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1 January 2011 Nature's Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation, and Food Sovereignty
Stephen R. Gliessman
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Food-system sustainability is intricately linked with the quality of the landscapes in which agriculture is imbedded. In this remarkable book, Nature's Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation, and Food Sovereignty, the authors describe how linking ecological theory, conservation, and food sovereignty movements can make any landscape's multifunctionality of agricultural components the foundation for sustainable management of the natural and agroecosystem components of that landscape. With an emphasis on multifunctionality, the book describes how food production systems can be designed and managed such that they produce food and also provide the multiple environmental services that we expect from natural landscapes (e.g., water production, soil protection, carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, etc.).


The two most distinctive (and valuable) concepts presented in the book are (1) migration rates are very likely more important than extinction rates as species move from one “natural” fragment of the landscape mosaic to another, and thus the agroecological conditions of the farmed parts of the mosaic are as important as the protected parts for conservation purposes; and (2) the full potential for linking agroecosystems and natural ecosystems can be realized only with fundamental changes in the nature of agriculture itself. Agroecology must be used to design and manage agriculture in diverse landscapes; this is currently best done by the networks of small farmers and farmer-based social movements that are investing in alternative farming practices, developing alternative market relationships, and striving for self-sufficiency and food sovereignty. Social justice becomes as important an aspect of landscape multifunctionality as biodiversity protection.

The book's coauthors, Ivette Perfecto, John Vandermeer, and Angus Wright, bring together complementary knowledge and experience in building their argument for linking “nature's matrix” with human needs and experience. Perfecto is a professor of natural resources at the University of Michigan and has extensive experience on biodiversity in agricultural landscapes, especially in the tropics, as well as issues related to sustainable development and political ecology. Vandermeer is a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at the same university, and is one of the world's experts in the ecology of diversity and species interactions, and how such concepts can be used in designing complex cropping systems. Wright is emeritus professor of environmental studies at Cal State University, Sacramento, and a well-known expert in international environmental problems and social justice, especially in food systems. Their book is a unique combination of perspectives that offers the reader a revolutionary way of viewing landscape diversity. It begins with an overview of the concept of the “environmental matrix,” and why it is important to view it as a multifunctional space that combines ecological and social values. A clearly presented ecological argument explains why biodiversity matters, yet also addresses that ecological theory and political realities are too often in conflict. The “agricultural matrix” is presented in an historical context as well as described as an element of new social movements focused on linking agroecology and biodiversity. Case studies drawn from the authors' vast field experiences are used to illustrate how landscapes are equally historical artifacts, hot spots of conservation, and centers for grassroots social movements. These include examples from the Brazilian Amazon; world coffee and cacao agroecosystems; and diverse, small-scale food production systems, with a strong emphasis on the tropics.

The integration of ecological, agricultural, and social-movement arguments for the establishment of a new paradigm for managing landscapes is perhaps the most valuable aspect of Nature's Matrix. Using what might be called an interdisciplinary approach, the book provides detailed ecological evidence for why diversity matters and how it works in diverse habitats. All chapters are thoroughly referenced and footnoted for those who want to go deeper. The authors present excellent examples that describe how diversity is equally important in all aspects of the landscape mosaic. Since most landscapes are inhabited and altered by humans to varying degrees—and will most likely continue to be and even increase in the future—this kind of agroecosystem design and management can become only more important. Examples of grassroots movements for food sovereignty and self-sufficiency in the book point out how best to ensure that the human footprint will be sustainable rather than destructive, both in ecological and social terms. Rather than looking at what has too often been seen as opposing goals (conservation vs. agriculture), the book offers a path for ensuring protection of vital environmental services while producing food and agricultural products in environmentally and socially just and sustainable ways.

Nature's Matrix is an important attempt to develop a new way of thinking about the roles of conservationists and conservation science in promoting and protecting the multifunctionality of threatened landscapes and the species that occupy them. The book is extremely well written and accessible, with theory and practice balanced throughout. The authors do not shy away from the hard questions about social justice, social change, and political realities in both the conservation and agricultural worlds. Instead, they call for a new paradigm that unites the two. Of course, this requires new thinking on the part of both worlds, but the framework is presented for those willing to explore the new paradigm.

Stephen R. Gliessman "Nature's Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation, and Food Sovereignty," BioScience 61(1), 77-78, (1 January 2011).
Published: 1 January 2011
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