Words By Mayla Westward
In a single handful of healthy soil, you can find millions of living organisms all performing important functions. Fungi and bacteria break down dead matter so that it becomes part of the soil, the link between life and death. Fungi hold the soil together with a vast underground network, consisting of thousands of fine threads known as mycelium, helping to store water and prevent the soil from degrading. This mycelium also acts as a network to connect plants and trees and distribute nutrients through the soil and even help trees communicate with each other. There is as much life below the soil as there is above it, it’s a world that thrives in its natural sate and like all ecosystems, it plays an essential role that is connected to a myriad of other organisms. Healthy soil is the growth medium for all plants and trees that feed all animals, including us…but not so much anymore. With the spread of intensive agriculture, preserving underground ecosystems is far from a priority, output is the main factor considered here, the more the better. This generally doesn’t involve long-term planning or in-depth research about soil profiles and how to preserve fertility. Industrial agricultural endeavours are no longer simply about feeding people and making enough to live on, but the accumulation of profits and therefore fast and cheap crop turnover. This demands pesticides to kill the weeds, insects, fungi, and bacteria that are considered harmful to the crop and fertilisers to make them grow faster and with higher yield. But these methods that seemed so productive are killing the resources that allow us to grow anything in the first place and the soil is deprived of its role of nurturer. Pesticides don’t just kill the organisms that threaten crops but also the beneficial bacteria and fungi that not only produce fertile soil but help to deter harmful microbes and insects through outcompeting them for nutrients while also helping crops to thrive and produce their own chemicals to deter pests. When growing on soil that is depleted, farmers have no choice but to use pesticides and fertilisers to get a good yield.
Changing intensive agricultural practices requires enough time to restore the soil to a healthy ecosystem. To maintain naturally healthy soil, monocultures must be replaced with permacultures, the practice of growing crops organically and sustainably without the use of manufactured fertilisers and pesticides. These methods are ancient and have been used traditionally by indigenous people for thousands of years and was a mainstream farming method until relatively recently. A perfect example of how well permaculture can work is the ‘three sisters’, a native American traditional method where corn, beans and squash are grown together. The corn grows tall and provides a stalk for the beans to climb up as their vines grow. The beans are legumes and so have nitrifying bacteria on their roots which provides the nitrogen essential for healthy plant growth. The squash has large leaves that shelter the ground beneath and keep it from drying and out as well as preventing weeds from growing by blocking their light. Many plants such as marigolds can be used to deter pests, as they release a scent that is unpleasant to many insects that would eat the crops. Food scraps and weeds can be composted and used to make natural fertiliser that does not damage ecosystems. So, it’s not that there aren’t alternatives to damaging agricultural practices, it’s that changing current growing methods is not being prioritised enough.
A limited number of farmers are willing to grow organically because it’s more costly short term, and governments don’t provide many if any subsidies to help organic farmers. In countries with lower food standards such as the US, large agricultural businesses have dominated the food market, incentivised by profits. These companies are having a profoundly negative effect on agricultural practices, as they take shortcuts to reduce costs such as engineering genetically modified organism (GMO) crops, which are meant to give better yields but have unpredictable effects on the environment, such as resulting in superweeds which are resistant to pesticides. In addition, some companies have patented their GMO seeds so that only they may own the rights to trade them. This is problematic because they have started selling them to small farmers, especially in African countries with the result that farmers can no longer participate in traditional seed saving and trading and become reliant on expensive patented seeds. These companies also use large amount of environmentally detrimental artificial fertilisers and pesticides which also pose risks to human health. Despite these obstacles, transitioning to sustainable agriculture is essential; forty percent of the world’s soils are already badly degraded and if intensive agriculture continues at this rate, there will soon be no farmable land left in the world. Permaculture and organic farming is more time consuming, but it preserves soil fertility and biodiversity, saving money in long term because there is no need for pesticides and fertilisers.
The good news is that there are lots of ways everyone can reduce the negative impacts of agriculture and encourage sustainability. Reducing food waste is one of them; we don’t even need to currently expand our agriculture, as the world already produces one and half times enough food to feed everyone on the planet, we just need to change how we distribute food. Reducing food waste at home and campaigning for less food waste helps to lessen agricultural demands and better distribute food. Charities such as FareShare and the Real Junk Food Project save food from supermarkets and farms that would otherwise be thrown away and make it available to the people who need it most, helping to reduce food poverty and food waste simultaneously. They have branches in Brighton and are always happy to accept new volunteers. You can also get involved with directly harvesting surplus crops through the Gleaning Network, run by the food waste charity, FeedBack by signing up to their mailing list to find out about gleaning near you. There are plenty of small farms that use permaculture practices where you can volunteer or become a paid worker. A good way to find out about where you can do this is on the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) website where you can find hundreds of international volunteering opportunities which may also lead to paid work, and often come with a room and three meals a day. While the pandemic is currently making some of these opportunities difficult, you can try sustainably growing stuff at home, even if its just a few herbs in a plant pot. There are so many online resources where you can learn about making natural fertilisers, composting and organic growing methods even if you’ve never grown anything before. Changing your shopping habits to incorporate local veg boxes is a great way to support more sustainable local farmers. If you’re local to Brighton then you can find a list of veg boxes on the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership website. It’s important for us to stay connected to where our food comes from and to give something back to the earth so that it can continue to sustain us and future generations.