After oxygen and water, food is what keeps us living and healthy however, some types of foods are better than others with the best type being “true food”.
But which are the true foods?
True foods are those that grow in NATURE, minimally processed (transformed/preserved in a traditional or innovative way; fewer additives, better and much better if all of them are natural), SUSTAINABLE (produced in healthy soil using clean water, respecting the environment and biodiversity) AND ETHICALLY PRODUCED (towards humans, animals and all living beings involved).
This definition points out two fundamental concepts: NATURE and SUSTAINABILITY that includes ethical production.
What is nature?
Nature is all living and inanimate beings that make up the earth and that interact with each other in a balance where matter and energy circulate. Nature follows its own order and is governed by constant laws that human beings can know but cannot modify.
Many humans (Homo sapiens) think that we are superior to all living beings, despite being one of the youngest species on earth and not knowing if we will ever live as long as bacteria or plants. We are also a very small part of life on Earth.
A study published in 2018 that quantifies life on Earth in terms of carbon (C), a common element of all living beings, shows that plants are the most abundant living forms representing 82.5%. Then we find the tiny bacteria that represents 14.2% of the life on Earth and after the fungi representing 2.2%. Bacteria and fungi are everywhere including IN and ON us influencing our health (see post on the Microbiome). Then there are the algae that represent 0.7% and finally the animals, the group to which we belong which represents 0.4% of life on earth.1
it means that human beings cannot live: more than 4 minutes without breathing proper air, more than 4 days without proper water, more than 42 days without nourishment and for all this to be possible the Earth must be covered with at least 60% of Forest, of green, including the plankton that lives in water of the oceans, seas, rivers, lakes, etc. This is the only way to maintain a proper atmospheric dynamic that allows human life or 78.1% nitrogen (N2), 20.9% oxygen (O2), 0.9% argon (Ar) and very little other gases including carbon dioxide (CO2, 0.04%).
The oxygen (O2) from the air that we need to live is produced by green beings thanks to a substance called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll reacts with CO2 in the presence of sunlight. These green beings are plants as well as bacteria and algae that feed on dead matter previously transformed by fungi, bacteria or animals such as worms. Respiration produces CO2 which is essential in the production of oxygen and sugars. Part of these sugars are stored in roots that feed bacteria and fungi from soil. Some fungi associate with the roots of plants forming mycorrhiza (myco=fungus and rhiza=root), a beneficial symbiosis for both organisms. Together they can travel big distances to get water and nutrients they need to live. Mycorrhizae connect with each other and at the same time interact with bacteria and some animals forming a very efficient communication and exchange system known as “Wood Wide Web”.
There is a complex and perfect balance between life and death and life and life. The community we are part of is fascinating!
The Amisacho collective in the Ecuadorian Amazon is producing short videos. The concepts transmitted allow a clear understanding of how the Amazon rainforest works, the cycles of nature, how they influence the planet’s climate and individual and collective solutions to live in a respectful way.
If we zoom in on the group of animals, we will note that the largest segment is represented by fish (30%) and that all together arthropods, mollusks, nematodes, annelids and cnidarians represent 63.6% of all animals. Humans represent 2.5% of animals while birds and wild mammals together represent only 0.4% and cattle 4.2%.1 This means that in terms of carbon (C) there are 5 times more humane than all wild birds and mammals combined, and nearly twice as many livestock as humans.
It is evident that we have NOT been paying attention to our environment and that our activities are impacting biodiversity.
Sustainability concerns us and our activities and deals with three elements: the environment, society and the economy. Of these 3, the economy is not part of nature, however, the narrative about the importance of money that first appeared about 5,000 years ago with the appearance of the first coins is so strong that today we cannot perceive the economy outside of the human context.
All human economic activity depends on nature. It is estimated that globally, nature provides services worth approximately US 125 trillion annually.2
The human activity dedicated to food production is agriculture that first appeared about 12,000 years ago. Agriculture deals with domestication of plants and animals.
Farmers have domesticated some living beings learning from them and from nature, observing and experimenting, a very interesting and important job that has allowed the development of humanity. After the Second World War, the green revolution began in which agriculture was industrialized. This industrialization or dehumanization together with large-scale global trade has contributed to the current social, environmental and economic imbalances.
Agriculture is against nature but it can be respectful if it respects nature as is done by agroecological and regenerative farmers around the world.
Today there are many problems related with food: overweight and malnutrition, waste, environment destruction and loss of biodiversity. Even though small farmers who produce in an area below 2 hectares of the worlds food and protect food diversity, many of them live in extreme poverty. Let’s do what we can to help these farmers be successful and in turn, we will all prosper!
