The Organic advantage through the Lenses of the Eco-Index – Biodiversity
Welcome back! In this blog we will explore the advantage of organic through the biodiversity lens. Remember if you want to share your thoughts and comments we would be delighted to hear from you!
Biodiversity - So what does the Eco-Index have to say?
Currently classified as a ‘placeholder’ on the Eco-Index, the Eco-Index Working Group (EWG) promotes biodiversity in the following way:
As humans strive to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and scale of the production of the raw materials and finished products, there are often species which become victims of progress. This lens is intended to reflect this difficult to measure, but important to recognize, impact. Often the elimination or the pressuring of species can have ripple effects that go way beyond the immediate obvious impact.
For me, the emphasis on a ripple effect that can go way beyond the immediate or obvious impact is critical to keep in mind when considering biodiversity. As is the bigger picture and longer term impact of reducing biodiversity in terms of genetic material and consequently ecosystem complexity – ultimately by reducing biodiversity we increase dependency on chemicals and fossil fuels, and this in turn undermines the viability of agriculture.
The mention of biodiversity being difficult to measure is indeed also important to come to grips with.
Wikipedia hosts some very good reading on biodiversity (and has a huge reference section). The common, yet simple definition of biodiversity is the "totality of genes, species, and ecosystems of a region”. An advantage of this definition is that it encapsulates the traditional three levels at which biological variety has been identified: species diversity, ecosystem diversity, and genetic diversity.
How do we measure biodiversity?
Before coming to Textile Exchange I was part of a team responsible for the development and management of the Corporate Responsibility Index for the UK charity Business in the Community (BITC). For biodiversity we collaborated with an expert organisation - Wildlife Trust - to shape the Impact Area and Key Performance Indicators (KPI). KPIs are critical for gauging success of an organisations biodiversity management strategies and action plans but difficult to reduce to a common number.
For most environmental impact areas – or lenses - we want to be able to drill right down to quantifiable data based on a common measurement (KPI), compare against a benchmark, and gauge improvement. For biodiversity it is the same; it is certainly valuable to establish indicators of biodiversity and be able to quantify flora and fauna populations (i.e. via habitat surveys, species counts, etc) as evidence of biological diversification within a given area. And with biodiversity, as it is with other impact areas, it is also relevant to understand the setting or risk magnitude (for example, is it a sensitive ecosystem? Is biodiversity or specific species under threat? Are there wildlife corridors or breeding grounds close by that need preserving?). It is just as important to make sure any conservation or biodiversity management practice, in place to protect and enhance biodiversity (habitat conservation, species protection, seed banking, tree planting, etc), supports the allocated KPI(s).
Biodiversity – the organic advantage
There are many ways in which organic agriculture protects and enhances biodiversity. In fact land under organic agriculture is even considered a key performance indicator of biodiversity in itself. However, there is more work to be done on how we quantify the organic advantage in a way that is practical to measure impact, consistently. I’ve summarised a few of the organic advantages below - as background reading. One reason for identifying the organic advantage is so other forms of ‘more sustainable agriculture’ have a north star, and also because the preservation of genetic varieties is deeply valued in organic agriculture but tends to be much less valued in mainstream agriculture where optimising crop yields can sometimes be at odds with improving biodiversity.
Organic cotton agriculture:
- Protects local and indigenous flora – Organic agriculture encourages the use of border plants; sometimes to protect organic crops from spray drift or to act as pest traps.
- Encourages polycultures – Cotton is usually associated with monocultures. Textile Exchange research discovered an average of six other crops are likely to be grown on organic cotton farms. For example, nitrogen-fixing crops such as peanuts and pigeon pea are commonly rotated with cotton to improve soil fertility; sesame and marigold are grown as trap crops (as well as for oil and food), and grain crops are sometimes intercropped (between rows of cotton). In many cases food crops such as millet and sorghum are grown on organic cotton farms to improve food security for cotton growing households, and these also contribute to the survival of indigenous species and diversity.
- Uses the ‘web of life’ to keep pests under control Well established organic cotton farms enjoy ecological balance. This means pest populations are less likely to break out and when they do are potentially kept under control by other insects – such as the wasp parasite acts as a biological control of the cotton aphid.
- Protects ecosystems – including fauna - from poisoning and contamination Organic cotton agriculture eliminates toxic and persistent chemicals and replaces them with crop rotation, nutrients recycling, and botanicals, which equates to rich, complex, and safe ecosystems in the soil, and results in less risk of contaminating soils, surface and ground water, as well as protecting people and animals from exposure. The use of pesticides can affect the ability of the ecosystem to offer crop protection because many chemicals are broad spectrum eliminating the friendly fauna/microfauna as well as the pests.
- Encourages use of traditional and local seed varieties / genotypes There are 4 commercial species of cotton; with Upland (Gossypium hirsutum) now the dominant species; having spread to over 45 countries and accounting for over 90 percent of all cotton produced (International Cotton Trade). The majority of cotton is grown from hybrid seed and the open-pollinating ‘straight’ varieties are far less common these days. The latter are of particular importance to the interests of seed saving and seed sovereignty – and are now making a comeback.
These days, around 50 percent of cotton is produced from genetically modified (GMO) seed which is patented by a small number of consolidated seed companies. Whilst GMO cotton is increasing it is not permitted to be grown in some countries, or regions within countries (see our latest Farm & Fiber Report for list of countries) and of course never in organic production. Further, in some parts of the world, such as the Peruvian rainforest, tribal areas of Odisha, and other remote farming areas (as well as those not so isolated) there is a growing awareness and concern about the homogenisation of crop varieties and domination of various seed breeds.
In summary, there is no disputing that organic agriculture is literally based on biological diversity – and it will score well in the Eco-Index. The challenge is how we quantify this essential indicator of sustainability for the textile industry in a meaningful and pragmatic way.
Next blog: Last but not least ... Eco-Index lens - Landuse Intensity
Further reading on biodiversity
Biodiversity in organic and low-input farming systems http://www.biobio-indicator.org/deliverables/D22.pdf
Farmers as seed breeders and custodians http://www.twnside.org.sg/title2/susagri/susagri108.htm
Summary of the Organic Cotton Community discussion about “Seeds availability for organic cotton production”
Louis Bolk Institute - Farm Seed Opportunities http://www.louisbolk.org/research-2/agriculture/plant-breeding/farm-seed-opportunities-2/
Agricultural Biodiversity Is Essential for a Sustainable Improvement in Food and Nutrition Security http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/3/1/238
Impact of GM crops on biodiversity https://www.landesbioscience.com/journals/gmcrops/CarpenterGMC2-1.pdf
Out of Hand: Farmers Face the Consequences of a Consolidated Seed Industry (2009). Kristina Hubbard, National Family Farm Coalition http://farmertofarmercampaign.com/Out%20of%20Hand.FullReport.pdf
Pierre J., Hofs J. (2010). Astylus atromaculatus (Coleoptera: Melyridae): Abundance and Role in Pollen Dispersal in Bt and Non-Bt Cotton in South Africa. Environ. Entomol. 39(5): 1523-1531
Chetna Organic seed sovereignty: http://www.chetnaorganic.org.in/thrust-areas/seed-soverignty
Appachi Cotton Trails: http://goumbook.com/the-cotton-trail-a-wonderful-eco-tour-in-south-india/; http://www.appachicotton.com/