Breakfast of Biodiversity Chapters 1-5

1. Slicing up the Rain Forest on Your Breakfast Cereal

This chapter introduces us to the rain forest that many of us know. The rain forest that covers only 7 percent of the earth’s surface, but contains over half of the animal and plant species on the earth. The reader is introduced to the Sarapiqui region of Costa Rica which is a site of great rain forest conservation.  The beauty of the rain forest within these conservation areas is expressed as well as the great problems that exist out side of these areas.  The first major problem the author addresses is the problem of the banana.  Banana companies have converted large sections of rain forest into strictly being banana plantations.   Many times bio diverse rain forests are removed right up to their river banks and replaced with the banana trees.  Natural streams are channelized an drainage canals are constructed to prevent flooding of the fields.  Also, agrochemicals are applied to the land to insure high yields. the fertile Caribbean lowland ecosystem is completely stripped of its biodiversity and transformed into a homogeneous and chemical laden landscape.   This process of stripping the land of its natural biodiversity does not only occur for banana cultivation. This pattern of stripping the natural environment is also used for cattle production, citrus farming, African oil palm plantations, and rubber tree plantations.

2. The Rain Forest is Neither Fragile Nor Stable

Vandermeer lists and expounds on six factors she says are key in the functioning of rain forests.

  1. Enormous amounts of DIVERSITY-  There incredibly vast numbers of species of plants animals and other living things in rain forests.  this great diversity can cause problems for some species.  Vandermeer notes that with such a large number of species all sharing the same habitat, a lot of the species must be rare.  This scarcity makes the existence of these species very fragile
  2. SEX-  With so many species and such few numbers representing each species, reproduction is of the utmost importance for the continuance of these species.  Due to the fact that most of the species are plants, pollination is crucial for the survival of the many species.
  3. Problem of HERBIVORES –  From the point of view of plants, herbivores present a problem for the prolonged existence of some plants. Many insects and animals have a diet which consists of leaves, shoots, and seeds. With so few numbers of each species, the plants need to remain intact to keep the species alive. It is common for herbivores to specialize in consuming certain types of plants.  Because of this if a great number of plants belonging to the same species are all bunched together, it is easier for the specialized herbivores to locate and consume them.
  4. DISPERSAL of OFFSPRING- Plants have evolved various strategies to disperse their seeds. This is to prevent large number of plants from the same species to be clumped together and more easily fall victim to herbivores. there are two ways plants have evolved to disperse their offspring. One is the separation of seed from the disperser’s food reward and the other is satiation.  Plants have evolved to proved the dispersers with food.  For example, a bird eats a fruit from a plant and moves on. the seed passes through the bird and is not digested and is excreted unharmed in the birds stool elsewhere.
  5. DEATH- When a tree dies and collapses, it creates a gap in the canopy of the forest. this gap allows sunlight to pass down to the lower levels of the forest. this allows other, not so largely sized species to flourish and grow.  When this gap occurs there are three stages of  plants that grown. Pioneer plants enter the gap first, then come secondary species, and eventually a climax tree grows to replace the original tree that fell.  
  6. SOIL- Plants receive the majority  of their nutrients through their root systems. this means that the soil these roots are submerged in is very crucial to the survival of the plants. the most important nutrients plants need are potassium, magnesium, calcium, and nitrogen.  When there is not an array of different species in an area, it will limit the diversity of nutrients in the soil.

3.  Farming on Rain Forest Soils

Because of the diverse settings rain forests exist in, they provide great venues for agricultural cultivation.  There are five basic soils that are crucial to agriculture in rain forests:

  1. Acid Soils- contain few nutrients and the nutrients that are contained are usually unavailable to crops
  2. Alluvial Soils- deposited on the floodplains of rivers. Carry a lot of organic matter due to the fact that there are many living creatures in rivers. this organic matter gets deposited into the land.
  3. Volcanic Soils- This type of soil is derived from volcanic ash.  Volcanic soil is not present in all rain forests due to the fact that there are not volcanoes in every rain forest.  Very productive soils.  These soils contain clays which have a high ability to capture and maintain nutrients.
  4. Hillside Soils- They erode very rapidly.  the natural vegetation that covers them protects them from erosion. when the natural plants are removed and they are used for agriculture, they erode very quickly and become unproductive.
  5. Swamp soils-  The soils of natural wetlands are very rich in organic matter. there are very few crops including rice that can grow in wet land conditions. However, swamps can be drained resulting in incredibly rich soils. this process is costly and are large scale. large fruit companies partake in draining wetlands to use the rich soil.


