Farms As Sanctuaries In The Nature-Positive Economy

September 15, 2020

Farms As Sanctuaries In The Nature-Positive Economy

Ecosystem engineers (lyrebirds, to be more precise) have worked the soil and litter throughout this landscape in the Blue Mountains Australia, doubtless for millions of years, with fossil remains in one Australian museum going back 15 million years.  Gifted with powerful claws, incredible powers of mimicry and extraordinary birdsong, they are frequent 'working wanderers' seemingly oblivious as I have witnessed, to being observed here at close range.

A preferred spot is around old apple trees, on a terrace located near dwellings, where they move copious amounts of soil and litter searching for food, and yet the aged, growth-covered apple trees survive - even thrive. They also roam through the expansive surrounding bush and forest floor, in this World Heritage region, making profound changes to the ground layer they traverse.  Our landscape would be vastly different without them.

While not the only ecosystem engineers in the world (think beavers in North America) lyrebirds do move more soil and litter than any other digging animals and interestingly are important for creating through their scratching, forest firebreaks, reducing the likelihood and intensity of bushfires. It has been estimated that just one lyrebird, through its foraging, will displace approximately 11 dump trucks of litter and soil in a single year.  What sort of economic value, then, could be placed on this sort of activity? 'Incalculable' comes to mind!  Many of these unique birds fell victim to the 2019/20 catastrophic bushfires in Australia. Every surviving lyrebird is precious.

As we move forward embracing 'not-business-as-usual' strategies for addressing climate change, work to prevent future pandemics and acknowledge the United Nations SDGs  for a just world, it is time for creatures such as the lyrebird, and all other lifeforms we share this planet with, to be given the status they deserve, through extensive and far-reaching adoption of a nature-positive economy: A global symbiosis with Nature.

Farming and the way we produce food will play an important role in this transformation. Food justice and social justice are intertwined. Respect for nature is part of social justice, part of farming.

The Nature Action Agenda recommends three priority systems to focus on as we lead our global economies and society in a new direction for a nature-positive world: Food, land and ocean use; extractives and energy; infrastructure and the built environment. These are then catalysts for ecosystems protection and restoration (particularly forests and wetlands) counteracting nature loss and climate breakdown, while creating jobs and rural livelihoods at the same time.

The World Economic Forum's Future of Nature and Business Policy Companion cites some specific economic examples, such as restoring degraded forests generating between $7 and $30 for every $1 invested, and requiring a low-skilled, labour-intensive workforce at a time when as a result of Covid19 there will be millions of job losses. Natural forests store 40 times more carbon than plantation equivalents, are keepers of significant biodiversity, so obviously of more worth intact than removed. In these extreme weather times, it is also worth noting that mangrove forests generate more than $80 billion per year protecting coastal areas from flooding.

This document goes on further to recommend stimulating more resource-efficient food systems, supporting diversification away from diets based on resource-intensive animal proteins, such as embracing plant-based and laboratory-cultured proteins. We know private capital is investing heavily in these alternatives, with a potential for 30 million new jobs by 2030.  Adoption and acceptance of alternative proteins by the consumer, especially through the Covid19 pandemic, is at an all-time high.

A shift is underway. Industrial animal agriculture is being recognized for the ailing juggernaut it is. Farm sanctuaries are emerging, offering a vital hospicing role by taking in unwanted/surplus farm animals, aiding those wishing to protect rare breeds, assisting landholders transition to plant-protein production where suitable. Rewilding programs, green care (arranged formal beneficial interactions with nature, therapeutic horticulture, animal-assisted therapy) also form part of this movement as do other diverse initiatives allowing the animals to just 'be' while providing new forms of cultural tourism in some instances, community good in others. With all this comes the revival  of family farms, firmly-embedded in the future.

Organisations such as Refarm'd are working with farmers to transition from milk to production of plant-based drinks, converting existing farmland into animal sanctuaries.  It is a new business model, helping to keep people on their land, generating an income, while moving away from a highly resource-consuming industry.

On an old dairy farm in the United Kingdom, a rewilding specialist and farmer, has reintroduced thousands of water vole and later dozens of beavers, 2 keystone species he has worked with for 25 years in an attempt to rewild Britain's waterways. After 400 years absence, the beavers are back, transforming rivers into dams an channels that increase populations of fish, amphibians an other wildlife. Other animals are being rewilded here and next year storks will be released. Once a conventional farm, gradually livestock have been reduced, fences removed with the ultimate aim to later remove all commercial livestock.

