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Efficiency/sutainability of local vs introduced crops  RSS feed

 
Abe Connally
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I brought up this point in another thread:
native plants are ALWAYS the most sustainable and efficient crop for the land. For many areas, native plants include grasses, and the best use for grasses in terms of food production is the production of meat.

Now, we can argue about the definition of native plant, but in the context it means whatever was there before the plow ripped it up.  In general, it means the local variety of weed/grass/shrub/vine/tree/etc that grows without human intervention and care.

I am sure we can find some examples of where introduced or invasive species are more efficient than natural ones, but that's not what I am thinking about.

Cultivated crops vs wild plants.  Wild plants are generally better suite to the local conditions than a cultivated (read introduced by human) plant.

Corn is the perfect example of my point, mainly because it is a heavy producing grain, and can't survive without human care.  Lots of folks would say corn is an efficient crop (I doubt many would argue that corn is a very sustainable crop in most areas that it is grown).  Yet, many local tree species outproduce corn, and they don't need humans to plow the land for them, plant them, water them, fertilize them, cultivate out their competitors, or even harvest them.  They outproduce corn on their own, and I'd say that is pretty sustainable (they've been doing it for a long time) and efficient (less inputs, higher outputs, reduced labor).

Many local grass species produce more biomass than introduced varieties.  The introduced versions require constant care to keep a pasture "pure", yet their main advantage is that they are more palatable to certain domestic animal species (cows).  Again, less input, more output, and they can do it without humans (sustainability).

Introduced species are often domesticated species.  And with domestication often comes increased need for human care and intervention, which reduces sustainability and in many cases, efficiency.

So, what examples have you come across?  Am I totally off the mark here, or what?
 
tel jetson
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velacreations wrote:
Those localized plants are usually hardy perennials that don't require a plow or herbicides or irrigation or fertilizers or humans holding their little hands so they can survive.  They are adapted to the local conditions, and are more efficient at using those local conditions to their advantages.


plenty of introduced plants don't require any of those things either.  some of them are perennial, some of are annual, some are biennial.  sounds like you don't like grains, and maybe with good reason, but grains are far from the only alternative to native grasslands.
 
Abe Connally
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grains are far from the only alternative to native grasslands.

You are definitely right.  They are the most common alternative, though!

Can you give me an example of an introduced species being more sustainable, efficient and better adapted to local conditions than the native/natural variety?

I find cultivated plants to be weak, in general.  Even cultivated trees usually don't compare to wild, natural trees as far as efficiency and sustainability is concerned.

Now, I know it can be argued that efficiency depends on perspective.  Most grasses are not efficient at producing apples, or steel, or calories, for that matter. But native varieties do tend to be better suited towards the local environment and using the nutrients at hand.
 
Emerson White
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Empirically, here in Anchorage the introduced rasberries crop reliably with no input, are less prone to disease or failure than salmon berries, and in both good and average years produce more. Many also have longer seasons and they all lay down more crop residue which means more organic matter in the soil over time.

You seem to be arguing from firt principles, and while I would agree that what is in place is sustainable I think you aren't taking a sufficiently deep view of time.

Think of a brand new volcanic island rising out of the ocean. Initially it is barren, but eventually (if it gets rain) it will be a lush forested isle. Now think about 10 years into it's life. It will have a few dozen species of plants on it, that traveled maybe hundreds of miles to get to it, but it will not be as productive or as ecologically stable as it would be with hundreds of species of plants on it. Every ecosystem is stable not because it is free from invaders, but rather because those invaders have trickled in and the inhabitants have had a chance to adjust.

I think you'd be hard pressed to find a lineage that hasn't circled the globe several times. If you look at camels for instance, you might think it would be a bad thing to release Arabian ungulates into the south west, however camels literally came from the Americas, This is where they evolved, and they will happily eat back some of the brush that now grows unchecked. A plot of land in southern Colorado will be moderately productive with jack rabbits and coyotes and mice and deer, but highly productive and more stable if you add cows and horses and camels and goats and sheep to the mix.

Stability and sustainability is about having the full suite of players in the system, not about having all vintage stock in it's original packaging.

Those native ecosystems are very stable, but it's only because they have gone through the process of being tested by invasion. There has been an ordeal of fire and the ecosystems are what came out. Now we have to make room for man, and we are not at peak population yet. Living with only what is native to a region is perhaps a noble goal, but it will only work if you can avoid over population through some other means. In practice humans descend on the native landscape like a blight, a swarm of locusts, and devour it.

