Environment

Study looks at long-term impact of farming

The researchers say the method and computer models can be applied to any semi-arid landscape
The researchers say the method and computer models can be applied to any semi-arid landscape
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Even small-holder farming can have a dramatic impact on the environment over time
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Even small-holder farming can have a dramatic impact on the environment over time
The researchers say the method and computer models can be applied to any semi-arid landscape
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The researchers say the method and computer models can be applied to any semi-arid landscape

Human use of land for crops and herds has completely altered the world's landscapes. A new field of research called experimental socio-ecology looks to the past to predict the consequences of this type of human activity in the future. Researchers at Arizona State University have spent the last 10 years studying the effects that small-scale farmers have had on land in the Mediterranean, and now they have released a report with the findings of the project.

The team focused on small-holder farmers and herders, who account for more than 70 percent of the world's food production and can dramatically transform the landscape over long stretches of time.

The team combined computer modeling with field research to gain insight into how human activity and natural phenomena began to interact to create so-called "socio-ecological landscapes," such as the terraced fields, orchards and pastures found in the Mediterranean region.

The researchers drew from a range of data categories, including farming practices, soil types, plant cover, climate and other environmental data. All this information was used as the basis of complex computer models of the impacts those various practices can have on landscapes.

The consequences of those impacts in past eras were also simulated. The idea is that a model that can predict the past is more reliable in predicting future consequences of different farming practices employed in the present time.

One of the findings of the project is that there are impact thresholds that separate success from failure. If farming communities grow beyond those thresholds, their practices can go from successful working of the land to a point where it's no longer able to support them.

"Go beyond the threshold and everything goes south," says project lead Michael Barton, a professor ASU's School of Human Evolution and Social Change. "Continuing to do the same things that were successful in grandfather's day produces increasing problems today."

The research also found a potential reason for most farmers either focusing on cultivating crops or herding animals is that those that attempt both in equal measures eventually fail.

"What happens is when the population starts to grow, the people who are 50/50 expand operations, but then they have dramatic crashes and sometimes never recover," says Barton. "It looks like people who are half and half farming and herding are not practicing a sustainable way of life over the long term. It also explains why the world is divided into people who produce our food by mostly farming and who do it mostly by herding."

Additionally, the research revealed how large-scale environmental change in the Mediterranean is affected by long-term small-scale farming practices.

"This work has helped us differentiate between environmental changes driven by climate and environmental changes driven by human land use," says Barton. "We are finding that there may be really strong signatures where the impact of landscape change occurs and they seem to be affected differently by human activity or by climate change."

Though they focused on the Mediterranean region, the researchers claim their method and computer models can be applied to any semi-arid landscape. This method, they add, is the way forward to understanding human interaction with the land in the future.

"Our work includes research on the impacts of different land-use practices on different landscapes, under different climate conditions," Barton told Gizmag. "So it can help us anticipate, and possibly plan for, changes in the consequences of farming and herding practices under different climate conditions of the future."

The findings of the research were published in a recent issue of the journal Anthropocene.

Source: ASU

10 comments
Tjoe
Indiana was 95% covered with hardwood forests in the early 1800s and only 15% by 1920. Now it's around 20%, with some marginal crop lands reverting back. Man has clearly altered the ability of our land to sequester carbon, make oxygen, hold water and hold topsoils, that now wash into the gulf. Wake up. Deforestation and corn growing 3 months a year is as much to blame as making the pollution in the first place. Where are the trees?
ezeflyer
Deforestation is a major cause of global warming.
the.other.will
Good points, Seilertechco. Converting forests into farms & pasture also makes land uninhabitable for some native species while creating habitat for other species. Agricultural practices are often destructive to the greater environment as well - the use of fertilizers, the use of chemical pesticides, and the extermination of native species that interfere with crops & herds.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Artificial transpiration in arid zones is probably the overarching factor.
Charles Barnard
One can only hope that they recognize that the Amazon forest is not natural, but a very different type of agriculture, as is the typical multi-crop farming in Central America. North America, as found by the Europeans, was NOT "virgin, untouched land," but had been managed for generations by Indians to produce nuts, fruits, berries and game. They routinely burned underbrush, cleared areas and planted nut and fruit trees. It is what has become our most common, monocultural agriculture which destroys the land in order to make automated farming easier which is a culprit. And it gets worse when we impose it upon areas where there are less temperate climates. Deserts, jungles and rainforests cannot afford to have bare soil exposed for any significant length of time without disaster. Under current changing weather patterns, exposed bare soil is dangerous even in temperate zones, as rainfalls become more sporadic and large storms more frequent, the risk of significant erosion has become too large. Mono-DNA culture poses the additional risk of disaster due to pests or disease, either of which can sweep through thousands of square miles of genetically identical plants in days.
Pandemis
Once upon a time large herds fed and fertilized in tight, predator contained groups. Grass roots grow and hold carbon; when tightly grazed the roots die back, dead root material hold the carbon in the soil permanently. The grass re-grows, the soil micro-biome thrives,ready for another grazing. The cycle continues. The carbon sink of the great grasslands has been removed from the majority of the Earth's ecosystem. There are working farms where the predator is replaced by a line of small paddocks, the cattle/sheep/etc are moved each day to the next paddock, after trimming the grass and weeds, and leaving the ground fertilized, ready for a cash-crop, and with healthier carbon-rich soil that holds moisture. Repeat. Profit. Polyface Farms is well known but there are many others. Look for the The Soil Carbon Cowboys video. Allan Savory, Tony Lovell, and Paul Stamets are good starting points to learn more.
MadMaxx
So what does this mean specifically for our intensive factory farming methods?
Bob Stuart
We have only recently learned how Bison and Wolves together produced healthy grasslands. This is very interesting, but another essential change from our father's customs for a world of ten billion is a vegan diet. Vegetarians are over-represented at the Olympics, and notably scarce in hospitals and morgues, while living on less than half as much land use. We could return half our farmland to wilderness, and use small robots to maintain an organic permaculture for our food.
noteugene
In short, we are really screwing everything up.
MD
SO lets all live in small footprint cities, allow nature to revert, right to the edges of our habitation (keep the wolves out with walls), we can live on reconstituted/fake soy and almonds whole food substitutes (grown in intensive low energy high output vertical gardens), while we build our towers that reach up to heaven. Our civilisation will then make a name for itself. Sounds good, no need to travel, no need to leave the walls, energy usage will be within ecological limits.. (Only the miners and farmers will ever leave the protection walls again and we can get all the information we "need" from the "screen on the wall"). Utopia here we come.
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