Category Archives: Soil and food security

2015: International Year of the Soils

10968455_10152848645119934_1166334746202857131_nAnd about time!

We have been talking about pollution, the environment, climate change and the future of the planet for decades. We talk about the air, about the water, about sound pollution, plastic and deforestation. But when was the last time you ever heard anyone talking about our soil?

About the fact that if we blow it we won’t eat.

Topsoil is that thin, thin layer of soil we can use to grow food in. There’s nowhere near as much of it as you think, and the worst is that it’s disappearing fast. Statistics vary, but a starting point is that we have roughly half as much topsoil now as we had a century ago. And a population that is growing, globally.

Every year.

Where does it go? We build cities on some of our best fields. Great tracts of soil are washed away or blow away in the aftermath of deforestation and other poor management. We make deserts out of what was once fertile land. We poison good acreage with chemicals. We take out more than we give back.

Basically, we’ve not been thinking for a long, long while. And we’ve been damn quiet about it.

So it’s a blessing that this year our soil gets some limelight. A year, of course, is nothing in the great scheme of things, we need to be thinking about this every day and changing the way things are done. But it is a change to have a chat with your kids, your neighbors, your colleagues and your gardening mates about what is going on. How it could be if all decided to be the change, start doing what we can in our own backyard.

A backyard is not much but it’s still a bequest to the generations that come after us. People will need to grow food locally and to do that, they will need good soil. In their own backyard.

And soil, as we know, takes a hell of a time to build.

So we could make 2015 the year of doing things differently. For our children. And for theirs.

Soil and souvlaki.

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Just back from a couple of weeks backpacking in the Greek Islands. Heavenly — of course!!

But there were a couple of things that really got me thinking. The first was plastic bags — far too many of them were blowing around on the islands and out to sea. Blah.

And the other was the soil. Bone-hard.

I don’t know how you’d get a spade into it if you didn’t soak it up with a few buckets of water first. You’d think it would be a dream to grow fruit and veg in a place where the sun shines every day (believe me, a contrast to here!!) and for us it was a real treat to eat so many fresh peaches and apricots and cherries. But not a lot is grown on the islands, and the few hardy souls that have a kitchen garden growing are working hard with it. Water is precious in the towns and villages as it is, but when you head out just a bit further you realize just how hard people are working on their little patches. Deep wells, buckets on ropes, plastic jerry cans and donkeys. Up and down those steep slopes, day after day year after year.

But still. You can’t help thinking what a difference some organic material would make in the soil. A decent layer of mulch. Manure.

But when you look around you realize there’s not much mulch to be had. The little strawlike stuff there is goes to the donkeys, the rest is dry as dust. And I’m sure the little manure from goats and donkeys is put to good use.

Meanwhile down at the beach and in the village the streets are full of tavernas and cafes, plate after plate of marvellous sallads, souvlakis and roast chickens carried in and out of the kitchens. Nerd that I am I tried hard to crane my neck behind the scenes and into the kitchens, try to see what they were doing with all the leftovers. And time and time again I saw them land in the bin. One big bin. Paper, cans, glass and all the good food bits from the kitchen. I’d like to think some of it was kept aside for the donkeys and goats but I’m not so sure. Big bins of rubbish to be carried away at the end of the day, a big load on small islands with little infrastructure.

It felt so hopeless.

Two big problems. One easy solution. How to connect the dots?

I was a wimp. I didn’t take up the discussion with anyone. How could you? But it was tough to see what a difference Bokashi could make in this situation and not be able to do anything.

The change has to come from within in some way. But first they have to find out about it. I don’t think there’s any big Bokashi/EM movement anywhere in Greece yet. But I’m putting my hopes on Australians! Bokashi is taking off nicely in Australia, and in Australia you have a huge Greek population. (Melbourne used to be the third biggest Greek city in the world population-wise!). So let’s say one day some guys from Australia go “home” to visit their relations and bring with them some Bokashi. Talk it through, get something started. Show the difference. Anchor the concept a bit. Make sure there’s a supply line for EM and Bokashi bran.

