INTERPRETING LOCAL BIODIVERSITY: AN ORGANIC PERSPECTIVE

Local Biodiversity Action Plans are currently being compiled for all regions of the U.K. as a result of recommendations made by Agenda 21, which outlined principles and suggestions for local sustainability arising out of the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit 1991. This process involves identifying the wildlife and flora of each region so that judgements can be made relating to the conservation of existing genetic biodiversity and ensuring that current populations can be preserved and enhanced across the full range of species extant. Whilst fully supporting the aims of this exercise, no-one doubts that the practical implementation of these findings will be immensely complicated and potentially contentious. Concern has also been expressed that these surveys will concentrate upon the broad natural environment to the exclusion of smaller scale aspects of biodiversity under the control of individuals. In comparison with natural or wild ecosystems, cultivated spaces often contain a wider spectrum of genetic diversity, in terms of flora, fauna and also micro-flora and fauna. Private gardens and public plantings are often characterised by exotic and imported species, which are not representative of the region's naturally occurring biodiversity. However, a proportion of domestic horticulture can be considered as legitimate for these studies, such as the preservation of locally-adaptedgenelines and landraces. Inadequate consideration of this category of eco-systems would produce an incomplete assessment of local biodiversity. Biodiversity surveys which do account for this human-influenced gardening dimension will be more likely to provide a comprehensive picture which addresses the urban and suburban contexts, which may be seen as less of a priority, but possibly contain the widest diversity and the greatest potential to either enhance or disrupt broadscale ecosystems. In addition, inclusion of this category of space would involve the majority of the population, both in the survey of existing species and future management for maximising biodiversity.
Organic horticulture and agriculture is founded upon the balances and synergies achievable between wildlife and human activities, for mutual benefit. Compared to the mechanised, industrial pattern which has dominated British agricultural production to a much greater extent than in most other countries, organiculture minimises the negative impact of intensive production on surrounding ecosystems and has an important role in healing and repairing land and ecosystems damaged by the excessively destructive techniques of standard agricultural practice. The aim of this local biodiversity initiative could be defined as the attempt to maximise the range and quality of ecosystems within the perameters dictated by the ecological niches available in a given area. From the perspective of organic food growing, this definition could be extended to include maximising the number of species and varieties, and ensuring continuity of cropping over the maximum season possible at a specific latitude and in a given situation. The organic grower requires to produce a sufficient quantity of high quality crops for his or her own consumption and secondly for market. In the context of organic cultivation, it is possible to engineer and maintain a massive range of specific micro- ecosystems, such as the manipulation of soil conditions to prepare for the requirements of all the crops feasible. The organic cultivator attempts to design systems which contain as many multiple function elements, performing several different tasks at the same time, such as the inclusion of bulky organic matter in the soil, to provide structural, biological and chemical improvements. In addition, organic methods promote symbioses which balance and integrate different stages of the food-chains and nutrient cycles involved in soil, plant and animal ecology, for instance the mychorrisal associations between fungal hyphae and plant roots which are critical to plant metabolism, or the successive progressions of different micro-organisms within processes such as composting. Organic systems could also be categorised as quasi-natural, since they are to a greater degree self-sustaining, requiring minimal intervention on the part of the grower; such as harnessing the potential of a fertile, healthy soil and ecosystem to prevent pests and diseases instead of constantly intervening to suppress the symptoms of underlying inadequacies in the growing system, obviating the need to use [or abuse] herbicides, fungicides and pesticides which can cause far-reaching ecological disruption. Organic growers have three important roles to play in maintaining and increasing the bank of genetic diversity available both regionally and nationally. As seed collectors, organicultivators are competent to preserve the legacy of historic, heritage and heirloom varieties which have been developed over generations to suit the various requirements of and conditions available to gardeners and market gardeners. It is generally accepted that organically grown seed has superior long-term viability compared to strains fed by chemicals. Secondly, varieties which have been reproduced for more than two generations in a specific area will have been incrementally adapted genetically to suit local and regional conditions. When this has happened over a historical timescale, the resultant breed can establish itself as a distinct variety or land-race, which needs to be pollinated in isolation from its close relatives and ancestors to preserve its characteristics. This process of natural selection can be enhanced and improved by careful selection to obtain varieties with particular properties such as bulk of crop or early maturation. A third category of genetic diversity can also be achieved by local growers, referring to the breeding and crossing of distinct, new varieties of plants, either by open or by protected cross-pollination. Taking all these reasons for the value of small-scale local biodiversity into account, Sheffield Organic Food Initiative has proposed that any measures for the protection and promotion of genetic diversity should include a collection of local seedstock, which could act as a seedbank or library available to growers in the area, preserving varieties which might otherwise become extinct. This proposal could involve a public appeal for regionally distinct and hierloom varieties which may have been grown locally by private growers for decades. Facilities and funds would be required to grow out, test, identify, compare, multiply and re-distribute stocks.   Extract from SOFI - its formation - 1998


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