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  • Nicole Vuong

Burn to Grow, or Burn to Harm?

Before we begin, I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Nicole, and this is my first article here as a pop up writer for U-Turn the Earth. I’m so happy to be a part of this team! Now, on to the article. :)


"Pile burning on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest" by Forest Service - Northern Region is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

Introduction

When we think of the word “farming,” a romanticized image of a red barn, pig pen, and field of wheat may come to mind. That’s what I imagine personally, as evoked by the childhood song “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”. In reality, agriculture looks drastically different all around the world. Take Brazil for example: slash and burn agriculture is a prevalent farming practice there, with no barn or pig pen in sight. Today’s article will cover what exactly slash and burn is, its pros and cons, and ways YOU can help make agriculture more eco-friendly.


Hold it… Slash and Burn? What’s that?

I’m glad you asked. Actually, the article forced you to ask but I’ll let you know either way. Slash and burn is a form of agriculture in which a field of dense vegetation (such as a rainforest patch) is cut down and set on fire. The nutrient-rich organic matter that arises from this burning then fertilizes soil that farmers use to plant their crops [1]. Once the soil’s nutrients are depleted, farmers abandon these plots of infertile cropland to let the soil “heal” itself over a couple of years by naturally re-accumulating nutrients. Because slash and burn shifting cultivation requires vast amounts of uninhabited land, it usually takes place in areas with lots of vegetation and low population density, such as “central Africa, northern South America and southeast Asia” [2].


Where Slash and Burn Is Used In The World


What are the Different Sides to Slash and Burn?

There are various pros and cons to be considered when discussing this particular farming practice. I’ll start with the reasons why slash and burn may pose as a challenge to the environment:

  • Potential Threat to Biodiversity: As you might be able to predict, burning down wildland for crops can contribute to species loss. Species are at risk for extinction when they are unable to relocate to a similar habitat or adapt to the stresses of a new environment, as seen in Madagascar: 94% of all lemur species there are endangered due to habitat loss brought upon by slash and burn farming [3]! When a species isn’t there to fill its niche (role) in the ecosystem, other species are susceptible to becoming endangered, such as those that rely on that specific species as a food source. Therefore, slash and burn has the potential to create imbalanced ecosystems and destroy natural biodiversity.


"lemur" by Mathias Appel is licensed under CC0 1.0


  • People are Unintentionally Harmed: For instance, in Indonesia where slash and burn is used for profitable palm oil business, uncontrolled burning pollutes the air to toxic levels. The Air Quality Index (AQI) reached 2000 in Palangkaraya in September of 2019: 1700 points higher than the threshold for “hazardous” [4]! This wasn’t the first occurrence of dangerous pollution levels in Indonesia, however: in 2015, a crisis caused by excessive burning caused 500,000 people to suffer “respiratory ailments” and cost the country $16 billion to remedy [4]. Clearly, slash and burn has tangible consequences in people’s “daily lives” as well.



Although the above ramifications are certainly undesirable, there are also environmentally positive outcomes to slash and burn agriculture:

  • Organic > Artificial: The burnt remnants of organic matter are used as natural fertilizer that sufficiently replaces artificial fertilizers, which in turn decreases the risk of water pollution caused by leaching of nitrogen or phosphate-based synthetic fertilizers [5]. Moreover, controlled fires are able to eliminate weeds and pests, thus slashing the need for harmful man-made pesticides and herbicides (at least for the short term growing period) [6]. Perhaps it’s somewhat ironic, but slash and burn does indeed protect the environment in its own way, namely by eliminating some agricultural processes that are not eco-friendly.