What can we do?
First of all, let’s inform ourselves because knowledge is essential.
Let’s be smart consumers and remember that our demand and our everyday actions can generate positive changes. Let’s buy local, seasonal, socially and environmentally responsible products and let’s support farmers who work respecting nature locally and globally.
Let’s practice urban agriculture respecting nature and learning from nature, thus building resilient, green, inclusive and sustainable cities. One pot at a time – remembering that to be a respectful farmer we must learn many things and be open to new ideas.
Let’s cook more often using local, seasonal, socially and environmentally responsible products to know, taste and experience new flavors. Let’s not be afraid to use unusual vegetables, “ugly” produce that may not be the perfect specimen of what we are used to seeing in the grocery store, try wild products that we are not use to eating and become aware of the importance of dietary diversity. Let’s not forget that cooking is an act of love towards ourselves and the people for whom we cook!
I highly recommend the Radio Semilla podcast (only available in Spanish) of the Red de Guardianes de Semillas who, with a relaxed vibe and broad vision, speak of social, environmental and economic regeneration with local solutions. With a different approach, the podcast Food Talks (only available in English), is also worth a listen. Both are fantastic, informative and fun!
To improve the food system, changes are needed from the production to the table, from those who grow food to those who eat it, and all those who move the food in between! Remember that food is directly connected with the farmers, the land, the watersheds and the climate; and that our health is a reflection of the quality and quantity of the food we consume. In the end, it is all – and we are all – interconnected! Let’s take care of one another!
A curious man enters one of the orchards of the Segantini Park and finds Sergio and Luca. He’s Junior, a young man who is passionate about the land and eager to know how we grow plants in the park, and why? He also works the land there and, because of the pandemic, he has been trying to do it for a living since last year. He tells us that he has not studied agriculture, that he learned the basics in his native Cuba where all the children and young people cultivate the land after school, “I work hard for a child,” he tells us.
Sergio and Luca show Junior our worm compost that has been working for the past two years. Depending on the time of year, the compost is made in a period between 3 and 6 months. Junior tells us that it could be more efficient and, if we want, he can show us how to do it. Salomé, who is very interested in home composting, gets involved and immediately organizes a visit to Gaggiano where Junior works.
To Gaggiano by bike to make earth
It was a Sunday with good weather at the beginning of May when 5 people, Francesca, Nicolò, Enrico, Ivana and Salomé, arrived by bike at the garden center where Junior works.
We met Junior, who welcomed us with enthusiasm and immediately showed us how the orchard/plant garden works. In the orchard, Junior grows a wide variety of vegetables that are disappearing. Due to globalization, food diversity is in danger. Fortunately, there are people like Junior working to recover it.
His way of cultivating not only has a practical approach, a synergistic garden in full respect for nature and relationships with various organisms, but it is also a philosophy of life! His garden highlights the importance of mother earth as well as a non-consumeristic lifestyle that values relationships.
Junior told us that when he arrived in Lombardy, he wondered what he could offer that land and that particular place. He saw that in the vicinity there were rice fields and a rice factory that produced the bran of the grains as a waste product. As he later pointed out, bran is an important ingredient in his compost. Also nearby, Junior has access to cows from which he takes manure as well as pieces of wood from the trees that border the vivarium, both of which are the ideal substrates for decomposing microorganisms.
Another way to compost
Let’s get to work, first we collect all the ingredients we would need:
molasses (water saturated with sugar, about half a liter)
freshly cut grass
pieces of bark with microorganisms (branches with bark)*
* The microorganisms can be found at the base of large trees, just below the first layer of soil. They are like thin white cobwebs. In the absence of these, you can find pre-packed, ready-to-use microorganisms for purchase. In Italy, for example, there is a product called Top Crop from Microvita.
When we went to collect the ingredients, we observed the land around the garden center. Many rice fields were not yet productive but instead were dry land waiting to be fertilized and irrigated.
We start by making a small fire that will be completely covered with the rice bran and will slowly burn until it becomes active black carbon (charcoal), rich in minerals. The bran burns slowly and, little by little, we add more bran that strangely does not produce a flame, but instead, a delicious smell.
He explains that the combustion process (the burning) helps to release minerals. As a result of the combustion process, charcoal is formed. (Charcoal can can also be purchased). Any straw that decomposes easily and does not need to be burned could also be used in place of charcoal.
Meanwhile, on the ground, we draw a circle of 1 meter in diameter. Junior explained that a good compost should be as high as the circumference of its base (1 meter).
While we waited for the rice bran to burn, we went to eat a delicious barbecue with friends.
