Don’t Mimic Nature on the Farm, Improve it

320px-Thomas_Cole_The_Garden_of_Eden_Amon_Carter_Museum
The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole. Public Domain via WikiMedia.

Behind many efforts to make agriculture more sustainable is the idea that our farming systems need to be more like nature. According to agroecologist Miguel Alteri, “By designing farming systems that mimic nature, optimal use can be made of sunlight, soil nutrients, and rainfall.” This strategy arises from a long history of thinking that there exists a “balance of nature.” This idea has greatly influenced how we look at nature1 and agriculture. In the latter case, it drives much of what is done in organic farming and agroecology, but also finds its way into no-till farming. Nonetheless, it is false, and because it is false we can abandon the restrictive “nature knows best” argument in designing agricultural systems. Instead, we can improve on nature.

The “balance of nature” view and its derivations assume that ecosystems, as integrated communities, maintain themselves in an equilibrium if undisturbed by man. The equilibrium is maintained through governing rules, emergent properties, and self-organization within ecosystems. These properties act not just on the local populations, but on wider communities. Pests, predators, prey, and herbivores are kept in check by complex interactions between species and by a specific mix of species (biodiversity).
It is by these processes and properties that ecosystems have come to be thought of as analogous to organisms, with their own immune systems and other self-regulating mechanisms. In this model, every species has its function, and every interaction is essential for maintaining the overall working balance of the ecosystem.
Such thinking can be traced back to ancient Greece, and was supported by notable ecologists like Eugene P. Odum in his Fundamentals of Ecology (1953), but there have been critics. Henry A. Gleason (1882-1975) rejected the “super-organism” description of plant communities and instead suggested that the makeup of these communities was greatly influenced by chance events, which, within a locale, could result in very different communities; there was no balance, no climax state toward which all of the communities moved.
Other critics have been more forceful. Conservation biologist Michael Soulé writes “the idea that species live in integrated communities is a myth.”2 Ecologist William Drury, in his studies of forests, found no support for emergent properties, governing rules, or integration3. In his book, The Balance of Nature; Ecology’s Enduring Myth4, ecologist John Kricher states it bluntly, “there really is no such thing as a ‘balance of nature.’ Nor is there purpose to nature.” Evolutionarily speaking, Kricher points out, ecosystems do not evolve; they change because organisms change.
In addition to being false, the whole idea of the “balance of nature” is misleading. From it has come the view that ecosystems are a highly complex, integrated system of interactions between species, complexity that is beyond our understanding. The evidence, however, points to different conclusions. Drury reports “once seen, most of the interactions are simple and direct. Complexity seems to be a figment of our imaginations driven by taking the ‘holistic’ view.” Similarly, because ecology (at least until recently) has maintained that “natural communities tend towards equilibrium” Soulé concludes “the science of ecology has been hoist on its own petard.” In other words, ecologists have been misled by erroneously seeing what they assumed they would see.
Even as ecologists have, for the most part, abandoned the “balance of nature” thinking, it remains influential in popular thought and in agriculture. R. Ford Denison, in his book Darwinian Agriculture5, takes up this thread and asks the question, “Have ecosystem-level features, such as the mix of species and how they are distributed in space and time, been reliably improved by natural processes?” The answer is “no” according to Denison; natural communities have not been optimized and so we have no reason to mimic these communities in designing agricultural ecosystems. Because of this, Denison questions whether agroecologists, those for whom “the near-perfection of natural ecosystems is apparently the foundational hypothesis,” are misguided in promoting certain practices based on this thinking. The evidence, according to Denison, does not support them.
In Darwinian Agriculture, Denison concludes that because “evolution has improved trees much more consistently than it has improved forests,” we will find ‘nature’s wisdom’ not in natural ecosystems, but in individual species, where natural selection has improved survival and reproduction. And by looking at adaptations in individual plants and animals, “we may be able to improve on nature.”
I agree. If what we see in natural ecosystems is not optimized, but random (stochastic, say the ecologists), we should be able to do just as well or better. We can, with ingenuity, wisdom, and a good dose of humility, purposefully assemble systems that outperform natural ecosystems in providing both products and ecosystem services (Biology Fortified indeed). By taking advantage of individual species’ properties and processes, and by managing abiotic conditions (soil physical and chemical properties and water levels, etc.) we can create designer agro-ecosystems, successful by criteria that matter in agriculture; productivity, efficiency, and stability. I propose that this is, in fact, what we have been doing all along (more on this in a followup post), and that the “balance of nature” has only been a distraction from our efforts to improve the sustainability of our agriculture, a distraction that should be decisively cast aside.