Conservation didn't begin until after agriculture and domestication, because those freed up enough human capital to be able to protect valuable lands and ecosystems. Before that it was one ecological disaster after another as man stretched out over the globe.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Emerson White wrote:
Conservation didn't begin until after agriculture and domestication


I'm pretty sure agriculture caused more damage than it prevented.  Agriculture wiped out the North American prairie ecosystem, it didn't preserve it. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nLKHYHmPbo
 
Margaret Anderson
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I think this topic was discussed loads of time before at this forum
 
Matt Ferrall
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I would agree to a point.Even native plants require some management to maximize production.Sure they could eak out some marginalized existance but cultivation/management is and has been practiced by most cultures.Where we are at as a culture nowdays is way beyond that point.Weve taken domestication to an extreme and if the growing itself isnt less sustainable,certainly hidden costs to the enviroment and our health clearly tip the balance in favor of feralness.
 
Travis Philp
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In terms of home-scale use, I think there are a lot of native edible and otherwise useful plants that should be encouraged to be a part of our gardens.

Unfortunately, it can be tricky to make a living off of such things in the short term.  Non-natives are usually an easier sell, though this is not always the case. Another problem is that as far as I know (in my region) there aren't many annuals that are marketable beyond small harvests. Maybe I'm not fishing in the right ponds though. So then you're stuck waiting at least a few years, at most 25- 40 years for your crop to come to harvestable maturity.
 
Abe Connally
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There are some good comments forming here.  I am sorry if this was discussed before, as I was not a part of the previous discussion.

I need to clarify something, because we keep bringing this up.  This is not a native vs invasive or native vs introduced debate.  This is natural vs cultivated.  It is human management vs non management (or low management).  The non management approach seems to be a more stable one and a more sustainable one.  Now, I am not saying that managed systems can't be sustainable, but if they can't survive without you, chances are they won't survive in the long term.

Stability and sustainability is about having the full suite of players in the system, not about having all vintage stock in it's original packaging.

Right, but the question is, who is putting the players there, and then who is keeping them there.  If they can't survive in the system without us, the long term stability is greatly compromised.

we are not at peak population yet

That is very debatable. How many billions are alive because of fossil energy?  Human population is definitely a bubble, and at some point it will peak, but we will only know that it has peaked after the fact.  So, in actuality, it could be peaking right now or even yesterday.  BUT, that is a whole other discussion!

Conservation didn't begin until after agriculture and domestication, because those freed up enough human capital to be able to protect valuable lands and ecosystems. Before that it was one ecological disaster after another as man stretched out over the globe.

I think that is a very cynical view of history and prehistory. Humans lived relatively well for a hundred thousand years before agriculture and domestication.  I have a hard time believing they were creating ecological disasters one right after another.  The evidence doesn't seem to support that perspective.

In some areas (South American), the people lived in relative harmony with its environment, especially in the Brazilian civilizations.  Their agriculture was based on a type of forest gardening, and a lot of the modern biodiversity of the Amazon forest in those regions can be attributed to those civilizations/societies.

Asian civilizations had a high respect for the surrounding ecosystems, and wide-spread destruction of those ecosystems is a fairly modern (industrial) achievement.

North American civilizations, especially in the Mississippi River area, had a deep respect for their environment, and their ecosystems suffered very little.

Early Europeans lived in a paradise compared to modern Europeans.  Their ecosystem lasted for many centuries before showing effects of overpopulation and industrialization.

So, not to get too much off the topic at hand, civilization does not necessarily mean ecosystem destruction.  At many times, in many areas, it has actually aided in biodiversity and ecosystems stabilization. Humans are capable of living within an ecosystem, even at high population densities.

One of the underlying aspects you see with all of these civilizations that preserved their environments was a reduced human intervention in their agriculture.  They were there to help the cultivation, not completely control it, and definitely their plants didn't completely depend on them for survival.

Irrigation, fertilizers, wide spread use of the plow or earth moving was not used.  They used the plants that they hand right there, and helped cultivate those which they preferred.  They didn't import weak species and plant them after destroying stable ecosystems. They were using local, natural varieties (for the most part), and taking advantage of the inherent strengths of the adapted varieties.

My point being that similar approaches, using natural, low maintenance approach will be more efficient and definitely more sustainable, as we have seen time and time again throughout history.  High maintenance leads to environmental destruction which leads to civilization collapse. That's the very definition of unsustainable.
 
Matt Ferrall
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While not sustainable,often times cultivated domestic plants are grown regardless because a ruling class needs a labor class and domesticates allow slaves and unskilled labor to do the work so that a few can skim off the top.Making the food options domesticates allows control of the food supply and opens up industry to provide the neccesary inputs(fertilizers ect..)I see bumper stickers that say "no farmers,no food"which gets under my skin abit.Perhaps "no management,less food"would be more to my likeing.
 