When we return, we proceed to arrange the layers to create the compost pile:
We start with the straw, then the shredded grass, then the pieces of bark with microorganisms, a little cow manure (NB: for a compost in the city, raw leftovers found in the kitchen can also be used (just remember not to use meat products as this may attract rats and/or other rodents) and a good stream of water.
The proportion of ingredients is 3 (parts of dry matter: straw and bark pieces) to 1 (part of wet matter: grass, manure). The dry matter adds carbon (C) while the wet adds nitrogen (N).
One could also add a little finished compost (as is done in the Segantini park) as an inoculator (due to the presence of worms).
We add straw again, then grass, microorganisms from the envelope (commercially available), molasses, pieces of branches, grass and then water.
The sequence should be as follows: dry, wet, dry, wet … and in between the microorganisms and water. With all this good “food” for the soil, Junior tells us that earthworms will come too.
We continue like this until the pile reaches one meter in height.
At that point, we return to our rice bran, which has meanwhile been turned into charcoal. We extinguish the fire using a lot of cold water and spread the finished charcoal on top of the compost pile. The wet rice bran will regulate the moisture and release the minerals.
The pile is covered with a black plastic to increase the rate of the decomposition process (it helps to keep it warm and humid). The compost pile will reach a very high temperature of up to 70 degrees Celsius(158 degrees Fahrenheit) during the first few days! This allows pathogens to be eliminated.
After about 5 days, Junior will turn the compost with a pitchfork, reconstituting the pile, a process that introduces air (most importantly oxygen) and will cover it again. The compost pile will be turned the same way a total of 5 times (about every 5 days).
Compost transformation will occur in approximately 1 month. If left uncovered, it would take much longer.
When the compost is ready it will be reduced by about half its initial size.
Coincidentally, that Sunday was May 9, Mother’s Day. Junior makes us notice that together we celebrate our “pacha mama” (mother earth) by making her a cake.
We bike back home, happy with a new perspective on compost, microorganisms, rice waste, and respect for the earth.
It’s a Monday in late March, it’s warm. In the Segantini Park, among the trees within the naturalist area, green with the first shoots of spring, a group of volunteers closely follows Luciano Mazzola who has brought four beehives.
Two families will produce honey, and the other two will also serve to monitor air quality, which will be carried out thanks to the collaboration with researchers from the Catholic University of Piacenza.
The Project is call BeeResponsible and is financed by Dyson, a company that has found a smart way of doing corporate social activity.
A small group of interested people will follow a course with Luciano and will accompany him during the care visits to the hives. If everything goes well, at the end of this experimentation year, the hives will stay at the Segantini park. Here, it will be possible to taste the honey from the flowers of the park and also from the balconies of the Milanese people.
Bees feed on flowers within a radius of 3 km, so anyone with a flower on their balcony can help feed these fascinating creatures that, in addition to producing honey, pollinate plants better than any other insect.
Once the hives have been moved, the group moves under the pergola of one of the vegetable gardens within the park to listen to the first of a series of lessons on the life of bees and the management of a hive. The age of the people in the audience is diverse. There is even a child who ask his mother whenever he does not understand. He feels that something important is being talked about.
Did you know, for example, that in 2018 Europe banned neonicotinoids pesticides widely used in agriculture that also kill bees? Therefore, we hope to see more beehives in the Po Valley.
Luciano explains that during their evolutionary path, bees have learned to communicate to their mates the location of the flowers thanks to a “dance” in which they explain the direction and distance of the feast. Bees are orientated with the position of the sun. You can find many videos on YouTube that explain and interpret this “dance”.
We also discovered that, in their two months of life, the bees carry out a rotation of the work of the hive: in the first weeks, they perform domestic tasks of cleaning and caring for the eggs, then the guard of the door, and finally, when they are mature and well trained to smells, they go out to look for nectar from flower to flower.
The queen, on the other hand, lives up to five years and, after the nuptial flight in which she is impregnated by a dozen drones (who die after the act), she lays eggs throughout her life.
People that have sweet tooth for honey will be interested to know that some jars sold at very low prices may contain something other than honey. In fact, for honey to be considered as such, must be produced by bees that pass the nectar from mouth to mouth in a practice called trophallaxis that enriches the nectar with enzymes that also allow bees that do not leave the hive to feed.
Other fan bees will help reduce the moisture of the nectar below 18% to turn it into honey, a food that can be stored for a long time.
In other parts of the world, it is allowed to collect nectar from hives and transform it into honey in factories with the addition of sugar, which for obvious reasons produces a much less nutritious and balanced food.
The subspecies raised in Italy is called the ligusticabee and is known around the world for being gentle and non-aggressive, so don’t be afraid of them.