It has to start somewhere. And it’s just too sad to see such an opportunity wasting. It would be great to see some of those little kitchen gardens getting a better chance. And it would be a real relief to see the leftovers from tavernas and cafes channelled back into the gardens of their neighbours.

Please someone — just do it!!

ps One thing I have to say was quite pragmatic…tomatoes and peaches growing around church walls!

pps This thing with flying. We went by air to Athens and took boats from there. I’m not proud about the flying bit, we try to travel by train wherever possible, or just skip it. But this trip we decided to do anyhow. And enjoy it to the utmost!

Save the bees!

Some of our best friends are bees. (And worms!) But we’re losing them, faster than many of us realised.

So I signed a petition in the weekend, along with a half million others. Let’s save the bees!

It’s all about chemicals. Getting them out of our food chain and getting the bees back in. If enough voices are raised our governments will hopefully act to ban the chemicals that are doing the damage. Here’s the message from Avaaz, the guys trying to get the movement off the ground. (Read on to the end and there’s a list of links to articles and other info on the situation).

 

Bees are dying off worldwide and our entire food chain is in peril. Scientists blame toxic pesticides and four European governments have already banned them.

 

Silently, billions of bees are dying off and our entire food chain is in danger. Bees don’t just make honey, they are a giant, humble workforce, pollinating 90% of the plants we grow.

Multiple scientific studies blame one group of toxic pesticides for their rapid demise, and some bee populations are recovering in countries where these products have been banned. But powerful chemical companies are lobbying hard to keep selling these poisons. Our best chance to save bees now is to push the US and EU to join the ban — their action is critical and will have a ripple effect on the rest of the world.

We have no time to lose — the debate is raging about what to do. This is not just about saving bees, this is about survival. Let’s build a giant global buzz calling for the EU and US to outlaw these killer chemicals and save our bees and our food. Sign the emergency petition now, and send it on to everyone and we’ll deliver it to key decision makers:

https://secure.avaaz.org/en/save_the_bees/?vl

MORE INFORMATION

Bee decline could be down to chemical cocktail interfering with brains
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jun/22/chemicals-bees-decline-major-study?INTCMP=SRCH

Bee briefing
http://www.soilassociation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=RXLEm9WXrHk%3D&tabid=439

$15 Billion Bee Murder Mystery Deepens
http://www.businessinsider.com/colony-collapse-disorder-still-unsolved-lead-researcher-had-connections-to-bayer-2010-10

“Nicotine Bees” Population Restored With Neonicotinoids Ban
http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/05/nicotine-bees-population-restored-with-neonicotinoids-ban.php

EPA memo reveals concern that pesticide causes bee deaths
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/green/detail?entry_id=79910

Beekeepers want government to pull pesticide
http://www.palmbeachpost.com/money/beekeepers-want-government-to-pull-pesticide-1107701.html

Bees in freefall as study shows sharp US decline
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jan/03/bumblebees-study-us-decline?INTCMP=SRCH

Pesticide industry involvement in EU risk assessment puts survival of bees at stake
http://www.corporateeurope.org/agribusiness/news/2010/11/16/pesticide-industry-future-bees

Biogas — fuel from food waste

I don’t know how things are in your corner of the world, but here in Sweden there’s a lot happening on the biogas front. Making fuel out of food and animal waste would seem to be — on the surface — a cool way of making something good out of something bad.

Which is is. But there’s a few things I wonder about all the same.

The reason for taking it up here is I picked up a New York Times article recently on biogas, and they’re holding up Sweden as an example of how the whole biogas thing can be done and done well. I’m not sure what this means: are we actually out there doing new stuff in this arena, or was it just a fluke that they picked a Swedish town as an example? It would be interesting with some viewpoints from the real world! What’s happening where you are?

