Permaculture Answers to Climate Change: Soil and Diversity
PART 1 : SOIL IS THE KEY
As I was writing this post, over 190 countries were meeting in Paris and signed a ‘binding’deal to keep global warming within 2 degrees Celsius by 2030.
A complex and urgent matter for sure, a looming one as well….I have been following the reporting about it with interest as well as with mixed feelings. Seen innovative ideas in developing countries from grass-root organisations which deserve all support but when politicians ( read corporations) come into play i get mood swings…the agenda becomes so so much more complex…promises,goals,pledges but the execution of those are usually a completely different story… ‘Historical’ it has been called many times and yes I have to agree on that one , we are definitely writing history in the last few hundred of years…I fear it’s not the best chapter we are writing if we could ask Mother Earth..
Growingsmart was asked to give a talk on the Cop21 youth conference organised by the French International School in Hong Kong and share ideas on agriculture,food production and security in a changing climate. A nice opportunity to share permaculture ideas on the topic with the next generation who will together with their children live in a world that will be affected by it even more.
I was eager to hear how they think we can tackle the global warming: emit less CO2 , more renewable energy, use public transport more often, plant more trees were all on the list.. Nothing wrong with all these ideas but it lacks that real mind shift….
What I told the students is that even without climate change or global warming we have to change course drastically when it comes how we deal with our planet….global warming is just making it extra urgent or better it is a strong signal of the unbalance we created and we can no longer ignore. It puts humanity with it’s nose against what we are doing wrong.
Not only are we running out of resources but on top we are creating a mass extinction.
Everyone who is a little familiar with permaculture will have heard about the book ‘Limits to Growth’ from 1972 ( yes you read that right …43 years ago..) by the Club of Rome a think tank,in short the book is based on computer simulations in which they looked at future problems and possibilities looking at scenarios for a world with growing population,limited resources of the planet and maybe the biggest elephant in the room: continuous economic growth .
All scenarios but one resulted in collapse of the system somewhere in the next century( which is this one by now) the one exception resulted in an outcome where all stabilised as technology would catch up and yields would keep improving. 42 years later on the same road in a world with growing population ,a world and economies built blindly on consumption and where GDP is the only indicator when it comes to economic growth it is pretty obvious to me that that one scenario is not likely to happen…. Oceans are getting empty, we went from drilling for oil to exploring ways to get the last bits out of tar sands and now fracking is next on the list…the rainforests in Indonesia are burning to make space for palm oil and in the meanwhile we are creating a mass extinction on Mother Earth as a key species . Yields in farming stabilised and we put the ecosystem under huge pressure while we tried pushing up yields with gmo’s and a whole array of chemicals that came along with them…
So are we all doomed….? Well my personal opinion is that we definitely crossed a line and we will have to deal with the consequences of that as good as we can, that might be quite a shock as it is unavoidable. We better brace ourselves for impact as we don’t know yet how hard that will be… If we don’t step away from the growth- whatever- it – takes model and a consumer society run by corporations than there is little hope if you ask me… Weird thing is that we seem so blind to it despite all the signs …..people are all excited about technologies ( and movies) that grow food on other planets but in the mean time we ruin our own home… We all know the history of Easter Island but we seem to ignore we copying that same mistake on a global scale… And yet the answer lays in Mother Earth herself…if we heal her we get rid of our problems and that is not impossible.
I really believe that we can fix this , inspiring projects around the globe are showcasing it and these should be at the frontline of the conferences and in the news, people have to see where the real problem lays and how amazingly resilient and important nature is if only we give her the chance! When we talk about climate change and global ŵarming we always talk about emissions ,fossil fuels and how to reduce them . Of course I support these too, all bits and pieces help but it’s about time we look at the whole picture which isn’t that difficult .
As always we have to get back to nature and see how that works…we are actually stepping on one of the best solutions to the problem of climate change: Soil! To put it basically: the amount of carbon on the planet is constant , just like water…the amount of water is constant on the planet, the form in which it is appears changes, it can be ice if it freezes, it can be vapour, we can only drink the liquid form. Same applies to carbon…if we burn solid carbon such as in wood or coal ( fossilised carbon in a way) we create carbondioxide so carbon goes from solid to gas, problem is we are getting too much carbondioxide in our atmosphere what causes global warming ( together with other greenhouse gasses like methane and nitrous oxide) . We focus on emitting less of these but ….we seldom hear about the fact that 50 percent of the carbon in our soils has gone over the last say 150 years…. We might have too much carbon in gas form in the air but not enough in our soils…an unbalanced situation, same for our fresh water supply. Trees and plants capture CO2 from the air and through the proces of photosynthesis they absorb the carbon which becomes the building block of life eg the stem,stalk leaves of crops and plants and gives the oxygen back to atmosphere , the extra carbon it exudes through its roots and store in the soil! Carbon sequestration at it’s best …… Where we went wrong on a big scale and in many ways is when we started industrial farming, originally seen as the way to feed the fast growing population, intensely tilling and ploughing the soil, adding chemical fertilisers and pesticides to reach maximum yields but at a great cost as we have been depleting the soil and that has huge consequences…we took our carbon skeleton out of the soil bone by bone …
Each time we till the soil and leave it bare we expose the carbon stored in the soil back to the air and it gets back into the atmosphere where we don’t want it...this practice happens on a huge scale all over the planet and we underestimate the amount of carbon we put back into the air this way. We emit CO2 in many more ways than from chimneys and exhaust pipes, just this one is not as obvious it seems…though he amount of carbon we push into our atmosphere might be as big as all other ways combined hence the 50 percent loss of carbon in our soils over a good 150 years..
