Episode 28: RoundUp, Soil & Square Foot Gardening

This is the World Organic News Podcast for the week ending 15th of August 2016.

Jon Moore reporting!

This week we begin with some disturbing news from the European Parliament! A number of MEPs agreed to have their urine tested for glyphosate and they all tested positive to the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup. The blog theinternationalreporter.org reported on this unpleasant issue. By way of coincidence I was in discussion with a friend on their new land acquisition in the hills of Gloucester NSW. He casually mentioned the local large landholders find the country too steep to spot spray with Roundup so they use aerial techniques. Now there is an economic imperative for the landholders not to “waste” spray on waterways, non target areas or neighbour’s properties but aerial spraying is an inexact science. The sprayed paddocks not only include lantana and blackberries but cattle too. Whilst Monsanto argues for glyphosate breaking down quickly in the environment, the article from theinternationalreporter.org would point to failings in this argument. 

Similarly, we have no idea what effect glyphosate has on fungal communities, mostly because no has looked. After all the importance of these communities was not really appreciated until comparatively recently. Apparently, applying the precautionary principle is an idea for climate science but not agricultural science. So the propensity to spray appears to increase, year on year whilst the science of glyphosate dispersal is accepted. Yet a chemical claimed to disperse and become inert in the environment is showing up in the urine of urban dwellers. Surely this is a time for the precautionary principle to be applied?

What we face, as a globe, is a biosphere drenched in chemicals. Zika virus, known for 60 plus years without any connection to birth defects is now responsible for these horrors. Coincidentally, the areas first reporting these birth defects had recently been sprayed with a new Monsanto larvicide to control mosquitoes. Agent Orange continues to affect not just the American side’s veterans from that conflict but far larger numbers of Vietnamese. The correlations between chemical use and health disorders is rising. A correlation is not necessarily a causation but it is sign further research needs to be done. 

Then we have the question of what’s being done to the soil. Having discussed fungal communities in our past couple of episodes, I think we can start to understand their importance. There is more to the soil that plant roots and fungi, there is humic acid too. If we move onto humic acid and soil health in general we come to debate long raging in agricultural circles. From the 1990s on it seemed the chemical fertilisers and pesticides form of farming had won. The Roundup resistant weeds, soil erosion, desertification and loss of soil carbon coming to light suggest the argument is far from over. Former Nuffield scholar, Rob Richmond discusses the debate between natural and chemical farming in the blog post: The Debate of our Time. Writing in the blog Forgotten Soil he shows this argument goes back to the 1930s and 40s.

To quote from the post:

In the end, the Second World War, food rationing and the lack of labour meant the easy option of fertilises, producing similar yields to humus agriculture, was adopted. This continued apace for the last 70 plus years, producing increasing yields of cheap commodities.

However, since 2000, yields have levelled or declined despite increasing inputs. The weather has become more variable and with it yields.

End quote.

The chemical fertiliser paradigm is a pact with the devil. It gives up a little soil health each year in return for yields now. Eventually this is a self defeating system and no amount of agricultural subsidy will regrown topsoil under this system. What it does do is increase commodity yields to a lately discovered limit and this removes commodities from local production. It moves farming further from the urban centres as the bigger is better mantra drives agribusiness and continues to break the link between food producers and food consumers. Once that link is broken, the horrors of the live cattle and live sheep trades become possible without mass disgust by the populace. It also creates the conditions for agribusiness where the decision makers, in offices are separated from the activity of farming. Where plants and animals are reduced to quarterly profit and loss statements, where animal cruelty can be justified in the name of profit. See last week’s discussion on factory farms for more on that horror. 

Of course the standard response from the agribusiness community’s PR types is: “But the consumer demands cheap, uniform meat, fruit, bread, pasta, etc” When what they mean is: The supermarkets demand cheap, uniform meat, fruit, bread, pasta, etc. So the system becomes self perpetuating and spreads the impression that this is all there is.

What can we, as individuals, families, communities do?

The blog The Adventures of Merlyn Perilous has a post on the All New Square Foot Gardening (2nd Edition) by Mel Bartholomew. Square foot gardening is a great intro into home produce production. It teaches spacing, growth habits and succession planting. I tried one summer and it worked well enough. The obvious problem, as the name suggests is the squareness of the system. Squares are great for engineering and the developer of the system, Mel Bartholomew was an engineer. Nature though does not run on squares. Think of the honeycomb of the the bee hive. Hexagons. Once you have learned the lessons of spacing, growth habits and succession planting you can take this knowledge and develop other ways. 

The blog What’s in That Yard? Has a great post entitled What is a keyhole garden? And it pretty much explains what the title would suggest. I’ve been taken with the idea of circular gardens for some time. They are, as with square gardens, not Nature’s prefered shape. Think again of the hexagon. And it is possible to build hexagonal keyhole gardens. The advantage of these gardens is their raised bed nature, so you can build them as high as you want for your own back’s comfort whilst retained the water management benefits of a raised bed garden. These are never dug over and continuously planted so the fungal communities receive the chance to establish themselves.

Another approach to this tight planting idea is the garden tower. The blog Heathen Women has a “how to” piece: Grow 53 Plants in 4 Sq Ft with a Garden Tower Vertical Container Garden. This is a video post so lots of good ‘how to’ visuals. These towers are expandable in that you can use more than one. Starting with one would be good for the beginner and expanding over time as you learn the system. 

So, things a crook. Our biosphere is being altered, chemicals are building up in environments and therefore in plants and animals. This, of course, includes we humans. We can look the other way and assume the power systems in place will keep us safe of we can take stand and grow our own food. Some of it or all of it, it doesn’t matter. Every meal we grow ourselves is a signal to the supermarkets. One family won’t make a difference to their profit but imagine just 10% of the population doing this. Just imagine. Supermarkets tells they are simply meeting the demands of consumers. When enough of we consumers become food secure citizens they system will change. We can follow up on our own gardens by telling food merchants what we are doing and why. They all face Facebook and twitter accounts, they all have websites and feedback forms. We can change the world one leafy green salad at a time but we must be the change. We must plant those seeds. Actual vegetable seeds and seeds of hope for both like minded others and for those who do not yet know how the world currently is.

We can overgrow the system!

Links to all the posts referred to in this episode are in the show notes.

And that brings us to the end of this week’s podcast.

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Any suggestions, feedback or criticisms of the podcast or blog are most welcome. email me at podcast@worldorganicnews.com.

Thank you for listening and I’ll be back in a week.

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