Sharon February 25th, 2009
This is a guest post by Elaine Solowey, an Israeli orchardist and the director of sustainable agriculture for the Arava Institute for Environjmental Studies, who has been kind enough to share her work on this blog before. She’s a wonderful writer, doing remarkable research on the ability of perennial tree crops to feed and sustain us. This essay was published in Haaretz, for Tu B’Shevat, which is the Jewish New Year of the Trees which was a couple of weeks ago (yup, we have a holiday for trees). Thanks, Elaine, for letting me reprint this!
I found this essay particularly important in light of Joseph Romm’s decision to begin a series on “biomass co-firing” as a replacement for coal. Translated into english (and the language matters here), biomass co-firing means “using forests to generate electricity.” Note the near absence of the words “trees” and “forests” from Romm’s piece, and the reference to non-existent plantations of fast growing trees or switchgrass. This is a way of legitimizing deforestation, and one that I’ve been worried about for a long time. In “The Ethics of Biofuels” written some years ago, I wrote:
“And as we must take care with what we label “waste” products, we also need to think carefully about how we regard our remaining resources. For example, we in America could easily choose, over the next decades, to exploit all of our remaining forests, watersheds, and even-remotely tillable land to produce bio-replacement crops for the fossil fuels we’ve come to depend upon. The first step in this disastrous exercise is the linguistic transformation of the whole and varied ecology of a forest into “biomass production” or of a bushel of corn into “ethanol in its raw state.” Let us not forget that what we are speaking of is forest and food.”
I admit, I would never have anticipated that this language shift would come endorsed by climate activists. I understand the desperation to stabilize the climate that underlies this move, but it is a potential disaster. As Peak Oil Hausfrau has documented in her “Preventing Deforested Moonscapes” series, and as Nate Hagens describes at The Oil Drum, we’re already using virtually all of the sustainable output of our forests. Deforestation is a disaster waiting to happen, and one that it is essential to avoid – in part because the advantages of burning trees to generate electricity are likely to be outweighed rapidly by the release of carbon as soils erode and forests decline.
So Solowey’s call for aboreal agriculture, and a focus on trees is especially urgent – because clearly even those most concerned with the future have a tough time seeing the forest.
The answer is in the trees
As we celebrate Tu Bishvat, the holiday of the trees, we need to take a critical look at our cultivation and production methods. Whereas tree crops represent one of the most sustainable forms of agriculture, they are outnumbered by modern agriculture’s megacrops, which badly damage the earth. The latter waste nutrients, pollute the water and allow topsoil to be blown away, while the chemicals they are sprayed with contaminate food. And modern agriculture uses more energy than it produces in the form of food. Amid a global energy crisis and world hunger, we cannot afford such carelessness.
Perennial crops are inherently more sustainable than the annual crops of modern agriculture, which need to be replanted each year. Sustainable agriculture can help heal the earth – if we recognize its value in boosting the quality of our food and land.
Erosion is the enemy of both agriculture and civilization, according to J. Russell Smith, author of “Tree Crops,” a classic text on arboreal agriculture. Smith took a series of trips in the 1930s to the Mediterranean, Far East and Middle East to study land use. He was appalled by the vast stretches of destroyed and depleted land he encountered: ” Forest – field – plow – desert. That is the cycle of the hills under most plow agricultures.” Between the water erosion on hilly and sloping lands and the wind erosion on flat plains, the world’s fertile topsoil continues to drift away or be washed away. So it is no exaggeration to say that topsoil erosion is as big a threat as climate change, a problem not as visible as the coming oil shortage but a far greater danger to humankind.
The world’s population is bigger than ever, and all humanity needs food. But depending, for our food, on a system that systematically ruins the land simply means that sooner or later we will not be able to produce food for ourselves.
The megacrops (the most important commercial crops) of the 20th century are all weak competitors – they have to be planted in environments where other plants have been eliminated. Grains, for instance, are grown on bare fields with every weed sprout sprayed or harrowed out of existence. Rice is cultivated in flooded, intensively weeded paddies; soybean and rapeseed are grown in fields stricken by chemicals; and corn is grown in huge blocs as big as small countries, where no other living thing is allowed to survive.
A terrible ecological price is paid for this kind of cultivation, all over the world. Communities wither, wildlife disappears, and the land dies. Unfortunately, almost every modern crop is cultivated this way.
That is, every kind of crop except trees. Their bounty of fruits, nuts, fibers or pods is a blessing to the earth, and their cultivation is not inherently damaging. Trees do not need annual plowing and can be fertilized with organic materials like compost and mulch. Diverse orchards can be kept pest free with sensible strategies.
Just about every damaging factor in modern agriculture is absent from arboreal cultivation. Tree crops can actually yield significantly more food, including carbohydrates and animal feed. Once upon a time, in ancient Greece and among Native Americans in California , for example, the main source of bread was oak trees. The bottom line is that there are many alternative options that need to be explored.
Moreover, the ecological benefits of trees are profound: They make food and oxygen, and manufacture topsoil by breaking up rocks in the subsoil and releasing minerals later stored in fruit, seeds and leaves. Their roots stabilize the soil and protect it – creating microorganisms and insect homes. Trees stop erosion, store water and are magnets for rain. A mature deciduous tree may give off 500 liters of water from its approximately six acres of surface area on a warm summer day. The cool air under the trees, drawn upward as rain clouds glide over, often leads to rain. The trees then absorb water through their leaves, and the raindrops settle among their roots.
With all the benefits of arboreal agriculture, why then are plowed crops the most prevalent form of cultivation? Perhaps modern agriculture has narrowed its sights to things that can be bred quickly and provide produce quickly – things that can be done in an instant. Agriculture is focused on quick annual crops.
On this Tu Bishvat, we should remember trees’ environmental benefits in mitigating and stabilizing the climate: The air and the earth are several degrees cooler under a tree in hot climates and several degrees warmer in a cold one. In addition to acting as the world’s lungs, trees are the earth’s air conditioners. Deforestation, something of a throwaway line when global climate change is discussed, is most likely one of its main causes. Public debate over climate change must address alternative cultivation methods and embrace arboreal agriculture as a key solution.