Here are some recent discoveries from my research on sustainable agriculture in the Gallatin Valley of southwest Montana. As a footnote, the Gallatin Valley is part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem--the largest intact and contiguous temperate ecosystem in the world.
Volunteering on local farms this summer and fall, I saw how wilderness and agriculture often conflict: whether it is deer eating a farmer's apple trees, or wildlife habitat being converted to farm fields.
One of the biggest challenges in localizing food systems is learning how to grow food while also preserving ecosystems for both wildlife and humans. In turning diverse natural habitat into mono-crop farmland—namely corn, soy, and wheat—conventional agriculture creates overly simplified ecosystems dependent on synthetic pesticides and inorganic fertilizers to maintain growth on the land.
To no small degree, the very existence of agriculture, as seen in ecosystem services such as pollination and flood control, depends on the existence of intact natural habitat.
In 2003, the World Conservation Union’s chief scientist, Jeffrey McNeely, alongside the Forest Trends’ Senior Policy Analyst and Future Harvest Advisor Sara Scherr, wrote Ecoagriculture: Strategies to Feed the World and Save Biodiversity. The authors define ecoagriculture as “the management of landscape for both the production of food and the conservation of ecosystem services, in particular wild biodiversity.”
Essentially, the model Scheer and McNeely describe involves land-use mosaics. Communities identify what periurban lands, or a city’s hinterlands, would best be set aside for biodiversity conservation, what lands may be used as both food production and ecosystem preservation, and what lands will be used primarily for agriculture. The model also includes identifying what lands were once used for agriculture and may be restored back to land suitable for both a source of wild edibles and natural habitat.
Despite their conflicts, agriculture and wilderness share a common threat: city development. The accelerating expansion of urban sprawl paves over the chance to preserve natural habitat and grow local food in the landscape mosaic envisioned in ecoagriculture.
Since the hinterlands in the Gallatin Valley have some of the most endangered farmlands—farmlands embedded in the world’s largest in-tact temperate ecosystem—protecting the city’s natural resources will require seeing the landscape’s various components as fluid and interdependent.
And the Gallatin Valley is but a microcosm of the globe. Ecoagriculture presents the opportunity across the planet to create land-use mosaics for food, wildlife, and human development.
To learn more about ecoagriculture, here's a link to EcoAgriculture Partners, an organization seeking to promote sustainable land development.