Farm as Ecosystem

Deep sustainability means transforming, not reforming, agriculture

One of the articles in A Good Harvest (IC#42)
Originally published in Fall 1995 on page 33
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

For too long, entomologists and pesticide salespeople have been called on to solve insect pest problems; and soil chemists and fertilizer salespeople have been called on to solve soil fertility problems. The occurrence of pests and declining soil fertility, however, are not indicators of pesticide and fertilizer deficiencies, but rather are symptoms of the way we design and manage our agro-ecosystems. This design and management are what we must examine if we are to make progress solving problems.

We tend to take symptom-focused, short-term, technology-intensive approaches to solve problems. Furthermore, we tend to be enemy-oriented and to promote deceptively simple solutions to eliminate enemies.

In contrast, the fully developed human being is probably someone who sees no enemies and is willing to take mainly long-term, low-powered, bio-ecological, indirect approaches. Problems solved this way require collaboration with others and with the natural environment.

The path to achieving sustainable agriculture involves moving from an acceptance of the status quo to a redesign of the whole agricultural system. This path usually takes people through two intermediate viewpoints.

I call the efficiency and substitution models shallow sustainability, and the redesign model deep sustainability. The jump from the substitution model to the redesign model usually is the most difficult to make because a redesigned agriculture is markedly different from the status quo; it requires looking at agriculture in a whole new way.

Stuart Hill is an associate professor at McGill University and director of Ecological Agriculture Projects. (See IC #34 for an article by Stuart Hill on life in the soil.) This article is reprinted from The International Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture’s newsletter, Manna, published in Minneapolis, MN.

Three Sustainable
Agriculture Strategies





 Example:  Examples:  Example:  Example:

  • Factory Farm

  • Low Input Sustainable Agriculture (formerly a program of the USDA)
  • Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

  • Eco-Agriculture

  • Permaculture, Natural and Ecological Farming
 Approaches:  Approaches:  Approaches:  Approaches:

  • High Power

  • Conservation

  • Conservation

  • Low Power

  • Physico- chemical (soluble fertilizer, pesticides, biotech)

  • Physical/ chemical/ biological
    (slow release)

  • Biological & natural materials

  • Bio-ecological

  • Imported input intensive

  • Efficient Use

  • Alternative inputs

  • Knowledge and skill intensive

  • Narrow focus, farm as factory (linear design and management) with products

  • Efficient "factory"

  • Softer "factory"

  • Broad focus: farm as ecosystem (integrated design & management)

  • Problems as enemies to eliminate & control directly with products

  • Efficient control (monitor pest, IPM)

  • Biocontrols

  • Prevention: selective and ecological controls (pests are seen as indicators)
 Goals:  Goal:  Goal:  Goal:

  • Maximize production (negelect maintenance)
  • Create demand, manipulate wants

  • Maintain production while improving maintenance

  • Improve maintenance

  • Optimize production (emphasizes maintenance)
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