                      
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Ah, the Noble Savage Myth.....
 
Matt Ferrall
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ah,the civilization myth...I would disagree that asian civilizations were sustainable.The book Farmers of Fourty Centuries,while putting it up as a good example,is very revealing.It talkes of barren hillsides with people traveling long distances to bring wood/biomass into urban areas.That it lasted so long is,to me,a testament to the resiliency of nature not the success of it.That said,it is generaly agreed that most native cultures(civilized or not)practiced mangement so I do think its a balance of sorts.One that permacuture explores extensivly.
 
                      
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When humans first arrived in Hawaii, the only edible plants were some raspberries that birds had introduced and a few coconuts that had washed up on the beach.  And the native plants don't compete well; the ecosystem was isolated, and there weren't any large herbivores. 

All the plants that humans eat were introduced from somewhere, and have been bred and selected, sometimes for thousands of years.  Permaculture is supposed to be permanent agriculture, not a reversion to hunting and gathering.

 
Matt Ferrall
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If all the plants that humans eat were introduced ,Im assuming people were unable to exist on the globe pre-introduction/domestication.Also ,introduced plants are native to a different location.
 
tel jetson
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I guess maybe I misunderstood what you were advocating, velacreations.  many of us are trying to create productive ecosystems that require minimal management once established, but they include a whole lot of introduced species.

where I'm living, there are huge and extremely productive chestnut trees naturalized.  I'm thousands of miles from native chestnut country.  there are also naturalized domestic apple trees, hawthorns, walnuts, hazelnuts, cane fruits, grapes and et cetera, all of which were introduced by homesteaders in the area several generations ago.  the vegetation that those are displacing is well adapted to the climate and soil, and easily supports a lot of critters.  most of the relative newcomers I've mentioned easily support those critters, too, as well as humans.

and that's just the stuff that was already here.  many things that I've planted will also naturalize without much more intervention than digging a hole and planting two specimens.  introducing new species alters ecosystems, but oftentimes, the shakeup leads to more productivity (of calories, nutrition, biomass, habitat) than what came before.

I do think that an effort should be made to preserve some intact native ecosystems.  that could include human management in some instances, and none in others.
 
                      
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Humans and food plant have co-evolved for thousands of years.  Wild humans haven't been around for a while; even the few remaining modern hunters and gatherers have trade relationships with agriculturalists.  And the human population was pretty low back then.

FWIW, the genie is out of the bottle and many food plants (and weeds) have already been spread everywhere they will grow.  I don't think this is a bad  thing; I grow plants from all over all mixed together.  Confuses the heck out of the pests.....
 
Matt Ferrall
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It is my understanding that west coast natives were neither hunter gatherers nor agriculturalists(that being a somewhat obsolete duality)but horticulturalists.They practiced management of the wild(and in some cases in california,even propogated productive varieties of wild plants).This is the closest model to permaculture Ive found.A balance between the health and mental benefits of being in "the wild"but with an expanded population made possible by management.
 
Abe Connally
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I don't think introduced species are a bad thing, either.  I also don't think humans spreading species is a bad thing.

That being said, if a species, like corn (the most widely spread plant in history), depends solely on humans for survival, I do think that is a bad thing.  It is neither efficient nor sustainable, and should be avoided, where possible.  Corn is rarely the most efficient or sustainable crop for an area, and many wild or native species could replace it.

I am also not advocating a hunter/gatherer type of model.  I don't think we have to go from one extreme to the other on this.  I think there is a happy medium where we consider each area individually, and we choose the best species for the each situation.

To me, some of the core principles of permaculture show us that adapted, low maintenance species tend to be more efficient at using local resources.  Does this mean they can't be introduced?  No.  Does this mean we can't plant them and water them? No.

What it means is when we are selecting species for our polyculture permaculture models, we should select those which are more efficient and sustainable in the given ecosystem.  Those species tend to be wild (little to no domestication, or feral), often native (but not necessarily).

I am not advocated the noble savage myth, but evidence shows us that humans didn't necessarily destroy their environments, just because they were civilized and populated. Are there examples of ancient peoples destroying their environments?  Yes, most certainly, but it is not an "always" type of rule.  It's probably 50/50.

