Tag Archives: soil

Rise in organic food sales

An article in The Guardian says that “Organic food and drink sales rise to record levels in the UK”. That is good news but there is still scepticism about the value of organic food. Some say it is too expensive others argue that it is a con. The thing that finally convinced me it was the only food i wanted to eat was finding the information about pesticide residues in food. That was in the early 1990s when the government stipulated a ‘safe’ minimum amount of residue for each common pesticide and fungicide. For many years two government scientists, McCance and Widdowson, produced a report of the amounts of each pesticide found in fruit and veg that they bought from supermarkets. There were items that exceeded the allowed maximum and this was included in a yearly report.

What was not recognised was that most crops received multiple applications of different products. There might be applications of fungicide, then pesticides for insect infestation followed by weed killers. There was never any limit for cocktails of chemicals.

Then in a drought year we heard about high levels of chemicals in carrots and the government  told us to wash them. The problem is that modern pesticides are systemic. That means they are taken up into the cells of the plant and cannot be removed, even by fancy veg washing products. And peeling does not help as the chemicals are in every cell.

Those of you of a certain age will remember crops of corn slowly turning a golden colour in late summer and then the harvest that followed when the weather was right. Now, cereal crops and potatoes are ‘sprayed off’ so that harvest can happen at set times. On corn they use weed killer and acid on potatoes to kill the tops.

Modern farms are part of the supermarket supply chain and if they are contracted to supply 100 tonnes of potatoes in the first week of September that is what they must do or lose the contract. It is supermarkets who control agriculture as it must be part of a production line to ensure continuous supply. There is no such thing as seasonal fruit and vegetables, we want everything all the time and we it now!

There have been arguments about organic produce being more nutritious. An idea fiercely contested by conventional farming. A study by Newcastle University found that organic milk was higher in nutrients. Such research is not so common now as universities rely on external funding.

Other groups round the world looked at simple indicators of quality in veg like the Brix reading. Although this is a simple test that anybody can do it does provide an overall indication of quality. I have a brix refractometer bought several years ago when experimenting with different growing techniques and did a random test on carrots last week. Comparing a standard carrot from Waitrose with one in our box from Riverford Organics. The results are clear

Supplier BRIX
Waitrose 6.4
Riverford 10.2

It is not all about pesticides as non-organic, or factory farming, methods also have an effect on soil, our greatest natural asset. Since the 1940s the emphasis has been on increasing production through the widespread use of chemical fertilisers. While the use of N-P-K (Nitrogen Phosphorous Potassium or Potash) does give rapid growth, it produces plants that do not have the strength to withstand insect attacks. Previously farms mixed and crops on land manured by the animals. That was a natural cycle and produced rich healthy soil.

A somewhat ironic side effect of not applying organic matters to soil such as compost or manure is that it results in thin soils which are easily eroded. Farmers use high cost inputs to get bigger, quicker crops and lose their soil in the process.

There is growing evidence that the strongest, healthiest and most nutritious crops are grown on good quality soils that provide the whole spectrum of minerals and nutrients. That is not surprising! The fact that the nutritional value of food has declined since the 1940s is overlooked see this report from 2002  And this one from McCance and Widdowson

This is why I decided to buy organic food nearly 30 years ago. Some will argue it is an expensive luxury but now the price of organic veg is the same or only slightly more than the other stuff. In the end it is your choice but remember one thing, your body is you, if you look after it and feed it well you will feel the benefits. Like I said to a man one day if you bought a top of the range luxury car would you put paraffin (kerosene) in the tank to save money. He told me not to be so stupid, so, I asked him why did he put the cheapest possible food down his throat. My only conclusion was that he valued his new car more than he valued himself.

The answer? Grow you own and if not have it delievered to your door.  We use Riverford as we no longer able to grow much of our own food.

What is driving the rush to more factory farming?

One of the main concerns about food production in the US at the moment is safety. With outbreaks of salmonella and ecoli becoming more common there have been some drastic ideas to improve food quality.

A few months back came the news that all weeds and wildlife needed to be eliminated from fields growing food to create a sterile site. Then the film Food Inc was released which suggested that the problem comes from within. Huge feedlots raising cattle in conditions that would shock most consumers were cited as one major sources of pollution of the food chain. What this all leads too is the notion that growing in soil, or dirt as the Americans call it, is no longer healthy.

There have been a string of wacky ideas for vertical farms, integrated fish and vegetable farms (where fish poo is used to feed the veg) and now theres is an assertion that the only way to go is large scale aeroponics – a hydroponic system where nutrient rich water is sprayed on the bare roots of plants.

There is no doubt that ‘aero’ works and produces spectacular growth and can it be much more sterile that soil but that misses some crucial issues. As I have said many times hydroponic systems can never be sustainable because they totally rely on artificial fertilisers. Add into that the energy required to manufacture the growing systems, build the buildings and generally run the systems and there is no way that these can be sustainable food systems.