  1. Marris, E. (2013). Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
  2. Soulé, Michael. 1995. “The Social Siege of Nature.” In Reinventing Nature? Responses to postmodern deconstruction. eds. M.E. Soule and G. Lease. Washington: Island Press.
  3. Drury, W.H. 1998. Chance and Change: Ecology for Conservationists. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  4. Kricher, J. (2009). The Balance of Nature: Ecology’s Enduring Myth. Princeton University Press.
  5. Denison, R. F. (2012). Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture. Princeton University Press. (Denison’s other main thesis in this book is that natural selection has left us few tradeoff-free opportunities for genetic improvement through genetic engineering. Full Disclosure – Denison served as my major professor in graduate school at UC-Davis.). His book blog.

Written by Andrew McGuire

Andrew McGuire has been with Washington State University Extension since 1999. He works with farmers to implement solutions to irrigated farming challenges in the Columbia Basin. He is currently evaluating soil health measurements and developing high-frequency green manure rotations for soilborne disease control. He thinks, then writes about agriculture at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.

16 comments

  1. Excellent reasoning, Andy.
    By definition, all agriculture is the process of giving a particular species an unfair survival advantage, compared to how it would fare in “nature”. Living in “harmony” with nature might be possible if our population density was thousands of times lower, but we can’t afford that luxury, even if we wanted to.
    I believe that we should use our best resources and intelligence to preserve islands of natural environments, (for esthetic, ethical, and practical reasons), but the best way to do this is to manage our farmed environment most efficiently. Ironically, the current naturalistic movement in the prosperous parts of the world seems to be drawing us in the opposite direction, and is undermining our ability to apply science and technology to the pressing demands of world nutrition. Denying farmers in the developing world access to GMO seeds, for example, is surely just an arrogant manifestation of “let them eat cake”.

    1. I have to say I think this makes sense, too. Why spread out farms that yield less and take up more land? “Agroceological” farms might have higher biodiversity than a conventional farm but I doubt they have as much biodiversity as natural non-farm land. Much better to get as high of yields as we can from fewer acres, and do our best to reduce impacts of farming on surrounding ecosystems. And of course reduce waste (and perhaps feed less to animals) so we don’t have to grow as much food.
      I’d guess there are very few crops that can be grown with reasonably low disturbance to the nearby ecosystem, and I bet such crops are all grown in tropical areas such as coffee and cacao.

  2. There is a lot to be learned in terms of utilizing nature to our advantage. There is certainly potential to reduce damage from a great many pests by figuring out, for example, what attractant plant mixture or habitat features attract beneficial insects which suppress pests most economically. It may be that investing in beetle banks pays off after x number of years compared to applying a certain pesticide each year. Or that planting every X row with certain flower plants attract a beneficial insect which suppresses an ag pest at a cheaper cost than many pesticides. Research and development in this field has been greatly surpassed by R&D into new pesticides and GM solutions by corperations. But with R&D into these “semi-natural”/organic/biological solutions, new and cheaper methods can be figured out. With demand for organic certified food growing, R&D towards such semi-natural solutions should also be growing and might compete with pesticides causing competition and prices to drop.

    1. I totally agree that there are a lot of low or no input solutions that could be great. But as you say it has to be backed up by science. The problem is that these sorts of things are very difficult to monetize – hard to sell. So if you are a company why bother researching such things? Then it’s up to governments and private non profit organizations to research these things. There are a few non profits and a decent amount of government research on these types of alternative strategies, but of course companies have deeper pockets. How do you propose solving this? Can we force companies to research things that they won’t be able to sell? Take the already small amount of government research dollars away from medical research? I don’t see a lot of ways to bankroll this type of thing, but if something could be figured out that would certainly be cool.

      1. I don’t know how to solve it except to just try spread awareness that these sorts of things are possible. I would hope that if enough people know about it and know what is possible, then that somehow priorities would shift and these sorts of things would get more funding, especially with the growing awareness on where our food supply comes from. The organic market is growing fast and so is demand for improved varieties and farming strategies that can produce organically certified products faster, cheaper, and in larger amounts per acre.

        1. Nicolai — If you survey the thousands of agricultural research projects at the U.S. Land Grant Universities, I think you would be amazed how much research is already going on to support agriculture that is both profitable and sustainable!
          In fact, I would argue that academic research in plant biotechnology is lagging behind worldwide, largely because getting approval to tests concept in the field is very slow and expensive (not to mention the threat of disruption by activist groups).

          1. I am amazed! That’s why we need to get this information out to the masses. Activists play on peoples ignorance and if those people think all non-organic agriculture is as bad as the worst chemical-industrial agricultural practices imaginable, they are more likely to attack biotechnology- which has been perceived as the antagonist to what they believe is healthy and right (the organic food industry).

  3. It’s great to see that agroecological and organic farming principles are becoming sufficiently popular that their critics feel compelled to exaggerate these principles into straw men in order to scare people away from exploring and implementing them further.

