Broad-scale land clearing is the removal of native vegetation for development. Typically, this is to grow crops or create grassland that can rear livestock, but it also applies to land clearing for infrastructure, mining and settlement.
Patches of vegetation altered for subsistence agriculture are not classified as broad-scale land clearing. Small patches create a mosaic landscape where the matrix remains native vegetation with gaps for crops and livestock.
Broad-scale land clearing makes agricultural land the matrix with patches of remnant native vegetation left behind.
Over the millennia, humans have preferred the small patches that require less energy to clear and maintain. Small areas are easier to manage and fit in the paradigm of moving on when the nutrients are depleted.
We call this shifting agriculture. It is efficient and sustainable if there is enough recovery time before the next clearing event. It is also doable with available human labour supported by draft animals and simple tools.
Then humans invented machines powered by oil.
Chainsaws could cut down big trees in an instant. Ploughs could get bigger and easily pull across stony or heavy clay soils.
It was possible to drive two tractors connected by a heavy chain across the land. The chain ripped the smaller trees and shrubs up from the roots.
Once the vegetation was felled, it could be gathered and burnt or left to decay over time. What was left was land that could be turned over and planted to whatever crop or pasture the farmer wanted.
Machines did the work for an initial investment and the price of the fuel. They were efficient, sturdy and reliable. Using this capability to clear large areas to grow food at scale made sense.
Scale also made it possible to get more out of specialised machines for tillage, fertiliser application and harvesting. Soon this newly intensive agriculture became an input system and a net energy sink.
It was this intensification of agriculture that led to broad-scale land clearing.
So why is it lazy?
It is a brave man who calls Australian farmers lazy.
According to the government, crop farmers in this unforgiving land work an average of 52 hours per week, 8 hours longer than workers elsewhere. They are also older than the broader workforce at an average of 52 years of age.
Farmers have a deserved reputation as hard-working people who keep going long after the rest of us have retired to a grey nomad existence.
Hopefully, the ivory towers offer some protection from such a bold statement as this one.
There are ways of growing beef that don’t destroy the environment. Broad-scale land clearing is just lazy … you don’t have to clear habitats and drive species to extinction in order to get your foodProfessor Brendan Wintle, Conservation Ecologist, University of Melbourne.
The implication here is that broad-scale land clearing is indiscriminate. It happens wherever land clearing is possible and where a crop can be grown or livestock reared. Farmers clear land whenever and wherever they can.
Many conservationists argue for growing more food on the current agricultural land area. The lazy accusation comes from the indiscriminate assumption and the idea that more effort on the existing agricultural land would produce equally viable yields. Indeed, on less than the present land under production, given the calls for rewilding a third of the planet.
In short, farmers should be more thoughtful and not take the easy option.
The farmers will not recognise the nuance, but the agricultural system needs to be more active, not them. Intensive agriculture is driven by profit resulting from maximising production over effort. Get more with less, and the greater the profit from each unit of action or land, the better.
Farming is often more efficient at scale, hence the need to clear large areas of operation.
What happens after broad-scale land clearing?
Cleared land begins its agricultural life full of nutrients, organic matter and potential. Plants tend to grow well so long as there is water and sunlight. Weeds can be a problem, as can pests on the newly homogenised land, but there is an innate store of nutrients and organic matter in the soil to promote plant growth.
This production potential is why the land is cleared in the first place.
After a time, agricultural practices erode this capability. Nutrients are used up, and soil carbon declines when soil is exposed to the air. Often production becomes marginal or unsustainable without inputs.
Here is what this decline in natural capital looks like.
This graph is stylised from many research examples that demonstrate a loss in soil carbon, nutrient exchange and productivity following the clearing of native vegetation for agriculture. Source: sustainably FED
Once the land is marginal, there are essentially three options available to the farmer…
- keep going as best he can to the depletion limit and hope that is still enough to eke out a living,
- add inputs, especially fertilisers and water, to build crop yields back to profitable levels,
- move along to newly cleared land.
Option 3 is where the accusation of laziness appears.
Rather than put the effort, energy and money into growing crops or animals on depleted natural capital, moving production onto freshly cleared land with better nutrients and water holding capacity is easier. Moving on is more profitable as it requires fewer inputs.
Conservationists prefer options 1 and 2, where farmers invest in existing agricultural land. They wish to prevent broad-scale land clearing for agriculture because clearing is the most significant cause of biodiversity loss and the source of a third of historical man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
Options 1 and 2 cost the farmer.
So the question becomes; who covers the cost?
What sustainably FED suggests
Laziness here is not avoiding getting up at dawn and falling back through the farmhouse kitchen door 14 hours later.
It is the laziness of profit.
It is more profitable to clear new land and mine the natural capital of the soil than to through inputs onto land that have been under production for many years. Even subsistence farmers know this as they practice shifting agriculture to avoid the problem.
Broad-scale land clearing is facilitated by machinery and energy but driven by profit.
And anyone who has been in the world for more than five minutes knows that profit is a lazy bastard.