Before leaving us, Luciano recommended a book: “The Buzz about Bees” by Jürgen Tautz that combines a practical approach with a more philosophical one accompanied by beautiful photos.
The meeting is over. It is sunset and we leave with a feeling of harmony and interconnection between us, the bees and the flowers. Tonight at home we will look at the flower on the balcony with new eyes. We will know that we are involved in the world of bees and that we collaborate with them in the dissemination of plants and the health of the planet.
This is the first of a series of posts where we will talk about bees, stay tuned!
As we saw in post 2, to produce food, natural resources (air, water, soil, biodiversity) and energy are needed. Food production is just one of the many human activities that have an impact on the planet’s limited resources.
Regarding food, are we consuming more that the earth produces? Is there enough food to feed everyone?
Today we produce food to feed10 billion people1 for a planet which is currently home to around 7.7 billion.2 No wonder every year we waste ca. 1/3 of the food produced (post 3)) and 1.9 billion people are overweight!3. And still, there are 821 million undernourished people!4
To understand why this happens, it is important to learn about two concepts which are key for sustainability: Biocapacity and Ecological Footprint.
Earths Biocapacity is a quantitative way of measuring the natural resources that the earth produces each year (in global hectares or gha) to allow human life (clean water and air, biodiversity, healthy soils, shelter and medicines).5,6,7
It refers to the amount of productive area that is available to generate natural resources and to absorb the waste (ecosystem services).5-7.
The calculated Biocapacity for year 2007 was 1.8 gha.5-7
The Human Ecological Footprint is a quantitative way of measuring the demand that human activity puts on nature. It refers to the consumption of productive land (resources in gha) of each person (biologically productive land and water area required to produce all the resources an individual, population, or activity consumes, and to absorb the waste they generate).5-7
The calculated world average Ecological Footprint for year 2007 was 2.7 gha.5-7
At the individual level, the Ecological Footprint refers to: the food we eat (energy, land, water, biodiversity), the water we use and the energy we consume (at home, to move around, to work, to live!).
Biocapacity, Ecological Footprint and Population
From the numbers above, it becomes evident that in 2007, our global consumption (Ecological Footprint: 2.7 gha) is much higher than the earth’s capacity to recover (Biocapacity: 1.8 gha).
To live sustainably, our Ecological Footprint (that of all humanity) should never exceed the Biocapacity of the earth.
The figure below shows the Ecological footprint and Biocapacity from 1960 to 2010 and the population growth up until 2019.
In 2007, humanity used resources equivalent to one and a half planets. If the trend continues, by 2050, 2 planets will be needed.5-7
Humanity is already using more resources than the earth can regenerate. This is known as overshoot, and each year this occurs, the biological debt increases with extreme consequences such as the loss of diversity (biological and cultural), migration and climate change. And the population keeps growing…
Are we all using resources in the same way?
Well, the Biocapacity and the Ecological Footprint are not the same for all people in all nations. The Global Footprint Network provides online data clearly showing the situation of all countries in the world. Let’s take, as an example, the year 2016. In 2016, the Biocapacity and Ecological Footprint in the United States were 3.6 and 8.1 gha (-4.5, deficit), in Italy 0.9 and 4.4 gha (-3.5, deficit), in China 1.0 and 3.6 gha (-2.6, deficit), in Brazil 8.7 and 2.8 gha (+5.9, reserve), and in Gabon 22.1 and 2.3 gha (+19.8, reserve).
This means that from these 5 countries, only Gabon and Brazil would have natural reserves to consume what they do and more. However, in a global scale, Gabon and Brazil are unwillingly using their resources to maintain the lifestyles of overconsumption of USA, Italy and China.
In 2007, the 5 countries with the highest Ecological Footprint were: United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Denmark, Belgium and United States, while the countries with the highest Biocapacity were: Gabon, Bolivia, Mongolia, Canada and Australia.7
Learn more about the global situation and find out about the situation in your own country using the interactive online platform of the Global Footprint Network. It’s really worth checking out!
With all this information, it seems that Ecological Footprint is related to human wellbeing, wouldn’t you agree?
Human Development and the Ecological Footprint:
Human Development can be ranked using the Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI is a number calculated based on life expectancy, education and per capita income of a person in a country.
The United Nation Development Program defines a high level of development with HDI scores of 0.8 or greater.7
Considering again the data from 2007, in an ideal economic, social and environmental planet, all countries should have a HDI equal or higher to 0.8 and an Environmental Footprint that would not exceed 1.8 gha (or the earths biocapacity).7
No country on earth meets both conditions.
Interestingly, low-income countries which have abundant natural resources (high Biocapacity) have too small Ecological Footprints to meet the basic needs of food, shelter, health and sanitation of their populations.
