The Uses of Biodiversity

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, February 18, 2000

Earlier this month, I heard three inspiring scientists speak at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (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. 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 30 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 "The Living Machine®" which uses plants, animals, and solar energy to turn human, toxic, and industrial wastes into clean water with edible and useful byproducts such as fish and vegetables.

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. 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.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth


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