• Today it is Permaculture Sunday and 2015 is International Year of Soils
• I’ll mention a bit about Permaculture but if you want to know more read some of the links or we can arrange for an evening where we talk about it
Permaculture is based on a set of ethics – Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share – and as I have said before, I find that these ethics sit incredibly well with my Christian faith and help to provide me with a framework within which to work my faith out.
One of PC principles is to observe and interact – to take time to look at how things are working before doing anything. And I find that when we observe Nature we discover some amazing things and we find much better ways of doing things.
So, to soil. If we observe soil we find that healthy soils are teaming with microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and microscopic roundworms called nematodes.
Some scientists are now thinking that there is a strong relationship between health and our contact with healthy soil. Our guts are also teeming with micro-organisms and we know that if we wipe them out with antibiotics we are more likely to be unwell. If our gut microorganisms are exposed to soil microorganisms then all sorts of things happen and we are generally healthier and more able to fight disease and illness – this is not to say that we can’t also pick up diseases from the soil. This is led to some people using the phrase “we are soil”
We are soil, when we die we say dust to dust, ashes to ashes, I add the bit “compost to compost”. This soil then feeds the next lot of food we grow. There is a lot of truth in that Yorkshire song – On Ilkley Moor Baht’at! If you recall, if you go out on Ilkley Moor courting Mary Jane without a hat on you will catch your death of cold, then, when you are buried the worms will eat you up, and the ducks will eat the worms and we will eat the ducks! It is said that we all carry a bit of William the Conqueror in us. Ultimate recycling.
It would seem that we, and the planet, are healthiest when we live close together.
Healthy soils also absorb and store huge amounts of carbon dioxide as what we call “organic carbon”. If these soils are left exposed to the elements with no plants in them or they are regularly ploughed up or compressed or sprayed with chemicals then they lose their structure, the microorganisms and other soil life that do the work of trapping the carbon die and the soil gives off carbon dioxide rather than storing it contributing to climate change. By keeping soils well planted all year round, by recycling the so called plant “waste” (prefer compost material) back into the soil to feed the organisms, by not ploughing or compressing the soil then the soil can regenerate – you can actually grow soil and all sorts of amazing things happen. In the Jordan, an area of semi-arid desert where, in some places, modern farming and irrigation techniques have led to the soil becoming salty and almost unable to support plant life, about 15 years ago a group of permaculturists started to dig trenches called swales along the contours, they mulched their sides with plant waste from other farms, waste that was going to be burnt and they planted a mixture of nitrogen fixing trees and fruit trees. Local people thought they were mad, the trees would die, it was too dry and salty for them to survive. But when the rains came the trenches filled with water and instead of it evaporating off it soaked into the soil and was kept there by the mulch providing water for the plants. Within 4 years they were harvesting food. Scientists from a local university came to find out why the salt wasn’t killing the trees and they found that the fungi in the mulch was taking up the salt and trapping it chemically in an inert form that didn’t hurt the trees. All over the world, similar stories are happening.
It would seem that we, and the planet, are healthiest when we treat the soil well.
So how do we treat our soils, the soils that we depend upon for our life? Monty Don says “If we are to feed the world we must have good soil”. Again and again in history civilisations have risen and then fallen because they have exhausted the soil – they have failed to look after the soil. And if we don’t wake up and act we are going the same way but on a global scale. Recent scientific articles suggest that we have about 100 harvests left before our soil is exhausted.
The way the article was reported it says that we should grow more food in the cities – which I agree with – but it didn’t say much about changing the way in which we do our farming!
So how is much of our farming done?
The Green Revolution in the mid-20th century saw us apply science and technology to growing more and more food. At a time when the population was starting to grow rapidly and more and more people were moving to the cities we needed to rapidly increase our food output and so we started to treat food growing as a an industry. And it worked, we got huge increases in production. But at a cost. In particular agriculture became very oil dependent. Here is a brief summary of what some of our farming involves today
• Oil powered machinery clears the land whether it be rainforest or existing fields
• Oil powered machinery ploughs the land
• Fertilisers manufactured using oil are applied to the land
• Herbicides and pesticides are used to clear unwanted plants and insects
• Seeds that have been transported half way round the world, that are treated with anti-fungal treatments and genetically altered to make them resistant to herbicides and to help them resist certain pests are sold at vast profit to farmers who then use oil powered machinery to plant them
• Oil powered machinery is used to spray oil based herbicides and pesticides onto the crop
• Oil powered machinery pumps water to irrigate the plants
• Giant poly tunnels and greenhouses are heated often using … guess what.. oil
• Oil powered machinery harvests the crop
• Oil powered machinery processes the crop, often throwing out anything that is the wrong shape or colour
• Oil powered machinery is used to store food in an atmospherically controlled environment
• Oil powered machinery transports the food round the globe
• Oil powered machinery is used to process and package the food, often adding additives that have required oil powered machinery to produce them or are even made out of oil.
• Oil powered machinery is used to transport the food to warehouses and points of sale
• We then often use oil powered machinery to transport the food home
So you can see, most of our farming is very industrial and oil based. And to make this method of farming more efficient we don’t want trees and hedges in the way, they just slow down our machinery and use up land that could be planted on. The result is that hedges and trees are ripped out and we end up with massive fields of unprotected soil or, during the growing season, a monoculture crop – wheat or potatoes or cabbages as far as the eye can see. Unfortunately, monocultures are very susceptible to disease and pests so they need spraying. And the giant fields have no trees and hedges and other plants to protect the soil so it blown or washed away at an alarming rate – no wonder we may only have 100 harvests left. In some parts of the world those harvests are already failing. The slash and burn methods of farming that are destroying the rain forests of South America often exhaust the soil at a much faster rate.