Humanity faces two big challenges:
for highly developed countries, to maintain peoples well-being reducing the demand on nature and
for developing nations, to guarantee the well-being of society without increasing Ecological Footprints.
Every person on the planet has the right to live better. However, the well-being of human societies depends of biological capital (Biocapacity) and therefore, human comforts (security, material needs, health, social relations, etc.). We must consider effective long-term resource management in order to address and reverse ecological degradation.7
To delve deeper into this topic, we recommend that you read our post that talks about Environmental Justice.
But, how can we explain that resources from low-income biologically-rich countries are being used to satisfy other countries’ demands? Is this land grabbing?
Land grabbing is a process (usually violent) in which fertile agricultural land is privatized, usually for food corporation and mining companies. The GRAIN organization alerts that this global land grab could represent the end of small-scale farming, and rural livelihoods, in many places around the world.8
Using the data of GRAIN, Baveye et al., have published a map of the worlds land grab in 2008 which shows that China, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and other countries own vast amounts of land abroad. For example, China in 2008 owned ca. 2 million hectares distributed in Philippines, Laos, Australia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Cameroon, Uganda and Tanzania.9
It would be useful to see what is going on today. To learn more about this argument, check out the publications from GRAIN. They are well worth a read!
If the land no longer belongs to the people living there, or even the country, what happens with the rights of those people and with their well-being? What happens with the land and the ecological services nature provides?
Human well-being and natural resource
Human well-being depends on biodiversity (species richness and rarity, biomass density, primary productivity and genetic diversity) and the services that a healthy ecosystem provides (food, water, fiber, medicine, energy, spiritual, ethic, climate regulation, energy and matter exchange, etc.). 7
All human economic activity depends on nature. It’s estimated that, globally, nature provides services worth around US$125 trillion a year.6
Unluckily, biological diversity is being lost. For example, the loss of animal diversity, measured using Living Planet Index between 1970 and 2014, shows that the overall species population of vertebrates has declined 60% (89% loss in South and Central America). The loss of fresh water species was 89%.6
For more information on endangered species, have a look the website of the IUCN Red List, which is a critical indicator of the health of the world’s biodiversity.
A healthy planet has enabled development of modern human society. Would it be possible to continue human development without healthy natural systems (biodiversity)?
The answer depends on us and on our capacity to change, adapt and create!
We are the first generation that has a clearer picture of the value of nature and the enormous impact we have on it.6
And why not begin with the understanding of our own personal situation!
Personal Ecological Footprint
The Ecological Footprint is different for every person. It is related to individual actions. Even within a nation, the Ecological Footprint is not the same for all.
People that buy food from abroad and travel a lot by car and plane have a higher Environmental Footprint than people consuming locally produce food, preferring moving by bike/public transport/walking and rarely flying.
There are online platforms that help to calculate our personal Ecological Footprint. However, we recommend that you search for a local platform within your city or country as they might include local parameters (energy, water, transportation and waste). Give it a try!!
Let’s calculate our personal Ecological Footprint together
We found a very interesting study from Legambiente, an environmental Italian association, analysing the ecological footprint of the city of Padua.10 This study provides a Table for a first calculation of the personal ecological footprint in a month in area (hectares, ha) from kilograms (Kg) of food consumed, kilowatts (KWh) of energy used at home and kilometres used in transport (Km).
We have reproduced the excel sheet from this study (download here). If you wish to help us, please download the sheet and send the completed version with your personal results via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) sharing with us your name and country from where you are sending it. If we reach a significant number, we will share the results in a post!
This global problem is not new. In 2015, 193 countries belonging the United Nations countries, together with 150 leaders around the world, have agreed upon 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) to be met by year 2030. These goals aim to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.11
Sustainable Development Goals
As shown in the figure bellow, the 17 goals put at the base, the importance of protecting nature to build a healthy society that will support a fair economy.
If we work together to achieve these goals, things will start to improve. Let’s give it a try!!
Importantly, all of these goals can be achieved by improving the food system. Food can be a good starting point to make changes. We all eat and our food choices have a direct impact on economy, society and the environment.
To better understand the impact of food on sustainability, the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition has created a Food Sustainability Index. Data from 67 countries regarding food loss and waste, sustainable agriculture and nutritional challenges were analyzed and scored. The top 3 performing countries having policies and showing best practices in 2018 were France, the Netherlands and Canada. It is possible to check out the results and the scores of the participating countries – maybe yours is on the list!