The burning of naturally inhabiting plants in order to plant crops is a very common for of agriculture.  it is the easiest solution to problems that come with agricultural production. The first problem is that of plant competition. this commonly takes place in the form of weeds.  When crops are planted throughout a plot of forest that have been cleared the plants that have already been there have an advantage over the newly planted crops. When burning the patch that has been cleared before planting the new seed, the undesirable species are forced out to make way for the newly planted seeds to thrive. THe second problem is nutrient cycling. when plants die they released nutrients that are then used by other plants to grow and flourish. when burning all the plants in an area, all of these nutrients of the newly killed plants are released into the soil and the crops that are to be planted can use all these nutrients.

4. The Political Economy of Agriculture in Rain Forest Areas

      The clearing of land for agricultural use can be described as deforestation.  Recently a key crop that is planted when deforestation occurs is the banana tree.  The companies that own these vast plantations hold much political power in the countries they are located.  These companies have been known to purchase or even steal land from peasant farmers that is known to have good soil for farming. this then pushes these local farmers to areas of land that do not have good soil.

Vandermeer discusses the transformation of farming into agriculture. The evolution,he says, occurred in two waves.  The first wave began and the end of the U.S. Civil War and the second wave stared at the end of World War II.  She writes that at the end of the eighteenth century two factors dramatically impacted the growth of long distance trade of agricultural products. The factors she notes are the evolution of technology to mill grain and the second being a change in the social organization of work.  In Western Europe, for example, the advancements in the ease to mill grain had caused the price of bread to decline, therefore giving the masses easier access to bread. This was the start to a complex grain trade which occurred at the end of the eighteenth century.

5. The Multiple Faces of Agriculture in the Modern World System

In this section Vandermeer dissects the modern world system the impacts on the phenomenon that is deforestation. He looks at three aspects of the modern system:

1. Operation of DEVELOPED World Agriculture-  There are three units to modern agriculture: SUPPLIERS- supply the the inputs such as seeds chemicals and equipment to the farmers, FARMERS-The farm itself, BUYER- the unit that the farmer supplies the product to.   The farmers have little economic leverage in this situation due to their small size compared to the suppliers and the purchasers. Suppliers are known to extort great sums of money from the farmers for their supply and the buyers are not willing to provide appropriate compensation to the farmers for the products. This leaves the farmers stuck in the middle between two greater powers.

2. Dynamics of Developed World Economies-  Vandermeer discusses how phases of economic expansion and contraction are not desirable.  Economic contraction is associated with political instability, something the the factory owners and political advisers obviously want to avoid. Contractions are a crisis at the general level in that it can destroy a complete economic system and a crisis for individual factory owners in their goal of profits and investments.

3. Global South Economics as Related to Developed World Structures- The economic systems of the developed nations are articulated as Vandermeer notes. Articulated in the anatomical sense that  joints are composed of connected segments.  The typical economy in a developed nation is articulated in the fact that the two main sectors of economy are connected.  In the Global South, the two main sectors of the economies are not connected.  Because the systems of the traditional agriculturalists and the system of the export agriculturalist are not connected the economy is referred to as a dual economy.

The Modern World System and Tropical Deforestation

When reviewing the socioeconomic structure of the Global South, it is easy to recognize how rain forests become the targets of deforestation.  When there is a low market value for tropical export crops, the big company is not who suffers the most, but rather the proletarian farmers who lose their jobs and are forced to clear land to farm a  lifestyle of subsistence farming.  Because most of the land that already exists for agriculture is used to cultivate the very crops that had the low market value to begin with, these farmers who must search in the rain forest to destroy plants and create their own farm. The logger is right there beside the farmer searching for untainted land in the rain forest to which he can cultivate the necessary wood needed to meet the quota of logs for the corporation he works for.

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