Sam Lang, Nuffield Scholar: Agricultural Ecology

League of Live Illustrators' capture of Sam's talk

The optimistic future that I’d like to see is an ecologically literate society.

There’s a framework we use in regenerative agriculture called Holistic Management. In essence
the practise of holistic management shifts your focus from symptoms to root cause - the root
cause then becomes the focus of your solutions. This framework is so effective in part because
it was created based on ecological principles.
So if we take a quick look at just a few of the symptoms present in our world today we have

● The Sixth great extinction
● Climate change
● Ocean acidification
● Increasing disease and pest outbreaks
● Floods & droughts
● And a rapid decline in human health through degenerative diseases linked to poor
nutrition, and environmental factors like toxins & water quality etc

That’s not a fun list. But if we dig down into their root causes, perhaps the greatest driver is our
lack of ecological literacy.

We spend a lot of time learning about and applying ecological understandings to our farm
system. At a highly simplified level we try to manage four ecosystem processes; the water cycle,
the mineral cycle, energy flows and biodiversity. These four processes, particularly as they
occur within living soils, are the foundation of our ecosystems and therefore our existence. Yet
as a society we understand and consider them very little.

When we manage these ecosystem processes well on farm, there are a whole raft of positive
spin-offs. They include sequestering carbon in soils, plants and trees, reducing downstream
flood impacts, mitigating droughts, improving water quality, increasing biodiversity, increasing
the nutritional quality of our food and therefore the health of the animals and humans that
consume it. That is preventative healthcare at a massive scale and a huge opportunity for our
increasingly unaffordable health system.

Managing these ecosystem processes well also supports a higher quality of life for farmers and
rural communities through being able to operate more resilient, diversified, higher value and
resource independent farm systems. This is good for all New Zealand as it’s these communities
that ultimately have a large influence on the health of the whole country.

There’s an exciting growing body of farmers and growers already making these connections.
Unfortunately our ecological illiteracy as a society still has the cards stacked against this

As food producers or resource managers, we aren’t trained to understand, let alone manage
ecosystem function. As food, fibre & textile consumers we aren’t taught how to assess the
ecological impact or nutritional quality of soy or almond milk from North America, versus dairy
milk from the well stocked, all grass family dairy farm just outside of town.

And as citizens we aren’t taught how to use our democratic power to support farmers, land managers or any resource decision makers to do more and better of this positive and essential work.
My optimistic future is where ecology sits alongside civics as a foundational component of our
education system. As a result our society will be empowered with the knowledge to make
decisions that have a positive impact on the health of our ecosystems. Our society will counter
the current dominance of short-term commercial interest in our research system and invests
significantly in understanding the state and trends of our ecosystems and environment. We will
support innovative strategies that utilise ecological understandings to help remedy decades of
ecosystem decline. In this future we’ll view technologies as tools that can support good
management, not as the focus of our solutions.

Another aspect of my optimistic future is a relocalised, diverse and connected society. It might
look a bit like this . Does anyone know what this is?

mycelial network


It’s an image of a mycelial network, the often hidden component of what we all know as
mushrooms and a keystone species for supporting life on our planet. These are threads of
different species fungal hyphae that form an incredibly expansive, connected and intelligent
network in our ecosystems. These mycelial networks do amazing things, like communicating
advance warning of pest or disease threats throughout an entire forest. They will distribute
water or nutrients to different plants that are in need to ensure the health and stability of the
whole ecosystem. They can even bioremediate contaminated environments like oil spills and
they are a rapidly growing source of natural medicines and biocontrols that is disrupting the
pharmaceutical industry and chemical industries that have specialised in killing things. (If you
want to have your mind blown YouTube a guy called Paul Stamets!).
Mycelial networks have also been likened to the structure and function of both the internet and
dark matter. They represent an incredibly efficient structure for sharing information and
resources, while being very resilient to catastrophes in any part of the system.

So as we try to imagine what a diverse, connected and resilient future society might look like,
perhaps millions of years of evolution has already figured it out???