brought by legumes, and manure and crop residues generated on-farm; while pesticides have displaced disease control through rotations of crops grown in smaller areas, and the natural activity of the predators that thrived in a heterogeneous environment.

The resulting loss of biodiversity, often unnoticed, has long-term consequences. The near elimination of labour by machinery, and the loss of the great proportion of independent farming families complete a transformation whose benefits are questioned by Perfecto and co-authors.

In a bid to suggest how food output and biodiversity may both be secured, the authors of Nature's Matrix take issue equally with agronomists and conservationists: the former for their preoccupation with productivity as the ultimate goal of agriculture, and with conservationists for their well-intentioned but ultimately futile attempt to conserve natural habitat by ring-fencing small refuges surrounded, inevitably, by monocultural farmland.

"There is now little doubt that isolating fragments of natural vegetation in a landscape of low quality matrix, like a pesticide drenched banana plantation, is a recipe for disaster from the view of preserving biodiversity," the authors write.

Questioning the so-called 'efficiency' of industrial agriculture, the authors point out that while such farming systems may return the most profit per hectare they do not necessarily produce the most yield per hectare. Instead, they acknowledge the need to optimise, rather than maximise, food production but believe that a return to smallscale agriculture with its individual attention to a diversity of crops and cover crops will provide the yield needed but without the dependence on, and collateral damage of, chemical fertilisers and pest control products. The resulting diverse habitat, even though man-made, has been found to be readily acceptable to birds, mammals and insects, all of which deserve to survive and can offer so much benefit.

In their analysis of how industrial agriculture developed and why it retains such an embrace, not to say stranglehold, on food production worldwide, the authors have no doubts: "The last 30 years has seen a process of consolidation and vertical and horizontal integration that has resulted in just a handful of corporations supplying farm inputs and buying farm outputs," they write. "It is partially because of this structure that the farmers receive only about 10 per cent of what the consumers pay for the food they buy in the supermarkets."

Comparing case studies of agricultural systems in the tropics, where there is the greatest natural biodiversity, they demonstrate how differing degrees of intensification growing coffee, cacao, rice and bananas result in biodiversity loss as intensification increases: the specialisation in monoculture and the removal of other vegetation (shade trees, woodlots, hedges) all reduce the variety and numbers of other organisms in the environment.

By providing analysis of how agriculture, conservation and biodiversity should be managed for the nutritional and social benefit of the majority, as well as the environmental security of the planet, Nature's Matrix offers policymakers, agronomists and ecologists much to ponder.

Date published: March 2010

 

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