Importance of Ecosystem Diversity

When I was young – younger – very young, I would often visit my grandparent’s home. They arrived in America in the late 1800s. They were no different from the many immigrants being subsumed into a new culture. Rarely easy, there are often strong preferences to live in communities which nurture native, ethnic culture.

Besides ingrained, native tongue accents, you can always expect that there will be purposeful efforts to recreate the home-life left behind. For me, that translated into memorable meals created from homemade pastas, fat-laden meats, freshly grown, garden vegetables and plenty of table wine made from basement-squeezed juice extracted from orchard-grown grapes fermenting in the fruit fly-infested barrels fermenting in a makeshift basement winery.

During the spring and summer months, I could expect that with each visit would come ritualistic servitude in the yard and garden.

These labors were actually quite exciting and I learned a lot – from topiary to gardening techniques that have been long forgotten but never entirely lost. I would see many things I did not understand and questioned everything. I never understood why my grandfather would place an old wine barrel at the base of a shortened downspout to collect rainwater run-off from the roof. It was only used occasionally when he would instruct me to get a large watering can, dip it into the barrel and water some flowers or plants. The only things I ever noticed were small, little insects moving around on the surface of the water and some green algae. I tried to unsuccessfully avoid both.

He also had a knack for planting different varieties of flowers among the diversity of vegetable plants. These would add a special color to the uniformly-green leaf color of the vegetable plants. Their purpose was far beyond the need for vibrant color. They actually had a practical value. It seemed that certain flowers attracted certain insects which would feed on certain other harmful-to-the-vegetable-plants insects. Who needed insecticide? Nature did the job.

This was organic farming at its best.

Not all summers were ideal. Some were hotter and drier than others. Some varieties of plants would suffer and even die while other varieties flourished. I later understood this to be an important benefit of biodiversity. Rather than lose an entire garden, only some plants would perish allowing others to contribute to a memorable meal.

My grandfather was a simple man but retained an extensive array of legacy knowledge that formed the foundation of his simple lifestyle. Like many adults, he just knew what to do. When you are young, that knowledge is a mystery. When you are older, it is the known result of experience. Experience becomes wisdom.

This is the backdrop to the contents of a recent article written by Thomas Friedman for the NY Times: Kansas and Al Qaeda. From the very beginning, it seems that Tom is making quite an extreme comparison between life in Kansas and the jagged influence of Al Qaeda throughout the Middle East. He quickly begins to spin our conventional perspective garnered from the politics that too often dominate the media into one that relegates the social tensions and causes to the environment.

“It’s been a fascinating journey …to look at the Middle East through the lens of Arab environmentalists instead of politicians. When you do that, you see the problems and solutions very differently. Environmentalists always start by thinking about the health of the “commons” — the shared air, soil, forests and water — that are the basis of all life, which, if not preserved, will undermine the whole society.”

But that perspective – “the commons” – is even a bit too general. It seems that the Friedman Team was originally looking for something a bit more basic.

“Our film crew came to look at the connection between the drought in Kansas and the rise in global food prices that helped to fuel the Arab uprisings. But I stumbled upon another powerful environmental insight here: the parallel between how fossil fuels are being used to power monoculture farms in the Middle West and how fossil fuels are being used to power wars to create monoculture societies in the Middle East. And why both are really unhealthy for their commons.”

The “commons” might just be a very interesting way to think of our existence on this rocky planet. The environment is a common. Earth provides all us with all of the elements needed to sustain our existence. Those elements may be disproportionately distributed around the world, but it is the exchange of these elements that makes commerce, a global necessity. Global economics, another common, causes both interdependence and independence.

We really must begin to appreciate that we have much more in common with each other than we may wish to believe. We must also begin to appreciate the importance of maintaining the health and balance of our common environmental assets.

So, how do these common elements relate to the garden experiences years ago? Friedman begins to investigate the complex issues around global agriculture. It is well understood just how important the production of grains is to human nutritional health. Since we began to harness agricultural methods nearly 12,000 years ago, we have improved the predictability of grain production – corn, wheat, rice – and established agricultural processes that ensured reasonably predictable and sustainable food production.

There were additional gains to be made from growing large fields of grain. Fields could be more efficiency planted and harvested. As fields grew larger, so did the need for larger farm complexes. Many small, family farms were sold to create even larger farming enterprises. Greater yields could feed more people and generate improved corporate profits. Larger farming equipment was needed to efficiently farm the ever-growing, larger “corporate” farms. Greater efficiency equated to greater profit. This was the emergence of monoculture farming.

But, back to my grandfather’s garden. Very much in the tradition of small farming, his farm was a polyculture of fruits and vegetables. There were corn, tomatoes, green beans, squash, peppers, figs, grapes, apple and cherry trees. He was even careful to nurture the wild dandelions growing around the yard. From his ample supplies of red table wine – that often seemed strong enough to be used as a fuel substitute, he created his personal brand of red wine vinegar. Often the two were indistinguishable in taste and strength! His wine vintage was measured in months and not years.

Droughts and insect infestations could be managed with a little extra assistance from nature. This was an important microcosm that existed instinctively from a portfolio of legacy knowledge. It was a melting pot of plant varieties that found a way to coexist – with a little help from nature and regular tending by my grandfather. The results of this effort were always special.

Friedman writes:

“…During this period the Arab world became an intellectual center for science, philosophy, medicine and education. …” It was “a collection of cultures, which put together, synthesized and significantly advanced the knowledge gained from the ancient Roman, Chinese, Indian, Persian, Egyptian, Greek, Byzantine and Phoenician civilizations.”

This post is both a discussion of food production and global culture. Friedman uses the Middle East as an example, but I believe that a useful to begin is to embrace an acceptance of polycultural diversity and our environment.

“Pluralism, diversity and tolerance were once native plants in the Middle East — the way the polyculture prairie was in the Middle West. Neither ecosystem will be healthy without restoring its diversity.”

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