BBC Mundo has published a very interesting article regarding this topic which includes an online calculator showing the environmental impact of 34 common foods and beverages. They remark that the Ecological Footprint depends not only on the food, but also specifically how and where it was produced. This is really worth checking out!
Human well-being will not be possible without preserving nature (ecological resources and services) which sustain economy and life.
However, as natural resources become scarcer than money, prosperity will depend on resource accounts (biocapacity) as much as it depends on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and other financial values.
A new way of thinking and revaluing nature (healthy ecosystems) and the services they provide should be considered. It is amazing how many new business opportunities are being created valuing all resources of the ecosystem and being respectful with nature and with people.
And of course, now that you know all of these things, try to make an effort to more thoughtfully choose what you eat, how you move and how much energy and water you use. Our interest, creativity and willingness to make little changes can and will improve things. Let’s give it a try:)
Everybody likes to talk about sustainability, nowadays. But, what does it mean, sustainability?
In very broad terms, the sustainability discourse builds on the assumption that we live in a closed environment and that, due mainly to human activities, environmental “goods” – that are services (such as clean air/water and rich soil) and resources (such as food and biodiversity) that we get from the natural environment – are limited.
Because our existence depends upon such a closed environment and natural resources are being increasingly depleted, ensuring that the resources we need to live are not exhausted becomes crucial.
So, in simple words, sustainability means that there is enough for everyone to survive today and in the future.
But, how do we reach sustainability?
In fact, nowadays it has become dramatically evident that the ability of some to fulfill their needs “here and now” may undermine the ability of others to fulfill their needs “there and then”.
For this reason, it’s very important – and indeed a matter of justice – to balance access to contested resources equitably between competing appropriators, today and tomorrow.
So, what does sustainability have to do with justice?
As was mentioned above, conflicting interests over natural resources and, more broadly, environmental goods oppose present from future generations, rural from urban communities, developing from developed countries, least developed countries and more climate change vulnerable countries from larger developing economies.
There exist different notions of sustainability and they all intersect, among others, with distributive justice concerns.
For instance, rural communities have an interest in preserving soil quality and biodiversity for agricultural purposes which competes with urban communities’ conflicting interest in increasing the availability of biofuels. Some developed countries – most notably, the European Union countries – have recently grown concerns about carbon emissions’ impact on the climate and have subsequently committed to reduce emissions levels. On the contrary, developing countries affirm their “right to growth” by emitting as much as developed countries have done so far.
In this respect, environmental protection is very much related to the problem of access to environmental goods which are limited in number and highly exhaustible (considering, for instance, soil in the example above).
In this sense, environmental protection is also very much related to a distributive justice discourse, as one of the purposes of distributive justice is adjudicating competing claims by giving a fair share to everyone. Meaning that the way natural resources are distributed among people should be fair to everyone.
Sustainability is a matter of environmental justice.
From an inter-generational perspective (which looks at the relationship between current and future generations), justice considerations recommend that thecurrent human development does not deplete the Earth resources, such as water, nourishing food and clean air, to such an extent that future generations will not be able to satisfy their needs.
Some sustain though that it is hard to tell what the future generations’ needs will be.
Depending on what notion of sustainability we choose, it may be deemed fair that present generations commit themselves, not only to avoid depletion beyond a certain extent, but also to actively preserve the integrity of the natural environment as they have inherited it.
After all, all approaches to sustainability are to some extent concerned about the well-being of future generations.
However, as said, the answer to the question what specifically should be the posterity’s inheritance may vary a lot.
In the nineteen seventies, economists and shallow environmentalists sustained that future generations should (just) be ensured the means to satisfy their needs: hence they assume that technology will ensure that there will always be enough resources to meet human needs.
In the nineteen nineties, by contrast, ecological sustainability theorists argued that future generations will require well-functioning ecosystems and sufficient resources.
From an intra-generational perspective (which looks at the relationship between people from different social backgrounds, geographical regions and communities in the present generation), justice considerations aim at ensuring equal access to environmental resources such as safe food produce and equal protection from environmental damage for all in the present generation.
While inter-generational justice sets the content of the obligations of present generations towards the future, intra-generational justice aims at sharing the responsibilities for the fulfillment of such obligations among those who are more responsible than others for moral degradation.
But what does this all mean?
Inter- and intra-generational justice
Let me explain these concepts with some good examples of combined inter- and intra-generational…injustice.
Environmental justice prescribes that environmental wrongs, such as waste, water discharges or air emissions,are borne by the communities who determined them: polluter pays.
So, for instance, in Italy, waste law prescribes that urban waste which cannot be recycled is disposed of (e.g. landfilled)in the same region where it was produced. There are not such constraints when urban waste is being recovered in waste recycling facilities or in waste-to-energy incineration plants: however, because in southern Italy there is just one such incinerator, northern Italy citizens often blame their public administrations as they grant permits for the construction of new incinerators that are believed to burn waste that was largely produced in the south.
