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New Book Describes Modern Farming’s Damage to Biodiversity

This is the call of a meadowlark. (Sound of meadowlark plays). This is an upland sandpiper. And this excitable fellow is a burrowing owl. (Hooting sound of owl)

What they have in common is that they are among more than 5,000 species of birds whose survival is threatened because of the expansion of industrial-style, modern agriculture around the world. Populations of meadowlarks, for example, have fallen by 71 percent since 1966.  And it’s not just birds.  Farming and development have reduced the population of all wild animals – mammals, birds, fish, and amphibians -- by more than half since 1970.

This is according to a new book, titled “In Search of Meadowlarks: Birds, Farms, and Food in Harmony with the Land," written by John Marzluff, a professor of environmental science at the University of Washington.

Marzluff explains how stripping away forests and meadows to replace them with monoculture fields of crops like corn and soybeans unintentionally brings an end to meadowlarks and other wildlife.  

“Fundamentally, it’s the tendency to farm what was called fencerow to fencerow,” Marzluff said. “That means farming every bit of the soil that can be plowed, so removing the habitat directly. That’s the worst thing you can do for any species. But in addition to that, we’ve also increased our use of herbicides and pesticides. So we’ve removed weeds, which are native in many cases and produce small seeds or soft leaves that a lot of these animals eat, or that the insects that they rely upon eat.”

Marzluff’s book lays out solutions to this loss of biodiversity that would be – in theory – easy to implement, because farmers performed them routinely before a revolution the agricultural chemical industry in the 1950’s and 1960s. These strategies include allowing sections of trees and open meadows  to grow between crop fields as homes for wildlife.  Also important is rotating and diversifying crops, so that no plant grows in a monoculture on the same land, every year.

For decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has offered farmers cash to encourage these and other conservation practices. But Marzluff points out that this Conservation Reserve Enhancement or “CREP” program has been badly underfunded by the federal government. The result is that farmers have learned they can earn a lot more just by growing corn, usually to feed livestock or meet federal ethanol fuel mandates.

In addition to giving more cash to farmers who incorporate more wildlife and trees into their farms, Marzluff argues the federal government needs to provide grants or attractive loans to encourage a new generation of idealistic younger farmers, who often embrace organic and alternative methods.

To me, young farmers come onto the land with the first underlying purpose of doing no harm to the land,” said Marzluff. “They want the land to be productive, of course, for their crops. But they also understand global issues. They understand greenhouse gas emissions and how farms can contribute to that. They understand loss of habitat and how farming contributes to that.”

Moving to smaller-scale farms is not just a matter of saving birds, in Marzluff’s mind. It’s a matter of saving humanity itself.  He noted that modern methods of packing thousands of hogs or chickens into windowless metal buildings can help breed and spread dangerous viruses that sometimes jump to people.

“Well, I think we are definitely increasing our risk of pandemics by the way we handle our farm animals,” said Marzluff.  “It’s the way we have large monocultures of farm animals crammed together in limited space that causes problems.”

So to ensure a healthier future for ourselves, we need to start engineering more humanity into how we treat animals on our farms – including the chickens in our sheds and meadowlarks flying overhead.

(Photo of Book Cover, "In Search of Meadowlarks: Birds, Farms, and Food in Harmony with the Land.")

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.