      1. Benny, your right in that a lot of it is based on junk science. But a lot of it is based on good science. You just made an absolute statement about it, therefore, you are partly wrong. Here’s a good video on what is possible: Organic rice was improved to produce more per acre than conventional rice production.
        Breeding and Development of Seed Stock for Organic Rice Production

        1. Ha. That’s not the right link. I somehow linked to my Liked videos. Here’s the right link.

          1. Nicolai, even if we were to grant that these videos depict methods that work, here’s a dirty little secret:
            Anyone can adopt them. You don’t need to be part of the organic religion to adopt a farming method that you think works for you. That’s because there are no intrinsically “organic” methods: there are only methods. There is also no such entity as “conventional”: it’s a made-up category like “pagan” or “infidel.”
            Finally, even if we were to grant the arguments in the videos, it still doesn’t change the fact that “organic” from the get-go, in the very definition provided by the USDA, is founded on that Appeal to Nature Fallacy:
            “In general, synthetic substances are prohibited unless specifically allowed and non-synthetic substances are allowed unless specifically prohibited.”
            http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/NOPPetitionedSubstancesDatabase
            This is so laughably absurd that it’s like a nursery rhyme: “Teh Human is bad unless it’s good, teh natural is good unless it’s bad.”

  4. Re exaggeration/strawman
    The whole ‘balance of nature’ critique is the strawman. Nobody except activists and hippies take the phrase literally. Both balance and nature are loaded words that get defined and operationalized in a variety of ways. I haven’t come across many, if any, agroecologists that adhere to a ‘balance of nature’ view. Agroecologists tend to look for ecological relationships that can be exploited by the design of agricultural systems, often via a framework/characterization of ecological functions deemed necessary for productive and resilient food systems. Many of he widespread practices spawned from agroeco research have no resemblance to this ‘balance of nature’ ethos you critique (eg bt, mass release of predators such as lady bugs…). Agroecology is about engineering eficient and sustainable food systems based on ecological principles. You have a fundamental misunderstanding the research/practices you’re trying to citique.
    …And your balance/randomness polemic is another strawman… There are very few ecologists that would make the extreme claim that nature is categorically stochastic. There are many stable/structured ecological assemblages/systems. Just because you can modify the time scale and/or geographic scale and the structure ‘disappears’ in analyses doesn’t mean the world is random (I’m guessing this is the type of argument developed in the reference you cite). My reading of the literature is that ecology has been heavily influenced by the ideas of complexity theory, like the ‘edge of chaos’ concept….so the balance/randomness is a bit of a false dichotomy.

    1. Mike, you are right, “activists and hippies” believe in the balance of nature, but they were not the only target of Kricher’s book. Marketers of various products, many agricultural scientists, and much of the general public hold beliefs consistent with the “balance of nature” and derived views. As I pointed out, ecologists have mostly abandoned this thinking, but the views associated with “Balance of Nature” are widespread and influential, especially in agriculture. Do a web search of “farming Nature’s Image” or “mimic nature agriculture” and you will find these ideas expressed and promoted as THE WAY to farm, often by influential activists. No, this is not my exaggerated straw man, rather, as Kricher’s subtitle says, it is “Ecology’s Enduring Myth.”
      Regarding agroecologists, I agree that some of their practices are valuable. However, I challenge those based on “governing rules, emergent properties, and self-organization within ecosystems.” From my post, “Have ecosystem-level features, such as the mix of species and how they are distributed in space and time” Denison asks, “been reliably improved by natural processes?”
      Your examples, Bt and the ladybug release, do not fall within this ecosystem-level critique. Rather, they rely on the “simple and direct” (Drury) effects of one species on other species. Here we have studied adaptations of individual species, which have been improved by natural selection (nature’s “wisdom”), and then amplified the effects and improved their timing to serve our purposes within agriculture; we have improved on nature. In fact, your examples are the type of practices I endorse in my follow-up post which has not yet been published on Biology Fortified, but which you may find here.
      Which ecological principles are displayed in the examples you give? They do not mimic an ecosystem, but rather use individual species.
      I agree with you that there are ecosystems that appear stable and structured. However, in my understanding of what the ecologists quoted in my post are saying (I do not claim to be an ecologist), when you expand the time frame to that which is relevant in ecosystem changes, you see that the assemblages are mostly a results of chance occurrences, of one species being (or not) at the right place and the right time and of natural disturbances. Therefore, the structure that you mention is mostly random. If it is not random, you have to answer an alternate version of Denison’s question, “What non-random processes have organized ecosystems other than random dispersal of species and disturbances?”
      I don’t know anything about complexity theory, but I think I have seen the old Star Trek episode “the edge of chaos.” Thank you for the comment, it made me think hard.

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