Friday, March 31, 2017

Multifunctional Landscapes Would Be a Boon to Rural Vitality for the Midwest

A Monotonous Rural Midwestern Landscape with Superweeds

"the growing obsession with increasing the efficiency of agricultural landscapes needs to be seriously questioned for social as well as ecological reasons. Producing crops is a means to an end. Meaningful ends in their own right – such as human well-being, equity, sustainability, or biodiversity – must not be compromised by subscribing to a rhetoric that blindly asserts that more is always better."---Joern Fischer, Megan Meacham, Cibele Queiroz

Some of my fondest memories from growing up on a rural Midwestern farm were of playing and exploring outdoors as a child. Every day was a science lab, looking at bugs, butterflies, ants, plants, flowers, trees, skies, growing seeds in the garden, and playing in the dirt. I was lucky that my Grandmother lived along a river so we set bank poles together at night and ate the bullheads and catfish that we caught for breakfast the next day. When I became a teenager I took up running and had a route through the fields to our local creek and a favorite stand of cottonwood trees. To this day I need my chunk of time spent in the outdoors because it nourishes me.

What is rather surprising for city slickers to know is that the homestead act privatized nearly every bit of land across the Midwest, which has since then, over time, become more and more industrialized on ever larger and larger farms. In order for that to happen, there's been a gradual process of removing trees, old farmsteads, wetlands, pastures, and stream courses. This not only adds to the production acreage amount, it prevents the tractor from having to turn so often in the field, which takes away from efficiency of production.

Throughout the Midwest, gravel roads span nearly every mile around each rural section of 640 acres. Today these sections are pretty bereft of anything other than corn or soybeans, and an occasional farm place, feedlot, hog confinement building, or ethanol plant.

Often I think about how the trend of ever more efficient larger farms in the Midwest leaves less and less for the people of these areas to enjoy, whether social or recreational. It is no wonder that the young leave and the areas continue to depopulate and lose their vitality.

What prompted this post is a new article from the Stockholm Resilience Center concerning this very subject. Megan Meacham, Cibele Queiroz, and Joern Fischer wrote "A plea for multifunctional landscapes" for Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Though these authors are from Sweden and Germany, they use the Midwest as an example of a failed ecosystem culture where the benefits of production are often exported leaving little behind for the residents themselves to enjoy or take advantage of.

From Stockholm Resilience Center's article:
Enter the controversial subject of multifunctional landscapes. The idea of favoring landscapes that meet diverse human needs, while also facilitating ecosystem functions, contrast starkly with monofunctional landscapes. Critics argue that landscapes can be optimized for a certain activity, crop, or service, achieving their full potential – but at what cost and to whose benefit? Management strategies focusing on the optimization of particular services often exacerbate trade-offs between these and other ecosystem services in the landscape. This can have serious ecological and social consequences.

Ignoring the social dimension
In their article, Fischer, Meacham and Queiroz argues that there is a social dimension to landscape multifunctionality that has been ignored. Not only do multifunctional landscapes provide a wider range of services, they are also accessible to a broader range of beneficiaries. Furthermore, the benefits flowing from ecosystem services are usually experienced more locally, and local people are more likely to be in charge of landscape management.

They use the example of southern Transylvania in Romania where important ecosystem services include not only healthy soils, clean drinking water, firewood, and crops for local markets, but also ”scenic beauty and sense of place.”

”Most of these services directly benefit local people,” they explain.

”Firewood and drinking water, for instance, are essential goods for many households. Many local people are also closely connected to the natural environment, because they engage in semi-subsistence farming (sometimes in addition to other work), have large vegetable gardens, or obtain much of their food from local sources.”

The result is that local ownership is strong and outside involvement remains limited, although the influences of joining the EU are becoming more noticeable.

The example from Romania presents a stark contrast to the situation in the American Midwest where several monofunctional landscapes are optimized for crop production. Over the past two decades, biofuel projects were promoted in the region claiming that they would provide employment, help reverse rural depopulation, and generate biofuel.

However, findings from six communities in rural Kansas and Iowa highlight how the benefits of biofuel production to local livelihoods have been minimal. Instead, depopulation has continued and several cases of environmental degradation, including reduced water quality, have been reported.
It is time for our policy makers to pay attention to this important failure of our U.S. agricultural system. Let me list a few reasons that are in the forefront now more than ever.
  • The oft repeated statements "we need to feed the world" and "we need to double food production by 2050" have been proven wrong. This is no longer up to the U.S. Midwest because other nations around the world have ramped up their food production. The end of scarcity is nigh. (See my previous writing: The End of Scarcity in Agricultural Commodities Means Failing Farms in the U.S.)
  • U.S. Midwestern industrial corn and soybean farmers struggle to make profits today. Many have off-farm jobs to pay medical expenses and college tuition costs.
  • Superweeds are widespread in the glyphosate-GMO seed system of yesterday.
  • Bees are in decline as are monarchs, songbirds, and other species native to the Midwest.
  • Priceless rich topsoil continues to erode and run off productive Midwestern farms, a national treasure and security.
  • Rural waterways and ground water continues to become contaminated with nitrates and other chemicals.
  • The U.S. Midwest is the world's largest biofuels producer. This unnecessary policy-driven program further promotes larger farms and industrialized agriculture in the Midwest.
  • Small towns and their main streets across middle America struggle to survive.
  • Cities are running out of room for growing populations. Children are growing up in these urban jungles when it is known how much Nature enhances their lives, their well-being, and their learning.
  • People are more interested in where their food comes from and in eating locally produced organic food.
  • The internet and cell phones have the ability to connect us all, wherever we may live, rural or city.
  • Multifunctionality has been enshrined in the European Union's (EU's) Biodiversity Strategy and in Japan's National Strategy for Biological Diversity. As other nations are developing, they need good role models for their agricultural systems such as the multifunctional land model.
What to do?
My long-term vision for a better rural farm policy in the future would include new wildlife corridors, agroforestry, walking paths and bike trails, natural prairies, restored wetlands, and a return to naturalized rivers. This would require returning some private land back to public land, of retiring a percentage of today's Midwestern farmland. These things would support wildlife, outdoors activities, and provide greater tourism opportunities in the Midwest. These things would protect the soil, water, and help with biodiversity compared to what it is today. They would also help to enhance the quality of life for those who are living in the Midwest and they would entice others to move there for new opportunities. And, more kids could grow up doing the outdoor activities that I did.

1 comment:

  1. For a remedy, see Mark Shepard's "Restoration Agriculture" or Geof Lawton's permaculture videos on Youtube.