This is not just a NIMBY phenomenon (Not In My Back Yard): differential waste-related exposure is in fact seen as a form of environmental inequality.
Likewise, waste dumping across national boundaries, notably from the industrialized world to emerging economies, is perceived as an environmental inequality. As a matter of fact, in the past twenty years, industrialized countries’ pollution control regimes have become stricter, costs associated with compliance with environmental obligations have significantly increased and notably waste treatment services have subsequently become more expensive.
As a result, less developed countries have been sometimes targeted by some more developed countries as “dumping grounds”, although these countries do not often have the technologies required to treat and dispose of wastes in a safe manner.
Today the landfill of Agbogbloshie (Accra) in Ghana is one of the largest landfill sites in the world. Assuming that the type of waste it assembles originated in Ghana would be blind optimism.
However, the environmental wrongs produced by this landfill – such as methane emissions, groundwater contamination, landscape intrusion – are, and will be, unfairly borne by current and future Ghanaian communities living nearby.
In both examples, communities living near these waste treatment facilities bear the consequences of waste produced by someone else, today and for the years to come. This is unfair both under an inter- and intra-generational perspective.
Another interesting example embodying both perspectives is provided by the implementation of a principle known at the international level as “common but differentiated responsibilities” and introduced by the Kyoto Protocol. This principle imposes different climate change mitigation responsibilities upon developed, on one side, and developing countries, on the other side, on the assumption that, given their longer industrialization history, developed countries have contributed to climate change to a larger extend than developing countries.
However, some developing countries’ carbon emissions levels have significantly grown in the past ten years and the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” has subsequently started to shake, together with the Kyoto Protocol and the UNFCCC’s COP system (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Conference of the Parties).
I hope it is clear now that sustainability is a matter of environmental justice and different perceptions about what is fair and just for present and for future generations shape different notions of sustainability.
Access to environmental resources, such as water, genuine food and clean air, was not felt by these communities as being fairly distributed between people of different ethnicity, income and class.
It is worthwhile to recall in this regard that one of the first actions that the Black Panthers movement took was serving free breakfast to black children before they went to school in Kansas City in 1969. Meaning that food is an environmental resource that should be provided to all equally!
Nowadays, the Fridays for Future movement, the IPCC reports, some piece of environmental legislation introduced, for instance, by the European Union all show that environmental justice is slowly discarding the former social justice approach (which, to be honest, sometimes could be just perceived as “the peripheries’ NIMBY”), to pursue broader ecological priorities.
We acquired more information about the many different impacts of our activities on the environment. We acknowledged that environmental problems are fundamentally rooted in human activities.
All human activities, due notably to the current patterns of economic development and the way human populations produce, consume and organize to satisfy their needs, have an impact on nature.
Hence, it is fair and just to ensure the long-term integrity of the natural environmenttoday and tomorrow and, in order to do this, access to, and use of natural resources need to be equitably regulated.
In the next post, I will discuss some examples that help to exhibit this move from the social focus to the ecological focus in Lombardia (northern Italy) and Milan, the region and city where I live. Stay tuned!
Recently, knowledge about the importance of human interaction with microorganisms is questioning the lifestyle of many societies while recognizing the importance of biodiversity in every way.
We had the pleasure of talking to Dr. Clelia Peano, a researcher of the Institute of Genetic and Biomedical Research CNR and Head of Genomic Unit at Humanitas Clinical Center in Milan, Italy. Clelia is part of a group of researchers studying the intestinal microbiome with an aim to understand the functions of microorganisms and their impacts on human health.
It is worth mentioning that the importance of the microbiome is recently recognized by the scientific community. Only since the year 2000, the interactions of microorganisms with their host (animals (humans), plants, soil, water) are known to be relevant to the sustainability, balance and overall health of all constituents within the ecosystem.
But now, let’s allow Clelia to explain it to us:
What is the microbiome?
The microbiome is composed of all microorganisms (e.g. bacteria, fungi, etc.) that colonize an environment. It constitutes an ecosystem.
What is the human microbiome and why is it important?
The human microbiome refers to all microorganisms (e.g. bacteria, fungi) that live within our body.
Inside the human body, the skin and the intestine are the organs that are colonized by the largest diversity of bacterial species (more than one thousand species), followed by the oral and pharyngeal tract (more than six hundred spices).
The microbiome is important because our body is dominated by bacteria. As a matter of fact, the bacterial cells colonizing our body are 10 times more abundant than are our human cells.
