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Is biodiversity the future of farming?

Industrial agriculture faces painful challenges: the end of cheap energy, depleted water resources, impaired ecosystem services, and unstable climates. Scientists searching for alternatives to the highly specialized, energy intensive industrial system might profitably look to the biological synergies inherent in multi-species systems, according to an article in the March-April 2007 issue of Agronomy Journal.

The paper's author, Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow for Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University, states that industrial agriculture assumes:

  • Production efficiency can be best achieved through specialization, simplification and concentration
  • Therapeutic intervention is the most effective way to control undesirable events
  • Technological innovation will always be able to overcome production challenges
  • Control management is the most effective way to achieve production results
  • Cheap energy will always be available

As we enter the 21st century most, if not all, of these assumptions must be questioned. The degraded condition of ecosystem services was detailed in the UN "Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report" (2005). The report also anticipates that during the next 50 years demand for food crops will grow by 70 to 85% and demand for water by between 30 and 85%.

Volatile weather conditions predicted to be part of emerging climate change will make it difficult to sustain highly specialized cropping systems which require relatively stable climates. To keep agriculture productive, farmers likely will need to adjust quickly. If we can design farming systems that are less energy intensive, more resilient in the face of unstable climates, and that begin to out-produce monocultures by virtue of their multi-species output, the economic advantages of such complex farming operations might be an incentive to change.

A few farmers already
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Contact: Sara Uttech
suttech@agronomy.org
608-268-4948
American Society of Agronomy
16-Feb-2007


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