Small, family-owned farms maybe the answer to food security and preservation of biodiversity in tropical rain forests, two University of Michigan researchers have opined.
In many tropical zones around the world, small family farms can match or exceed the productivity of industrial-scale operations, according to U-M researchers Ivette Perfecto and John Vandermeer.
At the same time, smaller diversified farms are more likely to help preserve biodiversity in tropical regions undergoing massive amounts of deforestation, Perfecto and Vandermeer note.
"Most of the tropical forest that's left is fragmented, and what you have are patches of forest surrounded by agriculture," said Perfecto, a professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment.
"If you want to maintain biodiversity in those patches of forest, then the key is to allow organisms to migrate between the patches," she said.
"And small-scale family farms that adopt sustainable agricultural technologies are more likely to favor migration of species than a huge, monocultural plantation of soybeans or sugar cane or some other crop," she added.
The U-M researchers propose the matrix quality model, which according to them, provides a solid foundation for conservation planning in tropical regions.
If you think of the fragments of remaining tropical forest as islands in an ocean of agriculture, the ocean is what Perfecto and Vandermeer call the matrix - it's the area between the patches of undisturbed natural habitat.
A high-quality matrix is one that enables plants and animals to migrate between the remaining patches of forest, increasing the likelihood that a given species will be able to survive, helping to preserve biodiversity.
Small, family-owned farms that use agroecological techniques come closest to mimicking natural forest habitat, thereby creating corridors that allow plants and animals to migrate between forest fragments.
Agroecological techniques can include the use of biological controls instead of pesticides, the use of compost or other organic matter instead of chemical fertilizers, and the use of agroforestry methods, which involve growing crops beneath a canopy of trees or growing crops mixed with fruit trees such as mangoes or avocados.
Vandermeer said he advocates the break-up of large-scale farms in the tropics, as well as incentives to encourage "a large number of small-scale farmers, each managing the land to the best of his or her ability, using agroecological techniques."