In Africa, South America and other parts of the world, where small farmers have been growing a huge range of food on their small holdings, governments and businesses are moving in, throwing them off the land, ploughing the land up to make more giant fields for their industrial farms. This is known as land grabbing. It leads to a few rich businesses owning all the land and the farmers losing their livelihood and often ending up in the slums of the cities.
This is the cost of much of our food production today. We are destroying our life support system and we are destroying the lives of many people but since we are living in cities and are so distant from what is going on we don’t feel so affected by it all.
Currently we produce about 140% of the food needed to feed the whole world!
There should be enough for everyone. But not only do we not share it out evenly, we throw obscene amounts of it away.
What strange land is this that we live in?
• We have more than enough but we don’t share it out.
• We don’t allow people to grow their own food, to make their own living.
• We allow big companies to dictate the economics of small countries and the way in which everyone has to live.
This gets me angry and I’m sure that the God of the Old Testament prophets and the God of the New Testament Jesus must be angry as well.
Currently, the way that much of our food is produced is not sustainable. Despite the recent drop in oil prices, oil will get more expensive and there is only a finite amount of oil in the rocks. It is starting to run out!
And our soil is running out.
And population growth is another matter I won’t cover here.
This is not sustainable!
So what solutions are there?
Perhaps there is another, better way? Perhaps there is a way in which we resist the temptation to allow a small few to have the power to produce most of our food?
Perhaps there is a way that we can feed the world using less or no oil. Cuba has demonstrated that it is possible to feed a nation on reduced oil input.
Perhaps we should stop wasting so much food when so many are hungry?
It is calculated that up to 50% of the food gets wasted in the process of getting it from farm to consumer, and that is after the huge investment we have made in it!
Again and again God has demonstrated that He is a God of abundance, that he will meet our needs, that He can provide enough for today (eg manna in the wilderness). And Jesus taught us that too, in words and by his actions. When faced with huge crowds of hungry people he could have turned stones into bread, instead he chose to take what there was and to share it with everyone – and there was enough.
So what can we do?
How can we reduce the amount of oil we use to grow food?
What can we do to help make enough food available to everyone?
How can we work towards Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share?
Here are a few suggestions, we can’t all do them but if we started or increased doing some of them it would make a difference:
• We could grow more of our own. Every little helps! Movements like Feed Leeds and Incredible Edible Todmorden are leading to an increase in the amount of local food being grown and eaten. It is putting people back in touch with their food. It is creating and strengthening local economies and communities and having an impact on people’s health.
• We could buy local foods – food miles is a very complicated topic but if we bought from local farmers, other local producers, local shops then, hopefully, we are reducing our dependence on oil.
• We could eat seasonal foods – buying and eating strawberries from local farmers in the summer is going to use less oil and create less waste than strawberries from overseas at Christmas!
• We can campaign against land grabs – this is where the rich and powerful throw people off their land in order to turn it over to growing monocultures – one crop over a large area – as opposed to the more sustainable, and probably more abundant forms of farming that the local people practice such as eco agriculture.
• We can support the small farmers and small holdings here and abroad – these are often more efficient at feeding people and involve more people thus reducing unemployment, increasing food security.
• We could vote for a party that really cares about the earth, the soil and it’s people!
• We could stop throwing so much food away!
And this is where The Real Junk Food Project network of cafes comes in.
The project was set up about 18 months ago by Adam Smith and it is a growing network of cafes of all sorts with 6 in Leeds and more being planned. Operated by volunteers, waste food from shops, markets, supermarkets, restaurants, homes, food banks and other food retailers – food that is perfectly good and useable that is otherwise destined for land fill is cooked into nutritious meals. And this food is then available to customers on a Pay As You Feel basis – people pay what they feel like paying, what they think the food is worth, or what they can afford, or they can volunteer. The food is not free, but you don’t have to use a coin with the Queen’s head on it to pay for it.
Our main aims are
• To reduce and eventually eliminate food waste
• To reduce and eventually eliminate food poverty
• To build community
All Hallows café is currently open Tuesday and Fridays 10am to 4pm with occasional catering for events.
If you want to know more then Google “Real Junk Food Project” or ask me afterwards.
In this world of inequality and injustice I believe that we are called to bring a bit of God’s justice and compassion to people in need and at the same time challenge those things that so obviously need changing. Sometimes we are so disconnected from what is going on the world, but if we apply the first principle of Permaculture and observe, then we will start to see those things that are wrong, those things that need changing, and those things that are good, that we can celebrate.
Prayer for the Soil
Giver of life, we give you thanks that in the richness of the soil, nature awakens your call to spring
We praise you for the smell of the fresh earth, the life that creates and lives in the soil, and the life that comes from the soil
We ask that you help us to be good stewards of the land, and even though we live in the city, may we support those who care for the land on our behalf.
In the name of the one who gives us new life, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen
Greening the Desert – video about the Jordan
The Real Junk Food Project Network
TRJFP@AH café – All Hallows’ Junk Food café
Red Kite Permaculture – my permaculture blog (a bit quiet at the moment!)
3rd May 2015