First, I can say that the article pretty much represents reality here. Biogas is nothing new, a lot of cities are collecting food waste and manure and pumping it into biogas factories. The pump stations are gradually emerging along with the cars and buses. District heating is common — and makes a lot of sense in a country with many energy-consuming industries (pulp and paper in particular) that can supply the local community with their surplus heat. (But don’t worry — we pay for it! Even with our taxes there’s no such thing as a free lunch!!)

District heating is for the townies, country bumpkins such as ourselves have the standard options.All-time favourite is wood, a tried and tested biological resource in a country such as this. Despite all the pulp and paper and wood-heated homes, we manage to end up each year with some five per cent more trees growing than the year before. A net increase in a country that’s basically covered in spruce from top to toe.

Other options in the home if you don’t have district heating are direct electricity (your standard radiators), but this is something people are trying to replace or make more efficient for cost reasons. Oil boilers are a thing of the past (cost again, let alone the environment). Pellets (wood-based) are big, a convenient form of bio-fuel for boilers and central-heating fireplaces. Rooftop solar heating isn’t really making a mark, although some brave souls are trying. Our winters are so damn cold and we have so little light that it just doesn’t seem that appropriate to try and heat your shower from an arctic sunrise…

On a national supply basis we have a bit of everything much the same as everyone else. Some green. Some not. Some downright shameful (Vattenfall, our more or less monopoly electricity supplier, is deeply into brown coal in Germany…)

But back to biogas. Personally I think it’s great with innovation, it’s great to see a new form of green energy, it’s great to see local biogas production units popping up all over the country, and it’s great to see waste that would otherwise go to waste or up into the atmosphere being put to good use.

My concerns are largely around the issue of biomass. Have we really thought this thing through? By pumping food waste, animal waste, whatever into biogas plants and pumping out gas, aren’t we just making fuel out of soil? Food waste IS soil after all, it comes from the soil, it belongs to the soil, it should go back to the soil. We have it on loan and we should pay it back. Are we really entitled to divert it into another ecoloop, an ecoloop such as fuel in which it will definitely not find it’s way back to being biomass?

Biomass in the world is decreasing as we speak. Every year we have less good land for growing. We have less good soil. We have less possibility to grow food. At the same time as we have a growing population and a changing climate. Not the best of combinations, obviously.

It seems to me that in an equation like that everything that comes from the soil should go back to the soil. Anything else is like living off capital. Taking and taking and forgetting to put back.

Admittedly, there’s two things come out of a biogas factory. One is the gas, well and good, but it’s not soil. The other, a by-product of the gas production, is a soil-like product. THAT at least is sent to farms as some sort of input to the process there. I’ve heard varying reports on the quality of this material though — some say it’s ok, but others say the nature of the gas production destroys much of the value of the soil-like product, it becomes a sort of landfill. Something that would be good to find out more about.

But however you look at it there are pluses and minuses. Big plus: we get a bio-fuel out of something that may well have gone to landfill in many parts of the world otherwise. Big minus: we give away soil from the food production ecocycle. With fat chance of every getting it back.

That’s my two-cents worth anyhow! What’s yours??

Read the New York Times articles here>>

A truckload of food waste (in this case imported to Sweden from Norway!!!)

Oh, and by the way — can’t have a whole post with no comment on Bokashi :-). In case you were wondering what the effect would be of pre-processing food waste with Bokashi or EM before it goes into a biogas process, the answer is GOOD. I don’t think it’s done on a commercial scale anywhere so far but pilot tests show the efficiency of the biogas process to be improved by up to 10 per cent when treated with Bokashi or EM. So a synergy effect would be possible, should anyone care to take it on! The convenience for householders would certainly be improved, when you think of collection times, smell, flies and the rest of it.

How do we feed a growing world population?

It’s a good question. So, how do we?

If the chemical companies could decide the solution would of course be easy. Which is of course the angle here on this poster. According to them…

We can grow more using less water and land through technologies that unlock the potential of plants. These include drought-tolerant seed varieties, products that enhance plant performance and products that protect against insects, diseases and weeds.