Rewilding Britain believe allowing trees to naturally establish over huge areas could be more effective and far less expensive than actual treeplanting.

Adding more viability to this idea is the fact that most sheep farming in the UK is not profitable without subsidies. Farmers could instead be paid for the carbon storage generated in allowing native trees to return to their land.

On the other side of the globe in Australia, said to have one of the largest remaining wilderness areas on the planet, with a diverse assemblage of endemic species, areas once occupied by cattle and sheep farms are being transformed into wildlife sanctuaries  - and also tourist destinations. In South Australia at Arkaba Conservancy in the Ikara-Flinders Ranges, what was once a sheep station has been completely destocked and turned into a 60,000 acre wildlife conservancy. The original homestead is used as a lodge for visitors to stay and enjoy a truly personalised, hosted outback experience and stunning star-gazing at night. Prior to European occupation the Indigenous nations on these lands, the Adnyamathanha 'people of the rock' lived in harmony with nature.

Unprecedented 2019/2020 bushfires in Australia saw over a billion animals killed and more than 45 million acres of land burnt. There is much work to be done. Only 11.5% of the Australian landmass has some form of security as a protected area and our mammal and near extinctions are among the worst in the world.

Jumping back to the Northern Hemisphere again, slightly smaller-scale at 1,300 acres,  a regenerative farm in  Western Vermont, USA has 107 rescued ducks considered  farm partners. This farm produces nuts, hemp, perennial vegetables and fruit.  The ducks live out their lives naturally foraging in the orchard eating slugs, insects, trampling weeds and aerating the soil with their bills,while their droppings fertilise the land.

It is time to take a giant, cognitive leap, and think of ALL farms as sanctuaries - not just the purpose-created ones. What's required is a change in mindset, as nature-centred elements are adopted. The long-term economic benefits appear to be endless.  It could simply start with a destocking regime, a designation of areas for rewilding, a commitment to be an énabler', allowing nature to do her work - even specifically reintroducing suitable native vegetation as a more sustainable food source where deemed appropriate.

Native plants in Australia like Old Man Saltbush - rich in antioxidants, minerals and protein - come to mind. This hardy native perennial is a salt accumulator, aids absorption  of water into the soil and is also very efficient at storing Co2. Both the seeds and leaves are edible. The leaves can be enjoyed blanched, sauteed, wrapped around other food or in salads, even dried to be used as a herb/salt sprinkle. It is commonly used today as a livestock grazing plant. Reducing livestock populations frees up this valuable native plant for human consumption.

Native soybeans also grow on this continent (Glycine species) with a number common in Grassy Box Woodlands. They are very hardy, show resistance to soybean rust and being deep-rooted perennials, have potential for combating salinity. Scientists need to study and collect native soy beans from diverse populations to find out more about their disease resistance, another reason why remnant areas still growing these soybeans complete with their native plants and animals intact, should be respected.

An excellent business model promoting the growing demand for Australian native produce is in place via the Native Harvest Initiative, established by The Australian Super Food Co. The NHI offers services such as site and farm assessments, feasiblity assessments, ongoing advice in regard to cultivation, crop cultivation/nutrition, harvest and post harvest handling. NIH supports Indigenous communities find ways to increase their returns from wild harvesting, explore how to increase supply, while respecting traditional harvesting practises. This initiative helps Indigenous communities and farmers to increase supply. Australian native produce has sustained Indigenous Australians for over 70,000 years, and as a result has adapted to this unique continent, requiring no pesticides or fungicides and less water.

There is a huge demand for Australian native produce around the world and in a number of examples, produce is more profitable than traditional crops.

 Mentioned here are a handful of possibilities. The surface has only been scratched.  Multiplied globally and we have limitless potential.


Can we take the necessary, giant leap?? It seems there really is no other choice. We must L E A P!


Postscript:  Magic happened during the writing of this article with lyrebirds singing and foraging at close range outdoors, to the point where the article was put on hold for some closer watching and listening: The lyrebird video is a small fraction of that experience.

The writer's property, Cloudlands,  is a member, Humane Society International's Wildlife Land Trust. HSI's mission is to create a global sanctuary system based on the principle of humane stewardship. Globally, there are 1.8 million acres of privately-held properties in Australia, Canada, South Africa, Berlize, Romania, Jamaica, India and Indonesia that are part of this Wildlife Land Trust.


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