Here is an excerpt from my book summary on Biomimicry by Janine Benyus regarding polycultures:

An equally valuable lesson from nature is how we can learn to produce food. In Chapter 2 Benyus says, “this ‘farming in nature’s image’ movement is the most radical in this book, and perhaps the most important” (13). She begins by telling the horror story of pesticide use:

Since 1945, pesticide use has risen 3,300 percent, but overall crop loss to pests has not gone down. In fact, despite our pounding the United States with 2.2 billion pounds of pesticides annually, crop losses have increased 20 percent. In the meantime, more than five hundred pests have developed resistance to our most powerful chemicals. On top of that bad news, the last thing we want to hear is that our soils are also becoming less productive. Our answer has been to rocket boost fertility with 20 million tons of anhydrous ammonium fertilizer a year–as many as 160 pounds per person in this country alone. (18)

It is not then surprising that “leaching pesticide residue made agriculture the number-one polluting industry in the country” or that “Nitrate levels (from fertilizers) in the drinking water in many farm communities also exceed federal standards, which may be why miscarriage rates in farm families are unusually high” (19). Partially in reaction to this, and partially from his awareness of how a cattle ranch maintained it’s grassland all by itself, Wes Jackson founded The Land Institute in Kansas. The Land Institute recognizes that it occupies prairie land, and that prairie land maintains itself, therefore they are designing an agriculture that mimic the prairie so that it maintains itself without the need for pesticides or fertilizers (24).

The first few items of note researchers at The Land Institute find are that the plants are “ninety-nine point nine percent” perennials says John Piper, and these perennials completely knit the ground absorbing liquid and wind shock to protect the soil (25). Diversity is also key as Piper notes, “We have two hundred and thirty-odd species right here on this knob–not just one species of warm-season grass, but fort species” (25). So the land institute went to work trying to find grain perennials that might even out perform our contemporary monocrop grains such as wheat or corn. They settled on “eastern gammagrass… a relative of corn; Illinois bundleflower… a legume that grows tall and produces a rattle of seed pods; mammoth wildrye… a stout cool-season relative of wheat” and “Maximillian sunflower” (28).After sorting out high yielding grains, The Land Institute went further to create a polyculture: a symphony of multiple crops that work beneficially in great density with each other;

Turns out that plants grown next to different but complimentary neighbors don’t have to compete the way they do when grown next to an identical plant. They’re not jostling root elbows for the water in a particular level, for instance. Nor are they competing for the same plane of sunshine. As a result, the members of a diverse community are actually capturing more resources (and yielding more) than they would under constant same-species competition. (33)

Similarly, The Land Institute has found that having a variety of plants in proximity with each other messes with a pest’s ability to locate it’s victim, protecting the plant from consumption before the harvest. “In 1983,” for example, “Cornell biologist Steve Risch, Dave Andrew, and Miguel Altieri reviewed 150 such studies [on polycultures versus monocultures] and found that 53 percent of the insect pests species were less abundant in annual polycultures than in annual monocultures” (34).’

Benyus lastly intimates that in spite of mounting evidence for polyculture regional farming, the persuading factor is likely to be economic such as when fossil fuels start revealing shortages and true pricing (47).

In responce to Benyus’ opinion that only an economic crisis can push us towards polyculture farming, I beg to differ. I see a very different world. Everywhere I go (and I’ve been in nearly 20 different U.S. States since January) I see new community gardens sprouting up. People know that this is the right thing to do regardless of it’s profitability. Perhaps economic crisis is merely instrumentation because it gives them the time to follow their hearts? Or maybe I am just a sentimentalist in my old age.

Benyus, Janine M. Biomimicry. Quill Publishing. New York. 1997.

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