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Living on the Earth, February 18, 2000, The Uses of Biodiversity
Earlier this month, I heard three inspiring scientists speak at the
Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (or PASA) Conference
at State College, Pennsylvania. Although each one addressed a different
subject-- the global food system, cleaning up dangerous wastes and creating
fertile soil-- together they made a very strong case for using a great
diversity of organisms, as well as the wisdom of ecosystems and traditional
cultures to obtain our basic needs.
Vandana Shiva is a physicist from India (www.indiaserver.com/betas/vshiva).
She created a vital seed-saving and distribution network among poor Indian
farmers. She is, however, much better known for speaking out about the
negative effects that plant patenting, genetic engineering and global free
trade are having on India's people. She participated in recent global
meetings held in Seattle, Washington and Devos, Switzerland.
Dr. Shiva spoke of the great productivity of the diverse, small-scale
agriculture practiced by traditional Indianss. Their farms provide nearly
all of the things that people need to live. Growing not just grain, for
example, but also vegetables, herbs, medicines, building materials,
fertility and seeds for the next crop. Those many benefits derive exactly
from the biodiversity of traditional Indian farms.
In contrast, Western scientists focusing soley on bushels of grain grown,
praise intensive, large-scale grain monocultures as much more productive.
However, we can't live on bread alone.
The second scientist, John Todd is a biologist from New England. Over
thirty years ago he founded the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod. Dr.
Todd and his collegues designed and created elegant, organic food-producing
ecosystems inside solar greenhouses and outside on the Cape's sandy hills.
His work evolved into "Living Machines(tm)" (www.livingmachines.com) which
use plants, animals and solar energy to turn human, toxic and industrial
wastes into clean water with edible and useful byproducts such as fish and
Dr. Todd models his "Living Machines" on ecosystems. Various plants and
aquatic animals colonize the vertical tanks, wetlands and ponds which make
up these waste treatment systems. Each organism removes one or more
specific contaminants from the waste stream, and has the freedom to adjust
its population in response to available food and space. These elegant
systems are often created inside greenhouses and look like the tropical
exhibit at a botanical garden.
The third inspiring scientist was Elaine Ingham, a Soil Microbiologist from
Oregon (www.soilfoodweb.com). Dr. Ingham is especially interested in the
enormous diversity of organisms which live symbiotically with plant roots
in healthy forests, meadows and farm fields. Through several decades of
studying soil and the organisms which dwell there, she has worked out many
details of the Soil Foodweb. Bacteria and fungi feed on soil organic
matter, finding specific nutrients needed by plants. Other organisms feed
on bacteria and fungi, releasing nutrients for absorption by plant roots.
Dr. Ingham advises growers to make compost carefully, adjusting the inputs
to achieve either the fungal-dominated compost which is beneficial for
trees and other perennial crops or a bacterial-dominated one for annual
crops. When the entire Soil Foodweb flourishes, it nourishes plants and
wards off diseases. The normal inputs to conventional farms such as
frequent soil disturbance and harsh chemicals destroy the healthy balance
of soil life.
The great diversity of organisms which once existed everywhere on this
planet is greatly threatened. These three inspirational speakers are
creating biodiversity and bringing that diversity and ecological principles
to bear in order to solve real problems of soil fertility, food production
and waste disposal. Their success gives us hope for a more sustainable and
ecological, less toxic and monolithic future.
If you'd like to know more about the work of these visionary scentists,
visit www.wshu.org/duesing for links to their web sites.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C)2000, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
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