This is the World Organic News for the week ending the 27th of May 2019.
Jon Moore reporting!
Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!
The project I spoke about last week is coming along nicely and I’ll have lots more to tell you soon.
Today I need to dive back into my personal history. Fear not, I won’t be over sharing.
Whilst at university I studied archaeology. This discipline only deals with humans so no dinosaurs just humans. The greater part of human existence was spent by us in the gentle arts of the fisher-hunter-gatherer. Now this was sold to me as lifestyle not worth the effort during my school days. You know the story. Civilisation arose in the Fertile Crescent, China and Mesoamerica and slowly at first but then with increasing rapidity, the bright lights of civilisation were brought to the whole world. What caused me to question this assumption, apart from the Mongols but that’s another podcast, was the interface of two opposing food systems.
The gardening based cultures of Papua New Guinea and the fisher-hunter-gathers (FGH) of Far North Queensland. A well developed garden culture involving a carb staple of taro or yams with pigs and chickens feeding people reasonably well. The alternative was an equally well developed, even older culture of fishing, hunting and gathering. The question I had was this: If the gardening culture was so much better, it was a stage leading to civilisation, after all, why did the good denizens of Far North Queensland not adopt the gardening system?
At the time, the first half of the 1990s, the argument was the FNQ people didn’t see the benefits of changing. Now all this is the long way round to our first article this week from Ars Technica entitled: Hunter-gathering seems to have been easier than farming
A paper published in Nature Human Behaviour explores how this shift affects the time budgets of hunter-gatherers in the Philippines, finding that women who participate more in agricultural work have less leisure time—around half the leisure time of women who prioritize foraging.
Leisure time is not time designed to be spent on playstations or smartphones but in conversation with other humans, listening to sounds of Nature and so on. Indeed it seems FGH spent as little four hours a day in the actual process of not just procuring food but processing and consuming it.
The point I am eventually getting to is that somewhere we missed a trick. In the industrialised world, thanks to pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilisers et al we spent between 6 and 10% of our incomes on food. Now if we use money as a proxy for time, FGH spent about 17% of their time/income on food. Yet in less developed places people spend between 40 and 57% of their income on food.
We got a bad deal as a species.
Of course the small percentages in industrialised nations don’t cover the true cost of the food. Health costs, top soil, polluted waters and on and on all push that percentage higher.
My thought back in the last millennium was, What if we could live like FGHs but with the the range of foods available to us now?
Always drawn to organic methods since I first met John Seymour through his Complete Guide to Self Sufficiency, the thing I really didn’t like was the physical labour involved.
Our second article from Salon entitled: Organic food is booming, but it’s grinding field laborers into the dirt confirms this.
Synthetic pesticides and genetically modified crops are effective—by choosing not to use them, organic agriculture requires more manually-intensive labor—sometimes as much as 35 percent more. Herbicides used in organic farming are often less effective at eradicating weeds, requiring more physical weeding. Because organic farms don’t use as much fertilizer, cover crops are needed to enhance soil nitrogen levels—which in turn increases the amount of labor time invested in each field.
This is, of course, the industrial argument against organic farming. And it also fails to take into account the changes over the past two decades. Regenerative practices require far less labour. They, in essence, mimic the FGH model using agriculturally selected species. They require data managers rather than technicians. I’m not disparaging the farmers who have toiled to tame Nature, I saying we now have ways that work with Nature and therefore require far less effort. Using the systems evolved over 4.6 billion years rather than attacking those systems, attempting to smash the “weeds” by industrial methods, will and do make our lives easier.
We can do this from the suburban garden outwards. Let’s run a thought experiment. How many lawns are there in a suburb? How much fuel is used to keep it cut? How much glyphosate is sprayed on edges? How much is used by local councils and bushland regenerators? Now see those same inputs replaced by systems using the succession of plants. See a tiny start. 10% of back yards converted from lawn to no-dig vegetable and flower gardens, fruit trees planted on property boundaries, chooks, rabbits and even guinea pigs used to edge and graze areas of grass and clover. The benefits from a human health perspective are reasons enough. The bonus of turning a tenth of suburbia into a carbon sink only adds to positives.
My position on organic farming reaches the same conclusion as the cited quoted but from a different starting point. I have observed a registered organic farm at work and the levels of labour involved are quite staggering. This place was run on a John Seymour basis. Basically chemical agriculture without the chemical inputs and the use of compost. Huge amounts of diesel, soil turned three times before planting and so on. This, obviously, led to the need for extensive weeding and a large labour force, mostly unpaid students and volunteers.
So the poorer parts of the world are filling people’s lives with the need to spend around half their incomes on food, the industrial ag of the richer parts is destroying the biosphere and the “organic” solution has carbon effects not dreamt of by John Seymour and those who follow “return to the land” organic systems.
We have moved since my moment of questioning in the early 1990s through a series of ideas. The organic example, the sustainability paradigm to the regenerative model.
Forcing people to labour for half their lives to feed themselves or outsourcing human labour to fossil fuels are not sustainable ideas. The wonderful thing about natural system is their ability to bounce back to different levels of equilibrium. A forest burnt in a wildfire will, with sufficient time and rainfall return to a similar state to the pre fire state. It will be different but substantially the same forest in a state of equilibrium.
An even more hopeful example is what happens when a glacier retreats. We can reconstruct the ecological succession of plants from pollen evidence. The exposed soils of today can be rehabilitated, quickly, using the same successions. This too can be applied to soils decimated by chemical applications. The key to basically all soil problems is the building of biological activity.
We have around us many examples of people have mimicked nature and managed to grow both food and soil. They have been the subject of numerous episodes of this podcast: Masanobu Fukuoka, Zero Budget Natural Farming, Biodynamics and Permaculture to name few.
We have all the data we need to get this revolution started. Imagine a world where the soil is covered, never leaks CO2, increases in biological complexity and cleans the waters of the world. Clean, decarbonised air, towns and cities quiet through the use of electric vehicles, rivers flushed clean of toxins, the seas cleaned of plastics.
Imagine a world fit to live in.
And damn it, it’s not that difficult to achieve!
And on that note I’ll draw this episode to a conclusion.
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Thank you for listening and I’ll be back next week.
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Hunter-gathering seems to have been easier than farming
Which countries spend the most on food? This map will show you
Organic food is booming, but it’s grinding field laborers into the dirt