As FOOD AND WINE contributor Oliver Moore explains, soil health is at the heart of, not just farming, but the wider food industry, and our kitchen tables too.
Next Wednesday at 12.30pm, farmers from the far-flung corners of Ireland will move the earth. They’ll bring their dirt to the Department of Agriculture – their soil to the city – and welcome you to lunch. So why are they doing this?
"We're bringing buckets of soil from our farms because the soil is the basis of everything- all human life. It doesn't belong to us, but to our ancestors and our descendants too. Our farming and food systems should reflect that, and start nurturing the natural world instead of exploiting it for short term profits which are essentially borrowed from the future."
Fergal Anderson is one of the farmers who established Talamh Beo – the Living Earth – in 2018. Originally from Tuam, county Galway, Fergal and his partner Manu runs Leaf and Root, mixed veg enterprise in Loughrea, supplying restaurants like Loam in Galway and local people with a box scheme.
Talamh Beo farmers, from veg to livestock, practice regenerative, or agroecological methods. Essentially, these are techniques taken from the older organic farming playbook, with some modern tweaks and adjustments. In many ways these are retro innovations, building upon the soil-focused work of pioneers like Albert Howard, Friend Sykes and Lady Eve Balfour in the 1940s and 1950s.
It's about reversing the damage done by monocultural, industrialised farming practices, to the earth’s living systems. They focus on building soil health by putting nourishment back in while preventing damage to or loss of soil.
Depending on the farming system employed, this might involve integrating compost, including composted farmyard manure; avoiding compaction from heavy machinery and ploughing; green manures - plants grown to bring nutrients into the soil; crop rotations; and avoiding most if not all of the harsher agri-industrial inputs. So biological controls and techniques (predator insects, companion planting) are typically preferred to ecologically damaging inputs like biocides (herbicides, pesticides, fungicides etc), and mineral fertilizers. As well as water pollution, the latter is also heavy contributor to climate change via nitrous oxide.
But why is soil so important? Well, historically, civilisations have collapsed when it wasn’t treated properly. Even more recently, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s saw a million people fled Oklahoma and surround to set up shanty towns in California.
Soils are an enormous store of carbon: the 1500 billion tonnes of carbon our soils contain is three times more carbon than all the plants above the surface contain – from ryegrass to redwoods.
Yet a quarter of productive land is degraded globally, while soil carbon loses may represent anything up to 20% of all carbon lost into the atmosphere since industrialisation.
The causes include urban expansion, climate change itself (microbes are working faster to release carbon in a warming world) and poor farming practices that deplete, compact, deaden or loose soil into water or the air.
One of the farmers bringing soil to Dublin is Mimi Crawford. Mimi and Owen Crawford have pigs, chickens and a micro-diary. Raw organic milk from their traditional shorthorns is delivered locally and to some shops. One example of how they nourishing the soil through regenerative soil building practices is their chicken tractor. This is a coup which moves daily, leaving behind a serious dose of proper nutrients, over a rotation which lasts weeks - which gives time for fertility to go in and the land to replenish.
Last word to Mimi: “if we can get back to a place where the soils are nutrient-dense, either directly through the foods that come from the soils through vegetables and plant proteins, or indirectly through up-cycling that through animals, we’ll be more nutrient-dense, and we’ll be a healthier population overall.”
Author: Oliver Moore
Oliver Moore is editor-in-chief at ARC2020, the Agriculture and Rural Convention. ARC2020 is a European NGO dedicated to people- and planet-friendly people and policies and practices. With a background in rural sociology, he lectures in UCC’s Centre for Cooperative Studies, writes a weekly column for the Irish Examiner farming, and works with the Cultivate NGO in Cloughjordan’s ecovillage, where he also lives. There, he is a Director of the community-owned farm. He is a member of the Irish Food Writer Guild.