Lizzie Rivera explores the connection between soil health and human health in celebration of all the farmers – organic and otherwise – who are reversing environmental damage, cultivating biodiversity and harvesting hope.
In that total hopelessness and in the face of impending climate crisis there’s something very humble about farming,” says Lynne Davis, who swapped a career in software for farming when she was in her twenties and now runs The Open Food Network, which connects food hubs with local communities.
“You know you can do something good to restore the planet and give people what they need at the same time. It feels a very practical and tangible way of doing something useful.”
It’s no secret that agriculture has been vilified as a primary cause of the climate crisis, with food and farming regularly linked to a third of climate emissions, 70 per cent of water use and 60 per loss of biodiversity.
But, what if farming could be a way to reduce emissions rather than adding to them? What if it could be a way to store water in the ground, for plants to call upon in times of drought? And begin to restore biodiversity?
What if farmers all across the world were already doing this? Organic, biodynamic, regenerative, regenerative organic – whatever label you wish to attribute to them; farmers have not only been preventing more harm being caused, but actually reversing this harm, for years.
Until recently, these nature-focused farming methods – and buying food produced in this way – felt almost philanthropic because the environmental benefits were positioned as nice-to-haves.
The foods and wines are luxury items, offering the promise of guilt-free indulgence thanks to better animal welfare and no “nasties”, for a more expensive price.
But, the destruction caused by not farming in tune with nature is becoming much more apparent now.
“Even 10 years ago, wheat and barley growers in the east of England were still rejecting the idea that their soil was going to run out of steam,” says Helen Browning, chief executive of the UK’s largest organic certifying body, The Soil Association.
“In the past five years the impacts have been felt; organic matter in the soil is running really low, the chemicals aren’t working so it’s costing a lot to cultivate these crops, and across the board farmers are recognising that we haven’t done enough to care for our soils.”
The Soil Association claims if Europe’s farmland all followed organic principles, agricultural emissions could drop by 40-50 per cent by 2050, with plenty to feed the growing population of healthy diets.
The secret is in the soil
It is only fairly recently that we have started to appreciate the significance of what Sir Albert Howard, a founder of the organic movement in the early 1900s and the Soil Association in 1946, always knew: “The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.”
It’s a rare example of a win-win situation – a variety of nutritious fruits, vegetables and free-range meat practically become the bi-products of farming healthy soil.
One teaspoon of healthy soil has up to a staggering nine billion microorganisms in it. But industrial farming is pretty much killing off that life in the soil. So, the essential conversation is now all about how to restore it.
To increase soil fertility we need biodiversity. This relies on practices like agroforestry – planting forests as a way of building soil resilience, and increasing crop diversity by planting crops that are native to the environment. “No-till”, so as not to kill off soil life, is becoming increasingly common and can prevent soil erosion and allow more water to infiltrate the soil.
From a food and environment point of view, it’s a rare example of a win-win situation – a variety of nutritious fruits, vegetables and free-range meat practically become the bi-products of farming healthy soil.
“And when unfertile soils are affecting yields, from a purely financial point of view you can make the case for soil management really quite quickly,” says Browning.
So, why isn’t every farmer farming in this way?
“Of course it makes so much sense once you’ve removed the economics and practicalities of everyday farming,” says Davis.
“Farming is a high capital industry. You have to change a lot and it’s a big gamble – there are so many variables and if you get it wrong you don’t get to try again for a whole year.”
The other question we have to ask is, why isn’t everyone eating in this way already?
Without a doubt, the pandemic has highlighted the fragility of our food system. Supermarkets struggled to fill their shelves with fresh produce, as farmers struggled to find workers to pick crops. Dairy farmers were forced to pour millions of litres of milk down the drain, as millions of children went to bed hungry.
In a YouGov survey, 42 per cent of respondents said the outbreak has made them value food more. Some three million people, six per cent of the population, tried a veg box scheme or ordered food from a local farm for the first time. The Open Food Network saw a staggering 900 per cent increase in signups across its platform.
Organic sales soared by 18.7 per cent in the 12 weeks ending 30th May, including the 10 weeks of lockdown, according to Nielsen data. The same report reveals that so far this year, annual organic food and drink sales have seen annual growth of 6.1 per cent, almost double the growth of non-organic food and drink products.
But, organic still accounts for less than 2 per cent of the overall food and drink market and it’s simply not viable to produce food in this way if people aren’t going to buy it.
The incentives are not just environmental. Although more difficult to prove, as studies that restrict diet and behaviour over a number of years are hard to conduct, the human health benefits appear significant. “We all know it, we just can’t say it,” more than one organic expert has said to me.
Last month a peer-reviewed study, published in the journal of Environmental Research and funded by Friends of the Earth, revealed that eating an organic diet can reduce the amount of glyphosate – the world’s most widely-used weed killer – in your body by 70 per cent within a week.
One of the biggest studies is Newcastle University’s peer reviewed research, published in 2015 in the British Journal of Nutrition. It found there are between 18 per cent and 69 per cent more antioxidants, which defend cells from damage, in food produced using organic methods. Choosing organically produced foods can also lead to a reduced intake of potentially carcinogenic cadmium and pesticides.
It also found both organic dairy milk and meat contain around 50 per cent more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, which help to maintain a healthy heart, than conventionally produced products and organic meat has slightly lower concentrations of two saturated fats linked to heart disease.
More and more research is connecting the diversity of organisms in the human gut to the diversity of microorganisms in the soil.
When you talk to organic farmers, regenerative farmers, farmers who farm traditionally and resist being labelled, it is nearly always this deeper understanding of our connection with nature that drives them.
They are not only building our soils and growing better food, they are harvesting hope.
Lizzie Rivera is the founder of online sustainable lifestyle guide, Live Frankly