  • The Trend of Declining Biodiversity Isn't Universal: Interestingly, there are exceptions to the aforementioned “loss of biodiversity” trend associated with slash and burn. In Hin Lad Nai forest of Thailand, for example, shifting cultivation actually contributes to a “healthy ecosystem,” as indicated by its thriving bee population, nutrient-rich soil, and rich biodiversity [6]. This is definitely a “plus” right now since bee populations, which farmers are heavily reliant on for crop pollination, are decreasing all over the world. However, there is one major caveat: the agriculture practiced by those in Hin Lad Nai is sustainable; only small patches of forest are used at a time and sufficient time is allotted for used land to “regenerate”, unlike the poorly-controlled mass burning we see in Indonesia.



THE Question Everyone Has (or should have): Does Slash and Burn Cause Climate Change?

That’s a tricky question with conflicting answers. Depending on who you ask, slash and burn 100% causes global warming or barely contributes to it. According to climate scientist William Ruddiman, slash and burn, even from thousands of years ago, gradually caused greenhouse gas levels to rise unhealthily. Other leading scientists criticize Ruddiman’s study, claiming that primitive slash and burn practices did not significantly add to Earth’s global warming, citing the Industrial Revolution as the “real” culprit [7]. Some even claim that slash and burn, when practiced in a sustainable manner, actually “absorbs significantly more carbon than it releases” [6]. In other words, slash and burn might not even cause a major increase in carbon dioxide emissions, a risk factor for climate change, rising sea levels, air pollution, and a slew of other environmental issues. This is an area of study that has yet to be thoroughly investigated, so we'll need more research to formulate an informed position about this in the future.


What Can I Do To Help?

Fortunately for you, there are plenty of ways to encourage sustainable agriculture!

  • Cliche, But Look Into Organic Produce: Sustainable doesn’t equal organic (plenty of produce is not organic but still sustainably grown); buying organic simply increases the chance of your produce being eco-friendly.


  • Buy Seasonally: Produce that doesn’t have to travel as far won’t use up as much fossil fuel! If you haven’t already, check out Carol’s post “4 Ways Your Next Grocery Haul Can Be More Environmentally Friendly” for an in-depth explanation.


  • Support Fair Trade: Feeling good about being an ethical consumer isn’t the only benefit here—fair trade certification ensures that certain pesticides are banned, buffer zones around conservation areas are respected, and water for irrigation is used responsibly [8].

  • NOTE: Fair trade also “bans the use of virgin forest land” [8].


Regardless of where you stand on this topic, please keep an open mind about ongoing research surrounding slash and burn agriculture and continue to love our planet. Thanks for reading!

Note: Bracketed numbers next to certain texts (e.g. [1], [2], etc.) indicate that the aforementioned information in the article is derived from the corresponding source in the References below.


References

[1] Slash and Burn Agriculture. (2015, March 11). Retrieved August 13, 2020, from http://www.ecologic.org/actions-issues/challenges/slash-burn- agriculture

[2] Stief, C. (2019, August 12). How Slash and Burn Agriculture Affects Geography. Retrieved August 10, 2020, from https://www.thoughtco.com/ slash-and-burn-agriculture-p2-1435798

[3] Romberg, C. (2020, July 11). Madagascar is Burning: Meet the Conservation Heroes Working to Bring the Forests Back. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.lemurconservationnetwork.org/madagascar-is- burning/

[4] Indonesia haze: Why do forests keep burning? (2019, September 16). Retrieved August 11, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia- 34265922

[5] Gilani, N. (2016, October 07). The Effects of Synthetic Fertilizers. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://homeguides.sfgate.com/effects- synthetic-fertilizers-45466.html

[6] Raygorodetsky, G. (2016, March 08). These Farmers Slash and Burn Forests-But in a Good Way. Retrieved August 12, 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/03/160303-thailand-farmers-slash-and-burn-forests-climate-environment/

[7] Erdman, S. L. (n.d.). Study: Global warming sparked by ancient farming methods. Retrieved August 10, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2009/

TECH/science/08/18/ancient.global.warming/index.html

[8] Leibenluft, J. (2008, October 21). Are fair-trade products really more environmentally friendly? Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://slate.com/

technology/2008/10/are-fair-trade-products-really-more-environmentally-friendly.html

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