Scary if you ask me.

How about we just start looking after our soil properly? Put everything back into the soil that we possibly can, find smart new ways of hanging onto nutrition so it’s not lost from the food chain, cool ways of working in our local communities so we can grow more food locally in the space we have using the resources we’ve already got on hand.

More common sense and less chemicals would be a good start. And Bokashi is definitely on the common sense side of the balance sheet. We just have to find ways of getting it all moving faster, so we really can feed this growing world population.

In time. Without taking scary shortcuts.

10 tips for reducing food waste in 2010

Pic: www.toonpool.com

I know Bokashi is about making soil out of what you can’t eat in the kitchen. But it’s just as much about tossing less stuff. Carrot peelings are one thing but you can’t help feeling a bit embarassed when you tip what should really have been dinner into the bin. Happens to the best of us. But I suspect a couple of months watching what goes in the Bokashi bin makes a lot of difference to a lot of people, suddenly you just can’t do it any more. And find yourself cringing when you’re at someone else’s place and they go around happily tossing out perfectly good leftovers. (Even worse is when you start wondering if they’d let you take them home with you…:-))

Anyhow, here’s an excellent blog with lots of good ideas for reducing food waste. From one sinner to another, as it were….

Read it here!

Where has all the food waste gone?

Photo: www.sr.se

I was thinking about this song the other day, you know the one: Where have all the flowers gone, Long time passing. Shows my age? No, honest, I think it was before my time.

Thinking how our concerns have changed focus but are infinitely more serious in a way. It feels like you couldn’t even try to write a song any more to express the worries we have for our future, for our planet, for our children and their future. But maybe that’s how they felt in the sixties too. So much good has come out of those worries, so much change and yet we now face concerns of such a dimension most are just doing an ostrich.

Today on national radio here there was a programme on food waste from supermarkets, and the big question is where on earth does it all go. The many charity organisations that could put any amount of close-to-use-by-date meat and vegetables to good use are not getting it. Nor are farmers, gardeners or others who could put it to use.

Most is simply wasted. Or used for energy recycling as they so euphemistically call it here. Which means burning it up in a huge modern mill and shipping out the energy onto the local district heating grid. Good in that at least some of the energy value in the food is put to good use. Bad in that none of it makes its way back to the soil where it belongs. And roughly a quarter of it ends up as a form of indescribable slag that even the rubbish tips can’t deal with.

Another hot use is biogas. Also an industrial, my-factory-is-bigger-than-yours solution. Generating much in demand biogas for running cars, buses and trucks. But also generating a sort of compost that has a quality often best suited to landfill. Unfortunately. Let’s hope the soil component turns out to be done well at some stage so at least some of it has the chance to become new food in the future.

The homeless generally don’t get much of a look in. The reason apparently is the stores are scared of generating a black market which would undermine their brands and possibly even cause a health scare. I’ve heard of stores that have all their food waste picked up by farmers, who then give it to their pigs. Which must be a good thing! But I’ve also heard that one of the big things stopping this sort of thing is all the plastic, a million small packages that have to be picked apart each day to separate the food from the packaging. Blah.

I been trying myself for a while to find a good second-hand food supplier. I’d like to start a small soil factory here, nothing extravagant, but a sort of demonstration setup to show how food waste can be simply and efficiently be recycled on quite a small piece of land using Bokashi and imagination. But so far I haven’t got hold of a supplier (which doesn’t mean I’ve given up, far from!). The local supermarkets won’t give me anything (but won’t say where their waste goes), a corner shop in town already has a deal with a guy who’s feeding wildlife (right or wrong I can’t say), and more institutional operators such as homes for old people require collection logistics on a scale I can’t handle. But there’s also fear and tradition to take into account; people are quite simply not good at doing new things.

But a bright spot! A Bokashi-colleague and friend is running a worm-farm in her garage (yep, you read right). She’s been collecting food waste from friends and cafes to feed to her worms. Time-consuming and delightful, but talk about putting food waste to a good cause!