Recently I had a conversation with a well-known nutritionist, writes Herbert Girardet. I casually said: ‘of course, we are what we eat, aren’t we’? She looked at me slightly disparagingly and said: ‘No, no, wrong: We are what we assimilate’. She went on to talk about how the health of the internal flora of our digestion system determines how well we absorb the food we eat.
We are affected by what we assimilate, but also by what we eliminate. The world’s environment is profoundly affected by what our bodies, our households, or entire cities discharge. Perhaps the greatest problem with modern civilisation is that it is an essentially linear system: We use resources without much concern about their origin or the destination of their wastes: inputs and outputs are considered to be largely unrelated.
Fossil fuels are prised out of rock strata, refined and burned, causing air pollution and climate change. Raw materials are extracted and made into consumer goods and end up polluting living nature. Forests are logged but often they aren’t replenished. As food is grown, nutrients are removed from farmland and not returned.
Nature, on the other hand, is an essentially circular system and invariably its waste products become nutrients for new growth: every output by an organism is also an input which renews the living environment. This is demonstrated most visibly as leaves fall in the autumn and become leaf mould and soil by the complex interactions of many forms of ‘life in earth’.
The organic movement, of course, is tasked with protecting and enhancing soil life, as well as human health and well-being. And the Soil Association, its global pioneer, now rightly concerns itself also with countering climate change via soil carbon storage and reforestation. This is very timely, because droughts, storms and extreme floods have been increasing across the world in both frequency and severity.
We urgently need to accelerate safe, healthy food systems that enhance ‘life in earth’ as well as life on earth. Agroecological practices, such as agroforestry, are crucial for the future of the food production that an urbanising world depends on. And, of course, we must make sure to supply better quality food, and to minimise food wastage.
In this context, the concept of sustainability may no longer suffice as a frame of reference for our actions. It is no longer good enough to just try and sustain soils, forests and watercourses in a profoundly degraded condition – we need to start to take active measures to regenerate them instead. These ideas are familiar to us all – for good reason: organic farming is also called regenerative farming. In this context, it is most important to address the relationship between farming and cities as the world’s primary food consumers.
Organic farming is, above all else, about closing the loop between food production, nutrient supply and soil life. Lack of concern about this is vividly demonstrated by the deplorable condition of many river estuaries: all over the world they have become dead zones, due to excessive nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.
There are now over 400 dead zones in the world’s oceans where marine life has perished due to depleted oxygen levels: nutrient run-off from agriculture combines with urban sewage and causes the growth of algae which sink to the bottom and use up oxygen when they decompose.
The world’s largest dead zone – in the Gulf of Mexico – covers 27,000 square miles in the summer months. The reason? The Mississippi and its tributaries drain much of the US: surplus fertiliser from the farmland of 31 states, plus waste water from some 12 million city people. 1.7 million tons of phosphorus and nitrogen are discharged into the Gulf every year, causing eutrophication and the death of oxygen producing marine ecosystems!
Closer to home, much of the Baltic is another vast dead zone for the same reason. Whilst the Member States have agreed an Action Plan to reduce nutrients loads, so far there has been little improvement in the condition of the Baltic.
In Britain we used to have a major problem with eutrophication in the Thames estuary, but incineration of much of London’s domestic sewage has reduced this problem. But, of course, this does not address the fact that the nutrient it contains are not returned to farmland as fertiliser.
Closing the circle between city and farm through innovative practices is an, as yet, unresolved issue. Contamination of sewage with heavy metals, chemicals and medicines has caused the EU to prohibit the use of sewage as fertiliser. It is argued that this pollution problem can only be solved if domestic waste water is collected and treated separately from industrial waste, and only then used in agriculture.
In some regions, such as South Australia, these issues have been vigorously addressed: the region is heading for 100% reuse of waste water in urban fringe farming. Viticulture, market gardens and agroforestry projects now utilise both recycled sewage and urban green waste compost. Soils in the Adelaide Plain have been regenerated and more carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere.
This example is highly relevant to the UK and could be copied if Britain were to adopt its own waste water reuse standards in a post-Brexit world. An additional dimension of this issue is that the world’s phosphorus deposits are being depleted at an alarming rate. At current consumption levels, we will run out of known phosphorus reserves by around 2100, but consumption can only increase further under the pressure of ever increasing global food demands.
We can no longer afford to waste precious mineral resources in linear systems of resource use. Regenerating the vitality of soils and ecosystems is crucial in an urbanising, climate-challenged world heading for food challenges.
We need to give nature a chance to beneficially assimilate human wastes, and to help initiate innovative policy changes to deal with these vital matters.
Herbert Girardet is an author, environment consultant, and a board member of APE. He is also a patron of the Soil Association, which originally published this article in their members’ magazine.
Photo: Hani Amir (CC BY-NC-ND via Flickr). Thilafushi Kuni Gondu, Maldives – God’s dirty little secret. This is where they burn the garbage in paradise. Where expatriate workers work all day for less than $0.08 a KG (1MRF per KG) of scrap metal; with no safety equipment. Where garbage just seeps into the ocean.