Sustainable agriculture and the culture of control

| September 1, 2013

Traditional agriculture is dominated by a need to control natural systems. Anthony Waugh explains how sustainable agriculture aims to let go of this mindset of control and works with natural systems to encourage diversity and increase the resilience and fertility of the land.

For 10,000 years the story of agriculture has reflected and driven the story of our culture. This is a story of great triumphs and great catastrophes: a species of predominantly nomadic, hunter gatherers building civilisation with all the comforts and technological marvels that have come with it. Along the way agriculture and civilisation has been intimately linked with war, slavery, the extirpation of indigenous culture (through assimilation or extermination), the extinction of our primary and secondary competitors and the desertification of large amounts of previously fertile, productive land.

Agriculture is a culture of control. This is reinforced by the language we use to describe processes; controlling weeds (competitors), or eradicating pests (competitors). The farmer dictates what will grow, where, when and how and expends equal time, energy and resources ensuring that no other species is allowed access to the land. The result of this is simplified natural systems which have produced an abundance of food for humans, enabling us to spread throughout the world, yet over time, this approach degrades the fertility of the landscape to the endpoint of desertification.

The resilience of a natural system is dependent on a diversity of species; the more variety it contains, the more adaptable the system is to fluctuations of climate and extreme events. This can be seen even on the smallest scale, in a backyard vegetable garden. If the garden contains nothing but cabbages, the cabbage moth population may breed to levels which will decimate the entire crop. If, however, the garden contains many different vegetables, the increased diversity of “pests” will limit the ability of one species to dominate and encourage these species’ own predators, maintaining a healthy balance. This is a resilient system.

Even the more moderate models of climate change suggest that we are entering a period of greater variability of seasonal conditions. This will require greater resilience in our agricultural land. The only way we can achieve this is by increasing diversity in our farming land. Our current practices of using machinery, poisons and fertilisers to reduce diversity and grow monocultures is producing fragile landscapes and edging us ever closer to ecological collapse in some of our most productive agricultural land.

Sustainable agriculture requires letting go of this mindset of control and working with natural systems to encourage diversity.  A truly sustainable system needs to support more than just humans; instead of viewing other species as competitors, we can view them as a part of a sustainable, productive landscape. These species can include soil microbes, plants which humans or livestock don’t eat, birds, non-domestic mammals etc, each of which is valuable in increasing the resilience and the fertility of the land. The growing practice of “pasture cropping” is showing that crops can be grown within perennial native pastures, without affecting production of either the crop or the pasture. Weeds which provide habitat for birds, aid fertility of the surrounding areas and can help reduce parasite loads in livestock. These are just a couple of examples of how increasing diversity can aid production, rather than hinder it.

In the face of climate change and expanding population, the role of humans as mangers of the land is more important than ever. Rather than continuing the mindset of agriculture as dominance of nature, bending her to our will, we must begin to build a diverse resilient landscape, where humans are not masters of the natural world, rather a single part of a system which is capable of producing abundance for all life on the planet.