The real myth is that the ecosystems and humans can be separated, or that they have been separated for at least 30,000 years.  The fact that pristine ecosystems exist where civilizations exist show me that a balance can be achieved between total destruction and total conservation.  Most likely, the population of the Americas greatly exceeded that of Europe when Columbus landed, and yet the Americas were regarded as pristine wildernesses (which they were not, but compared to Europe...)  But the fact of the matter is that the wilderness of the Americas was a man-made wilderness, made by tens of millions of inhabitants.  So, those inhabitants apparently weren't completely destroying their environments... yet

Yes, the Asian civilizations definitely have their issues, but in general, especially older than 2,000 years ago were in relative balance.  Yes, they destroyed forests and created deserts, but they also regenerated areas as well.  The question of their sustainability is a difficult one, mainly because of the population explosion within the last millennium.  I think some of the models of Asian civilization were sustainable, in their state of 2,000 years ago.  But things change.....

If you want a really good example of permaculture on the large scale, check out the civilizations of Brazil.  They literally made the Amazon forest what it is today, mostly from cultivating their forest garden agriculture model. They didn't destroy their ecosystem, and in fact, they may have had a hand in creating one of the most diverse biological areas on the planet.

I think the key is the amount of management to give decent efficiency and return without sacrificing sustainability.
 
Emerson White
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I don't think that is an appropriate test. A crop sustained by human effort can be sustained just as long as one that grows with out humans, so long as humans are always involved putting out that effort.

The Easter Islanders destroyed their habitat.

There was a wave of extinction of Megafauna as humans colonized, and following that there was harmony. It's not that the humans learned to live harmoniously, it's that the environment adapted. There is no telling what amazing varieties of fruit and vegetation have gone extinct in the wake of those megafauna losses, and demographics show that clearly lots of human tribes went out with the loss of their food.
 
Tyler Ludens
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There's new evidence the megafauna extinctions coincided with climate change and may not have been caused by humans.  The "overkill hypothesis" was invented by just one guy in the 1960s and then taken as gospel.

http://www.spacedaily.com/news/life-01zl.html
 
Tyler Ludens
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velacreations wrote:
If you want a really good example of permaculture on the large scale, check out the civilizations of Brazil.  They literally made the Amazon forest what it is today, mostly from cultivating their forest garden agriculture model. They didn't destroy their ecosystem, and in fact, they may have had a hand in creating one of the most diverse biological areas on the planet.


This was the case with the North American prairie ecosystem, which was a collaboration between humans, bison, and grasses (as well as many other plants of course). 

 
                                      
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I have cultivated persimmons growing right next to the local wild types.  In EVERY case, the cultivated plants produce more than the wild ones.  The same applies to my improved pawpaws, blueberries, raspberries, rice, and sunflowers. 

I have not sought to replace the natives with other species that might fit the niche better.  I have replaced the native with improved cultivars of the same species, and in every case so far, the improved stock produces better than the wild stock.

Indigenous Peoples around the world have always worked to improve the plants they use for food.  To use the Brazilian Culture as an example denies any effort by the forest experts in plant and habitat improvement.  Corn really is a good example here.  In North American, there were many type of corn available for the europeans to take back with them.  All of them were grown sustainably, and NONE of them were the wild type growing right along side the improved stock.
 
Abe Connally
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There was a wave of extinction of Megafauna as humans colonized

This theory doesn't match the evidence.  Several major South American civilizations predate the mass extinction by at least 10,000 years.  And it wasn't just megafuana, it also includes tons of species of insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and other non-food microfauna.  So, the modern perspective is that it was not necessarily a human-cased extinction.

In EVERY case, the cultivated plants produce more than the wild ones

What additional inputs and care do you give the cultivated versions?  Do the cultivated versions have any issues with disease, pests or any other ailments compared to their wild cousins?

All of them were grown sustainably

But with human attention, only.  As soon as the human hand is gone, so is the corn.  That is not very sustainable.  And is it efficient?  Many trees that are replaced by corn fields actually outproduce corn without human attention.  It may have been a better strategy to keep what they had instead of bring in a plant like corn.

I think improving stock is a great thing to do, but there is a limit.  We don't want to weaken our cultivated species in the name of greater production (which has happened with the majority of modern, cultivated stock)

To use the Brazilian Culture as an example denies any effort by the forest experts in plant and habitat improvement

No, actually, we are talking about their improvements, and that is the point.  They were able to improve things without destroying their environment, as the Amazon forest is evidence of their efforts.  So, we have an example of improving native stocks, but still keeping within the wild ecological web, thus creating a very stable and relatively efficient system.
 
Tyler Ludens
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velacreations wrote:
This theory doesn't match the evidence.  Several major South American civilizations predate the mass extinction by at least 10,000 years.  And it wasn't just megafuana, it also includes tons of species of insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and other non-food microfauna.  So, the modern perspective is that it was not necessarily a human-cased extinction.


Thank you.  I think we have to counter the "overkill hypothesis" whenever it is mentioned. 
 
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