Once fertile lands suffer from desertification, overgrazing turned lush grasslands into deserts, bare soil exposes it to the elements , rain and wind erodes it and degrades the land in no time. Once again the solution lays in Mother Nature herself, just watch how nature and ecology works and mimic these patterns , nature has been fixing herself and evolving for millions of years to create a balance ,a balance that we managed to disrupt in no time by our invasive methods, trust me …we won’t beat nature , we are faced with a big unbalance ,our only option is to restore it as good as we can. I have the deepest respect for the indigenous tribes whom we call ‘primitive’ but just know how to live with nature rather than from it, they still know the patterns and won’t disturb them, we are just cutting the legs from under our table the way we farm these days ! I am convinced that regenerative organic farming is the best way to feed ourselves and restore that balance while doing it . Here is how that works, with organic farming we mean no use of chemical pesticides,fertilisers and no gmo’s , I agree that is a better way of farming especially when it comes to grow healthy food and not poison the ecosystem. Still in the current situation it’s good but not good enough, though it is more sustainable it’s not fixing the damage we caused well enough in my opinion. Even farming this way but working heavily on the land and tilling and ploughing we let too much precious carbon escape from our soil.
Real organic farming captures carbon into the soil and keeps it there!
That is crucial if we want to restore / regenerate our depleted soils! A practice popular in permaculture that has proven efficient and should become the new norm in agriculture! The benefits are so huge in many ways…the more organic matter/carbon in the soil the better it hold water ( another scarce element these days) ,the more bacteria and micro organisms the soil will hold the more fertile the lands will get as they produce nitrogen for our plants. Nitrogen, rings a bell? Yes that multi billion dollar polluting industry making fertilisers for agriculture…..if we let nature take its course that nitrogen is produced for free right under our feet… Farming this way we can produce healthy food and in the mean time regenerate or heal our depleted farmlands and fix that disturbed balance! In practice this is done by cover cropping what essentially means that the soil is never left bare for a long period of time by sowing say clover,barley ,oats ,ryegrass on the field so the field is evergreen ( read doing photosynthesis and sequestering carbon year round) , the covered soil is protected from erosion and the cover suppresses weed growing ( no pesticides) and keeps soil moist. That cover when harvested get rolled down and forms a decomposing groundcover that slowly feeds the soil while the second crop grows this could be soya beans as on the photo. Some figures? An acre of farmland cultivated in this way sequesters about 15 ton of carbon a year and keeps that carbon in the soil, as the organic matter amount grows in soil( approx with 0,7 pct a year ) so,does the bacterial life and nitrogen production, France is the first country to acknowledge this and pledge to raise to carbon content in farmlands by 0,4 pct a year,it should be done globally, just do the maths!
So how can we move forward?
I see the battle on 3 fronts here.
First: we should make all our empty spots green so the plants can do what they good at: sequestering carbon, whether it is on a rooftop scale or big empty areas, all bits count! France again made it a law earlier this that all new commercial rooftops have to have solar panels or be green roofs, a great initiative.
Second : Transition from existing industrial farming and so called organic farms to real organic farms that put the carbon back into the soil, too many times I heard on organic rice farms here in Hong Kong that the straw gets sold after harvest and fertilisers brought in….the techniques mentioned above with cover cropping are very promising and should become the new norm.
Third : Repairing our damaged and depleted soils and grasslands and turn them back into fertile lands through practises that are really eye-opening and inspiring: regenerative organic farming. Yes it is possible to produce healthy food and repairing the land as we do this! By mimicking mother nature’s patterns we can create systems that turn barren depleted soils or overgrazed grasslands back to fertile lands. It is all about how things are managed if you ask me….we usually focus on yield only ,maximum profit for the few ,exploiting farmers,their land and the animals on it, we crossed many lines doing that but are only fooling ourselves long term .
I read some articles these about the problems of livestock , how bad they are for climate change with all their methane emissions. It is surely true that how these are currently managed it creates a huge problem BUT mainly because we keep them in a very unnatural way!
Keeping thousands of cattle on concrete or on fenced areas with not a single grass on it feeding them corn so they get fat fast can hardly be called ‘farming’ if you ask me, it’s abuse in the first place and yes that concentration can only create useless piles of pooh and methane as well as disease . Manage it well through a technique called holistic grazing where they move from patch to patch and graze for a short time and the herd will literally turn poor soils back into fertile lands while they eat grass ( right ,cows are supposed and designed to eat grass not corn) and lead a happy life,( same is done in rotations with hogs,turkeys, chicken) In the picture above the grassland on the right hand side was overgrazed by cattle on the left hand side they kept 4 times as many animals and used holistic grazing techniques,difference and results speak for themselves…
If managed well the herd disturb the land in the same ways the herds of bisons once roamed on the Great Plains , moving on slowly as hunted by predators , what they created were the richest soils in the US….till right.. men came in and claimed the lands for agriculture and killed millions of bisons… The same areas now start to suffer from desertification… Allan Savory is one of he pioneers in this field and has been doing some great research on several projects turning barren lands in Africa back to fertile land this way.
No method is ideal but the one closest to how nature usually works best in the long term. This way of farming should become the new norm and there are some great examples of working models out there, creating healthy food while restoring the abused land and shifting to local economies ,farm to table ,only benefits ….an inspiring example is Joel Salatin’s Polyfaces farm, a great documentary about his farm was released recently and it showcases what is possible. If you have a few minutes please watch the trailer of Polyfaces below.In part 2 of this blogpost which will be published in a few days we will look at how diversity can help us coping with climate change.