Biodiversity is Key to Sustainable Agriculture

By James S. Mastaler-Gutermuth


Foreword (by Peter Schwartzman): James is an environmentalist that has spent much of his recent life working to improve the quality of the environment. His ability to see through the “rows of corn” and find a solution grounded in ecological principles is something that we should appreciate and learn from. I hope we can derive wisdom and enthusiasm from James’ dedication and heart.


       Corn. How much corn do you eat? Think about it. If you’ve ever driven the rural highways of the American Midwest, you might guess that corn is all Midwesterners ever eat.

If you’re from the Midwest and you know that you really only eat corn on the cob at an occasional summer Bar-B-Que or as a side at most once a week, then you must wonder where all the corn goes—perhaps to some far off land of great corn-eaters. This isn’t such a strange thing to think. The corn has to go somewhere because we grow lots of it—there are, after all, acres of corn growing in all directions as far as the eye can see. But does it matter?

Meanwhile, with all this corn production going on, Illinois has lost all but 1/100th of one percent of our natural prairie ecosystems, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. This is an astounding figure. Imagine a peg board with 10,000 pegs (each representing a plot of native prairie). Only one peg (or plot) still remains. Illinois citizens ought to reflect on this observation and consider agriculture’s impact on our state’s ecosystems.

Agriculture uses immense amounts of land and is likely to use more in the future. In the April 2006 issue of Conservation Biology, researchers tell us that “[i]rrigated and pasture lands are both expected to double in area by 2050, with a net loss of 10^9 ha [equal to 1,000,000,000 hectares or over 2,471,053,814 acres] of wildlands, thereby increasing the pressure on biodiversity in natural ecosystems. At the same time, farmers are expected to intensify agriculture with increased inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, and fossil fuels.”

These uses will take their toll on the environment. The report goes on to say: “[a]side from the loss of diversity of breeds, farm birds, beneficial insects, and soil biota in agro-ecosystems, agricultural intensification puts wild biodiversity at risk through gene flow from domesticated varieties to wild species, cross-species transmission of potentially virulent pathogens, and adverse effects of fertilizers and pesticides on non-target species in adjacent wild land ecosystems.” Furthermore, these industrial inputs, “chang[e] a wide range of ecosystem services. These include provisioning services that support production of foods, fuels, and fibers; regulating services such as pollination and pest control; and supporting services such as nutrient cycling and water purification.”

Monocultures of corn cover our Midwestern landscape where bio-diverse prairie ecosystems, vast oak savannahs or dense woodlands once stood. The effort needed to sustain these new, single species ecosystems of corn is manifested in copious amounts of fertilizer, biocides, and tillage resulting in polluted waterways, further losses of biodiversity, and fertile soil runoff.

But somewhere somebody needs corn. And soybeans. And wheat. And all those other crops that are needed to feed a growing world population. How do we reconcile our social and moral obligations to preserve biodiversity and still feed our growing societies in sustainable ways?

Research shared at the Eighth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP-8) in Curitiba, Brazil and mentioned in the Summer 2006 issue of the Earth Island Journal, concludes $26 million of research with the following simple finding: “[t]he future of sustainable agriculture around the world depends on diverse communities of soil organisms…” It continues, in sharp contrast with many industrial based solutions, “[i]mproved crop yields are being enjoyed by some developing-world farmers who have turned to soil bacteria and fungi rather than artificial fertilizers to boost harvests.”

Okay. So after $26 million worth of research we know we can get rid of the fertilizers if we focus on fungi and bacteria. All that research says the simple key to improved crop yields and sustainability is building healthy, bio-diverse soils teeming with macro- and microorganisms. That’ll improve our crop yields and give us more corn—without expensive artificial fertilizers whose residues end up in rivers, lakes and groundwater. Improved yields equal more corn in case you missed that. That’s just what we need more of here in the Midwest. Right? More corn may be desirable in terms of sustainability and global corn needs, but is anyone thinking about the benefits to other life forms and to the ecosystem as a whole?

Andrew Heggenstaller, a researcher at the University of Iowa in the Department of Agronomy whose research investigates the potential for perennial crops and mixtures of crops more suitable for use on environmentally sensitive parts of the landscape, suggested in my recent interview with him that “[w]hat we need in this country as far as agriculture is concerned, is policy that recognizes that agriculture is not just about the production of food, feed, and fiber. Agriculture occupies more land in this country than any other land use and provides many ecological functions. Not many of these can be given a direct market value, but they are all vitally important to our society. Agricultural land [can] filter water, cycle nutrients, store carbon, protect the soil, provide habitat for wildlife, and provide food and fiber to humans.”

When we replace acres of biodiverse ecosystems, like the Illinois prairie evolved specifically to suite the area’s location and geography, with acres of monoculture corn and soybean, we run the risk of mucking up a system designed to maintain ecological sustainability. The biological diversity inherent in prairie ecosystems provides valuable ecological services that some agricultural systems can mimic but that many monoculture systems fail to do.

Our friends at Conservation Biology back this up when they say, “biodiversity loss in agricultural landscapes also has an opportunity cost. It affects not just the production of food, fuels, and fibers, but also a range of ecological services supporting, for example, water supplies, habitat, and health.” There appears to be a disconnect between agriculture and the environment and it is essential that we develop (and implement) a way to do agriculture without destroying our local ecosystems.

