By Petter I. Larsson

The current food-chain is fragile, which has been made clear during the covid-19 pandemic as well as the Suez Canal obstruction (in March 2021), which affected the global shipping of commodities. Changed conditions such as a pandemic or disturbance of global trade risk leading to shortages in food at a global scale. Parallel to the fragile food-chain is agriculture, today practiced on a large-scale with monocultural fields. This industrial agriculture has negatively affected biodiversity, at a global scale, but it has also resulted in fragile ecosystems to a degree where pests, erosion, and a shifting climate could lead to food shortages at a global scale as well.

Cultural activities and human actions have great impact upon our world, and there is a need to highlight and understand the human role of ecosystems for developing a resilient future. Since the industrialization, c. mid-18th to early 19th century, the relationship between humans and nature has drastically changed (as part of global capitalism) – which has set the foundation of the contemporary industrial food-chain. 

There is valuable knowledge to be gained by studying historical landscape utilization, especially regarding biodiversity and resistant agriculture. The knowledge of cultural activities in historic times and the value of this knowledge is often overlooked in discussions of ecology and food security. In this text I provide an overview of how heritage, biodiversity and food security can be connected.

Historically, transhumance (i.e., seasonal movement of livestock) has been used at many places around the globe as one common way of utilizing natural resources without overexploiting the earth. This text builds upon the Scandinavian version of transhumance, known as shieling-systems (Swe. Fäbod/Säter, Nor. Seter), but the core of the arguments can be applied to several similar situations around the globe. The shielings were a landscape organization model which let humans utilize several resources in parallel, while still protecting the landscape from overexploitation. It is generally agreed that small-scale, low-intense-, agriculture is the most resilient way of food production. For centuries food was produced in such a manner that natural values, such as biodiversity, was favored – compared to the contemporary production of food, which could be argued as implemented in a manner that is emaciating the landscape.

The roots of the Scandinavian shieling system trace back to the Iron Age. The shielings were used and maintained as commons, placed away from the village – often at higher altitudes. The shielings were used to take off pressure from the infields, which were used for cultivation of crops. Livestock grazed at the forest around the shielings, which altered the vegetational structure of the forest and resulted in biodiversity. Parallel to this, production of dairy products, iron, and winter-fodder were also present. These historical practices, compared to the contemporary (monocultural) agriculture (as well as forestry), were used to utilize multiple resources at the same time as they generated landscapes of high natural values. Grasslands, like the ones emerged at shielings, have considerably declined – almost to eradication. 

At the same time as landscape utilization has changed, the number of cultivated crops around the globe has drastically reduced. The crops used today have been developed to provide high yields, aimed to satisfy an external market. These crops, as already stated, are not very resistant towards pests and climatic shifts. Studies have, however, suggested that cultural crops (crops cultivated in historical times, with a wider gene set) have greater resilience towards climatic variations as well as pests. 

Many historical landscapes, especially those with agricultural connections, are threatened due to new ways of utilizing the landscape. The current way of utilizing natural resources has led to massive loss in biodiversity. In parallel to the problematic state of natural aspects within food production, the social aspects are also fragile: What happens if food cannot be transported around the globe? Armed conflicts have previously arisen around natural resources and trading networks. It is not far-fetched that this could happen in relation to food in a near future – considering all the risks within the current production state of food. Frankly, there is a need to provide new praxes for how landscapes are used and how the global production of food is organized. 

The risks of food production and biodiversity are global. The answers to manage these risks, I argue, is regional (or even local). Humans have the power to change the earth, both for the better and for the worse. Historical studies provide inspiration for how landscapes can be organized and utilized, and cultural crops could be beneficial for securing future food production on a local scale. To change the current production stage of food is, however, not a small task. Society cannot, and should not, de-evolve into a Medieval type of existence but the core of historical utilization (i.e., multifaceted) of natural resources should be included into shaping a new society. State intervention is needed, where local and diverse production is promoted. At the same time, the market, which when it comes to food is everyone, has the opportunity to influence the way food is produced by everyday decisions. If new praxes, inspired by historical land-use organization are put forward, heritage, biodiversity, and food security (by increased local production) could all be favored at the same time.

By Petter I. Larsson

Illustration: Gabriella Borg Bruchfeld

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