So what is driving this insistent rush to even more industrial, factory farming? It is certainly a reaction to the dire problems faced by the US food industry (they are not alone as similar problems exist in many other ‘developed’ countries) it is also fuelled by a growing sense of unease about how we are going to feed ever expanding populations.

The main beneficiaries of a move to hydroponics have to the equipment manufacturers and, most of all, our old friends the agrochemical companies who would supply the vast amounts of fertilisers and pesticides that hydro systems would need.

Maybe the best course of action is to literally clean up US farming and get back to basics. We desperately need to start farming and growing in ways that best use the soil we have. That has to recognise that soil is, without doubt, our biggest asset and one that we ignore or degrade at our peril. And the best way to manage soil is by growing organically. It really is that simple.

Dirt! The movie

Dirt/soil is our most precious natural resource and it’s under threat. Decades of intensive agriculture has depleted soil of nutrients and made it much more vulnerable to erosion.

The film says we have lost a third of our top soil in the last 100 years but that has gone virtually unnoticed and unreported. Lets face it dirt is not news.

We totally rely on soil for our food; if soils are disappearing or becoming less productive then the whole world suffers. But this is one of those problems where we can really help. The answer is to put something back. For gardeners that means compost, compost and yet more compost! And manure. For farmers it means adding organic matter. For government it means making sure that soil is valued as the most precious natural resource we have.

Adding lots of organic matter to produce rich, fertile soils has a really useful side effect; it reduces atmospheric CO2. (See The Organic Revolution: How We Can Stop Global Warming.)

Finally, looking after your soil produces bigger crops with higher nutrient content. So, my New Year resolution is to compost everything I can, especially kitchen waste, so that nothing leaves the house or garden that could not have been returned to the soil.

Climate-friendly farming

There is a superb article in the November/December edition of Resurgence magazine. The author, Mukti Mitchell gives some alarming figures for the organic matter content of UK soils. He says that in a forest there is 15% air, 15% water, 60% rock and minerals and 10% organic matter. In agricultural soils the organic matter has decreased to around 3.5% and in heavily cultivated soils it can be as low as 1%.

What was even more amazing is that Mitchell states that increasing the level of organic matter not only produces rich, productive soils which grow healthier food but it also sequesters huge amounts of atmospheric CO2.

Further calculations suggest that on a global scale, rich-soil farming could have a sequestration potential so powerful that it could turn back the carbon clock. These figures are backed up by the latest science. A 2007 study for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that if world agriculture adopted best practices to increase soil organic matter content, it could mitigate 6 to 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2030, which is between 20% and 35% of current annual global emissions (29 billion tonnes per year).

That is an impressive statement; so why no action? Because once again the absolute stranglehold of agrochemical companies prevents any real progress.

Modern intensive farming has split into two camps: arable and livestock. To return to truly sustainable farming would require a mega shift in attitudes and a break with the globalisation treadmill we are now on. The result would smaller mixed farms that could easily use their muck to improve soils and grow better crops. That would create richer soils, more nutritious food and help reduce CO2.

All we need now is the realisation that the effects of peak oil, climate change and water shortages, the perfect storm predicted for 2030, needs a radical rethink about how we grow food and will not be solved by reliance on any technological ‘silver bullet’. Returning to more traditional agricultural practices will help us be more resilient, create jobs and loosen the reliance on an oil based economy. It is really that simple.

Of course all of the above applies to gardeners, organic matter is the key, composting every last piece of vegetable waste is crucial!

Read more

Climate friendly food

Compost better than fertlizer

An article on the Environmental News Network says that using compost in the garden is better that fertilizer.  Adding good quality compost improves soil fertility, soil structure and provides nutrients in a way that enhances the soil.

A good quality compost can improve the soil far more than other amendments by making it more porous, and balancing the nutrients so that plants can thrive over a longer time. In clay soils … adding compost can break up clay so that water can penetrate into the earth, while losing less moisture from run-off.

A healthy soil also allows beneficial insects, earthworms and other creatures to crawl around and work the soil, which opens it up and allows more air to flow through. In turn, this aeration allows the soil to hold more water. This means that people don’t need to water their lawns and gardens as often.

Good compost is the best soil amendment but some compost is better than others. Producing quality compost is down to how it is made. Just throwing your waste material on an open heap will produce compost eventually but it will be of doubtful and variable quality. Being more systematic by waiting until you have enough materials to fill your bin in one go, having the correct mix of green (N) and brown (C) materials and the correct amount of moisture, will ensure that the compost works quickly and heats up. See the Composting pages in the Resources section above.

Every gardener should make compost from garden waste. There really is excuse for the huge bonfires that are a regular feature of most allotments. So do NOT burn fallen leaves use them to make leaf mould, see this page, which is low in nutrients but a very good soil conditioner.

And do not forget to compost your kitchen waste, be proud to have a ‘slop bucket’!

Loss of soil threatens food production, UK government warns

Yet another story in The Guardian confirms that agricultural soils in the UK are in a very poor state.

