An emerging community of “vinecologists” sees opportunity amidst the trellises: These ecologically minded researchers and vintners see a chance to strike a smarter balance between agriculture and conservation and to pioneer strategies that can deliver a crisp chardonnay with a bouquet of biodiversity. — David Malakoff, science writer
One of the biggest challenges of the next decade is how to maintain the health of ever-shrinking natural ecosystems amid expanding human-dominated landscapes. At an unprecedented scale, the earth is becoming a vast agricultural field surrounded by enormous urban footprints. Without doubt, we need both cities and crops to survive! And cities and crops require expanses of natural ecosystems to supply fresh water, pollinators and other ecological services.
So an ultimate goal of modern conservation biology is to ensure that the health of natural systems is sustained in order to guarantee human health. That is no simple task! Although overused, the term “sustainability” is an apt watchword for the future; the best solutions are those where “progress” does not come at the expense of the next generation.
Innovative examples are emerging that illustrate a healthy balance between human and natural systems. One is coffee, which originated in Ethiopia as an understory crop beneath the canopy of native tropical forests. When the forest overstory is retained, Ethiopian farmers not only produce better-tasting coffee, but also conserve their local biodiversity.
In 2014, I will travel to Ethiopia as part of a Fulbright ambassadorship, to work with local biologists at Jimma University designing biodiversity surveys for their coffee ecosystems, to ultimately expand sustainable practices. Jimma, Ethiopia, is the actual birthplace of coffee, and its harvest arguably tastes better than any other coffee in the world.
The future success of coffee agriculture, however, depends on sustaining local biodiversity and growing coffee in the shade of a native forest canopy; this produces the best-tasting and most sustainable coffee. Knowledge about Ethiopia’s coffee ecosystem will create an economic model that is also sustainable, and will ensure the future supply of java to millions of coffee drinkers worldwide. (Coffee lovers, take note: Be sure to ask for shade-grown coffee when you purchase your daily cuppa!)
Another forward-thinking agriculture is “vino ecology.” The global wine industry has expanded by leaps and bounds, with an estimated 7.5 million hectares of vineyards producing over 30 billion bottles of wine. Wine grapes grow best in relatively unique habitats; some (such as Mediterranean scrub) harbor rare species.
Consequently, this agricultural industry recognizes its potential threat to biodiversity and is taking action. One Virginia winery is planting a native North American cultivar instead of the more commonly grown Eurasian grapes. By using native stock, the vines are more resistant to insect pests and fungal diseases, and require less chemical protection.
Other vineyards are altering their landscapes to retain wildlife-friendly culverts, stream courses and borders of native plants. Some conservation-minded vintners are returning to natural corks instead of plastic or screw-tops. Cork oaks (trees from which cork is sustainably harvested) are considered a global hot spot for certain wildlife, and the cork-making industry is historically very wildlife-friendly.
In the very near future, agricultural practices will increasingly face rigorous standards of sustainability that integrate economics, environment and health. We consumers need to insist on landscape conservation practices that will ensure an affordable and healthy dinner table for future generations.
Meg Lowman, a longtime Sarasota-based scientist and educator, is chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences.
Originally posted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.