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Humans as Keystone species?

Updated: Apr 30, 2022

The potential of Farmers as Keystone Species in an ecosystem of change

I’ve come to believe that many of the environmental debates and discussions emerging today all relate back to a fundamental age-old question which is both deeply philosophy and urgently pragmatic: What are our roles and responsibilities as a human species as part of Earth?

Historically we have, as seasonal omnivores, played eco-systemic roles in balancing populations through eating what is plentiful in a given season, and changing our diet due to the context of our landscape. We have also taken roles as stewards, seed spreaders, fertilisers of soil, stabilisers, regenerators, and more recently: engineers, farmers, cultivators and dare I say it – parasites . However, this is not a doom & gloom analysis of humans as takers and destroyers, but a dialogue of restoration potential. Re-framing the above question in my particular area of interest and adding a basis of hope to the questions assumptions, I would like to address this related question:

What is the potential of farmers (and stewards) as keystone species in an ecosystem of change?

The foundation of hope to this question is assumed in the word Keystone. A keystone species is often defined by its ability to create and maintain the ecosystems that allow its own and other life’s flourishing. This type of species will often have a disproportionate effect on its landscape relative to its population. We homo sapiens belongs to the genus ‘Homo’ along with other species which are now all extinct (such as the Neanderthals), all of which played vital ecosystem roles as keystone species. Another familiar keystone species is the Beaver, actively designing and creating diverse dam habitats that host not only the beavers but a range of species whilst benefiting water, air and plant life in multiple ways.

Here’s the catch – keystone species can have a detrimental effect if unbalanced, unchecked or if they diverge from natural patterns… does this story sound familiar? This is true of humans in modern history but also of grazing herbivores, one of the great keystone species of our planet. Grazing herbivores such as cattle play a vital role in soil health and fertility, making way for abundant parkland and woodland life. This remains true if the species remains nomadic or semi-nomadic, moving often to benefit new land through regulation (and movement stimulation) from predators and natural constraints such as water and fodder availability – the same forces that kept/keep nomadic humans moving. Desertification and land degradation often occur due to either no grazing or overgrazing. This is well evidenced in both deserted lands of America’s industrial feedlots (overgrazing) and widespread desertification in Africa from removal of herbivores (no grazing). Here’s another nuance – humans have a choice to be a keystone species or a parasite, and we also affect (either by limiting or empowering) other species to be destructive or beneficial – evidenced by how we design farming systems for example.

The waxing and waning of keystone species alongside the related human activity has changed the face of our landscapes over history. Britain’s ancient landscape is regarded as temperate savanna and diverse parkland characterised by a balance between grazing herbivores and also large areas of forest cover (the UK was naturally 70% forest covered, of which 8% remains). Restoration agriculture asks how can we mimic this natural diversity whilst also providing the needs of the keystone species and its fellow beings?

To answer this and my original question, its necessary to briefly look at how we have come from temperate savannah, oak savannah, wetland and ancient woodland in the UK to a simplified landscape of monocultures, soil erosion, over-grazing and pollution underpinned by an extractivist profit-centric economy. Agriculture came to the UK around 6,000 years ago bringing the decline of gatherer-hunter societies and nomadic life. This shifted the balance form humans as keystone species to humans as engineers. Both ‘roles’ design and impact their landscape in significant and disproportional ways, but the former is regenerative whilst the latter tends to be degenerative (note the emphasis: it is possible to be keystone engineers and regenerative designers). Machinery and fossil fuels allowed the acceleration of extraction to exceed the rate of regeneration, and thus the outcome is degradation of the soil and ecosystems we rely upon. The landscape now has also been frozen in time as the human-centric landscapes of monoculture are no longer dynamic evolving ecosystems but factory like processes – involving both animal and plant exploitation. And thus we are entering a new geological era – the Anthropocene, where humans are having such impact on nature that it affects the underlying geology and ecology of life irreversibly with species extinctions and tipping points.

The Anthropocene framed in this shadow can be seen as rooted in the mindset of ‘humans as parasites’ and humans as separate from nature. Whilst the concept is useful in emphasising the severity and urgency of where we are and where we are likely heading (socio-ecological catastrophe), it is nonetheless limited in that it originates and reinforces a dualistic mindset of humans as some accidental species or virus on earth. The Anthropocene can be reframed in light of a regenerative perspective, without disregarding the urgent need for solutions but rather creating the fertile soil whereby these solutions will emerge and flourish. This posits humans and farmers once again as a keystone species, with the Anthropocene indeed being the era where we have significant geological and earthly impacts – but these impacts are restorative and mutually beneficial.

Holistic restoration asks the question – if we are not separate from nature, what are we? This is perhaps an even more foundational question than the one I began with. From this comes the suggestion that we have regenerative and symbiotic roles to play, which requires waking up to these responsibilities and the beauty of them (note the importance of the verb to play!). Specifically, the role of farmers in this ecosystem of regeneration is critical in the healing of lands, water and life. Farmers can reclaim the title of keystone species by creating dynamic mosaics in nature, reversing the simplification and industrialisation of our landscapes. This doesn’t boil down to a single land management, rewilding, agroecology or regenerative farming approach, but rather a diversity of these and other stewardship practices nested in unique social and ecospheric contexts.

Of course it is not just the role of the farmer that has responsibility as a keystone species, for anyone who eats food is intrinsically tied to the type of farming (and landscape) they support (/vot£ for), as is any actor making economic or political decisions (which is everyone, but some with disproportionate power). Farmers have more leverage power than they have been made to imagine. A potential keystone of keystone species in the era of regeneration, farmers can (if supported) steward the land and cultivate nutritious food in restorative ways. This doesn’t need to be a trade-off between ecological, social and economic aims as it too often has been. Broadening the concept of regeneration means widening regenerative agriculture to include the blossoming of multiple forms of capital: social, natural and economic. This means that farmers are rewarded one way or another with a respected and well-paid livelihood whilst being able to provide affordable food for local communities nested in an ever-restoring landscape. Another way the concept and practice of regenerative agriculture is being broadened is through the weaving of rewilding and restoration farming which aims to mimic the diverse savannah, grazing herbivores, woodlands and plant life that once blessed the UK, whilst facilitating a rich seasonal diet from these lands.

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