More than 2m tonnes of topsoil from farms and forests is being eroded by wind and rain each year, jeopardising efforts to increase food production…

The cause is many years of total reliance on artificial N-P-K fertiliser. The cure is equally obvious:

  • recognise that soil is our greatest asset
  • end the total reliance on N-P-K chemical fertilisers
  • use organic matter to revitalise soil e.g. compost green (and food) waste and spread it on farm land

In short, move away from intensive mono cropping to a more sustainable system. If not then soils will continue to be lost and parts of the UK will look more like the American dustbowl of  1930s.

Nothing new

I often hear it said that organics is a new fad that will soon fizzle out. My response is that organic growing has been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and that it is chemical husbandry that is very new. The widespread use of artificial fertilizer dates from around the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. It is was not until the 1940s that the use of chemical pesticides became more common.

Even when the new scientific approach to farming was being hailed as a technological revolution that knew no bounds some were challenging the change from more natural, tried and tested ways of farming. One such farmer and author really doubted the logic of moving to ‘artificials’;  he was also very concerned about the effects on human health.

When the whole of the farms of England are farmed with compost-and I am sufficiently sanguine to hope that one day they will be-there is not the slightest doubt that we can grow enough food here of every kind (excepting citrus fruits, tea, coffee and the like, which represent a small amount in the aggregate) to sustain the population of England….

What effect the use of ‘artificials’ has had on the quality of soil, the quality of food it produces and the health of the human race is debatable. In the last few years many people have argued that good health comes from nutritious food produced on good, humus rich soils. Even this is not a new idea as the following extract shows.

…The source of all disease is in the quality of food we eat; and the food comes from the soil. Start there. Make a healthy living soil. Grow thereon a healthy plant. Produce a healthy animal and, in turn, a healthy man…

…  I will ask myself, what are the major lessons that I have learned after thirty years of farming observation? They are:
(1) That the well-being of mankind is interdependent with that of the animal, the plant, and the living soil.
(2) That a fertile soil is one rich in humus.
(3) That whenever the humus content of the soil is depleted (as in the growing of a wheat crop), the humus must be replaced with more humus manufactured by the biological processes, e.g. by vegetable growth (as in grass) and by its decay, when ploughed, accelerated and activated by the earthworms and by the microorganisms of animal dung and urine.

And if the world as a whole adopted these hypotheses, what would be the result? A healthy, robust, and practically disease-free human race; because man-who is healthy according to the food he eats-would live on a healthy diet of wholesome and disease-free milk and animal products, wholesome vegetables, and wholemeal bread, all grown on soil that was humus-sufficient and disease free. And if the health of a nation is as simple as all that, why can we not adopt my system of farming tomorrow and in five years have a disease-free world? Because for over a hundred years the world has laboured under a sad and pitiful delusion-that the refertilization of land is a chemical and not a biological process, and because there have grown up in England and America most powerful interests who are determined that the world shall not be disillusioned…

The source of all disease is in the quality of food we eat;  (an earlier version of you are what you eat) and the food comes from the soil. Start there. Make a healthy living soil. Grow thereon a healthy plant. Produce a healthy animal and, in turn, a healthy man…

[From: “Modern Humus Farming” by Friend Sykes, Faber and Faber, London, 1959]

A farmer lent me this book; he has farmed the same land for well over 50 years. He thought it might interest me as he has watched me make the compost piles and prepare the heaps of well rotted cow manure that I have used in the garden.

I dipped into the book last night and came across the above quotes. It seems so simple, return what has grown, died and rotted back to the soil. Use humus to create fertile soils. In other words, do what nature does without any help from us.  Such soils grow healthy and disease resistant plants and it is not much of a jump of imagination to see such crops are nutritious food.

Why am I so convinced? Because I have seen it happen over the years. Humus rich soils look, feel and smell different to worn out, depleted soil. They also grow fantastic crops. Why is it made to seem so difficult? I cannot answer that without going into a rant about vested interests. What I can say is this is nothing new, it has been around for a long time and should be common sense. But there again there is no money to be made in encouraging people to compost ALL their waste and use muck instead of expensive factory made products.

Soil health threatens farming

In The Guardian last week Graham Harvey says that unless we improve depleted farmland soils we are in big trouble;

A new report from the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) warns that deteriorating soil quality could render some parts of the country unfit for productive farming.

The article is about the dwindling number of soil scientists in the UK but maybe the reasons for poor soil health are a bit closer to home.

For years many farmers have relied on N-P-K fertilisers as the only way of providing soil fertility. Harvey says that East Anglia is the region most affected because it is the most intensively farmed but it is a country wide problem.

A few years back I walked across some farmland; the soil was a sandy loam and a new corn crop was just emerging. It was obvious that the land had not seen any organic matter for years as the seedlings were fighting their way through a hard soil crust.

As an organic gardener I know that producing a healthy soil produces healthy, disease resistant plants full of the nutrients essential for human health.  Why has as agriculture lost sight of that? The answer is very simple – the quick fix of oil derived chemical fertilisers has produced high short term gains. It has to stop!