Describing this disconnect, Andrew Heggenstaller says, “[agriculture] is based on everything being the same and the [environment] is highly heterogeneous. What I mean is that it is simply not appropriate to dedicate all parts of the landscape to the same land use, the same crop, or the same management practice. Nevertheless, this has been, and continues to be the general approach that we take in agriculture. Even here in Iowa, where the land appears to be relatively homogenous, different parts of the landscape have different ecological functions and limitations. Imagine for example, the land along a stream, or on a steep slope. Plowing this land and planting annual crops on it is going to lead to environmental consequences.”

This isn’t to say that we can’t still grow our crops of corn. Heggenstaller concedes, “there are many parts of the landscape where corn production is far from the worst thing that could be done from an environmental perspective, especially if we employ conservation practices like cover crops, crop rotations, and no-till planting. The problem is that right now that’s not what we are doing. Rather, we are gearing up for a big push of corn and soybeans into those parts of the landscape that are not suited for this use. Farmers need to have more options because we can't grow the same thing everywhere.”

Heggenstaller points to agricultural policy as one major hindrance that keeps farmers locked into corn and soybean production to the exclusion of other crops. He says, “…we have a false agricultural economy. Our government subsidizes farmers to produce corn and soybeans, subsidizes the construction of corn and soy biofuel conversion facilities, provides tax incentives for blending corn ethanol with gasoline, and provides major tax breaks to investors who choose to get into the ethanol and biodiesel business. The result of all of these subsidies is that the price of corn, soybeans, ethanol, and biodiesel has little if any connection to what these products would actually [be] worth in the market. Irrespective of biofuels, but equally important to the discussion, are the persistent direct government subsidies to farmers who grow corn and soybeans. No matter what happens to the corn crop or the price of crop in the market, our government pays farmers just to plant corn and soybeans. The point is, as long as our government subsidizes the production of corn and soybeans on one hand, and inflates the value of these crops on the other by creating new markets, our farmers have but one rational economic option: grow more corn and soybeans.”

And grow more corn and soybean is exactly what agribusiness is planning to do. Heggenstaller notes that, “This year for example, it is projected that US farmers will plant 90.5 million acres of corn. This would be 12 million acres more corn than was grown last year, and more corn than has been grown in the US since 1944. Worse, some of this increased corn production will take place on land that is currently dedicated to conservation (i.e. CRP land: Conservation Reserve Program).”

It doesn’t look like Illinois will ever again see “prairies verdant growing,” as the official state song goes, and it looks like Illinois farmers and agribusinesses will have their work cut out for them if they choose to swim upstream against the trends and bring agricultural biodiversity back to the Midwestern landscape.

But it also looks like farmers and agribusinesses are not forced by any laws of nature to choose between feeding our growing societies and preserving biodiversity. In fact, it looks like the key to feeding our growing societies in a sustainable way actually requires the inclusion of maintained biodiversity into our agricultural practices. The question is whether society can offer farmers and agribusinesses the political and economic incentives to do so.

How this more biodiverse form of agriculture can and ought to be applied to our Midwestern landscape by farmers and especially the agribusinesses that own thousands of acres and acres of corn is something time and research will reveal. Yet, solutions seem to exist when we look.

Local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms or subscription farms where “shareholders” buy a farm “share” in the spring in return for weekly seasonal produce is a great place to start. Supporting your local CSA farm encourages family farmers to grow acres of all sorts of fruits and vegetables, usually delicious heirloom varieties grown without pesticides and fertilizers.

Shopping at your local farmer’s market is another great route consumers can take to help give local family farmers an opportunity to earn a decent living without relying on government subsidies to produce acres of corn and soybean.

Be sure to talk to the farmers at the market and ask where they farm and how they farm. Don’t be tricked into buying a melon grown down in Arkansas on an agribusiness farm and shipped to Illinois. Also, try and buy from organic growers when possible.

Don’t forget about your meat sources as well. Buying your meats locally from free range and grass fed animals makes for a better tasting, more nutritious meat and encourages local biodiversity since it was grazed on a landscape more similar to our native prairie grasslands than a muddy feedlot with food shipped in from some monoculture field of grain somewhere.

Though each of these suggestions support local family farmers and give them the opportunity to incorporate more holistic and biodiverse farming practices, it may not sway multinational agribusiness owning much of Illinois’ farmland to stop growing all those acres and acres of corn shipped off to who-knows-where. Yet each will contribute to a growing trend that is more in line with a healthy and sustainable future. What more could we ask for?

I wish that we all knew where all the corn goes and why we grow so much of it. I suspect that if we knew—and it isn’t some far off land of great corn eaters—people would begin to think more seriously about how crops are grown throughout the state of Illinois.


James holds his BS in Environmental Studies from North Park University and has studied sustainable agriculture on Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization's (ECHO) experimental farm in Florida as well as ecology and sustainability in South India. He is certified as both a Field Naturalist and Environmental Analyst by AuSable Institute of Environmental Studies and is currently working toward the completion of his MA in Social Justice at Loyola University Chicago—a program designed to prepare graduates to work in systemic change, social advocacy and community organizing from a faith and values based perspective.