Inside the intestine, microorganisms exert very important functions such as extracting energy from food, producing vitamins and regulating the immune system, glucose level and metabolism.
How does the microbiome control these body functions?
The microbiome produces metabolites that can contribute to maintain a systemic state of equilibrium or, in some cases, can cause diseases.
The alteration of the correct balance between the microbiome and the immune system is known as dysbiosis, and it can be correlated with the occurrence of diseases such as asthma, diabetes, obesity, liver disease, depression, heart disease, colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease.
What is the difference between a healthy microbiota and a sick microbiome?
An important difference is related to the relative abundance between different kinds of bacteria. For example, a sick or dysbiotic microbiome has a higher ratio between femicutes/bacteroidetes, and can lead to a systemic inflammation, while a healthy microbiome exhibits a higher bacteroidetes/fermicutes ratio that may be correlated with the maintenance of low levels of inflammation.
What factors influence the microbiome composition?
First of all, the microbiome is an ecosystem that responds and continuously adapts to the organism that hosts it; in this case to our body and lifestyle.
The factors that influence the microbiome composition are:
food: a diet poor in fiber, high amounts of processed foods and high levels of sugars, predisposes to gut microbiome dysbiosis;
lifestyle: poor physical activity and excessive/use of drugs can compromise the balance of our microbiome. For example, excessive use of opioids can slow down the digestive process, antipsychotics can have a direct antibacterial effect, gastroprotectors can cause gastric cancer;
genetic predisposition: our genes play an important role in shaping our intestinal microbiome, this was demonstrated in a study in which from the analysis of 416 pairs of twins, it was observed that identical twins (homozygotes) have a microbiome more similar to each other than different twins (heterozygous).
Two stories to better understand how the intestinal microbiome evolves and transforms, adapting itself over the course of human lives:
1. Comparison between the intestinal microbiome of Hazda and Italians:
We compared the microbiome of two very different populations: the Hazda, and the Italians.
The Hadza are a nomadic population living in Africa (Tanzania). They are the last Human hunters and gatherers living on Earth. They have a lifestyle similar to that of the people who lived in the Paleolithic era which occurred more than 10,000 years ago. They have never experienced either agriculture or farming.
Italians, on the other hand, are a settle/civilized population living in Europe. They have a western lifestyle and live in urbanized environments.
The Hadza microbiome is dominated by bacteria that serve to degrade fibers while the microbiome of Italians is specialized in the degradation of carbohydrates. Since the diets of these two peoples have a very different composition, the diet of the Hadza is much more diversified and involves the consumption of large quantities of fiber and protein, while the diet of Italians is made up of more than 50% of carbohydrates.
In the Hadza microbiome, there are no Bifidobacteria, which are present in the microbiome of all other human beings. Their microbiome is different from that of all other peoples: Africans, Europeans and Americans.
The Italian Microbiome is rich in bacteria that perform functions to metabolize drugs, antibiotics and pollutants. These functions are totally absent in the Hadza microbiome.
Genes for antibiotic resistance in the Hadza intestine are derived from soil bacteria, which are antibiotic producers, and give an advantage to them.
Genes for antibiotic resistance in the intestines of Italians derive from the excessive use of these drugs and are a disadvantage for us.
2.Comparison between the intestinal microbiome of newborns and centenarians:
To understand how the microbiome develops and transforms itself over the course of our life, we compared the microbiome of individuals of very different ages: newborns and centenarians.
The microbiome of infants is dominated by Bifidobacteria, which are essential for the digestion of oligosaccharides (sugars polymers) contained in breast milk and for the correct development of the immune system.
The interruption of breastfeeding allows the complete maturation of the intestinal microbiome of the newborn.
The species and bacterial strains found in the microbiome of newborns derive from the mother’s microbiome. The mother is the main source.
The microbiome is essential for the correct development of the immune system in newborns.
The intestinal microbiome of centenarians and ultra-centenarians is different from the microbiome that colonizes human bodies during the rest of life.
In Centenarians and ultra-centenarians, the microbiome is essential for maintaining the state of health and balance within the immune system. Their microbiome is characterized by the presence of the bacterial genus Christensenellaceae.
What are the advantages of the clinical study of the intestinal microbiome?
The study of the intestinal microbiome can be fundamental for prevention, early diagnosis and therapy and can help to successfully integrate drug therapies while utilizing a personalized diet.
What awaits us in the future?
Once reliable markers associated with the intestinal microbiome dysbiosis in relation to the onset of pathologies is established and validated, it will be possible to integrate microbiome analysis (from fecal samples) with other non-invasive analysis (urine, blood and saliva samples) to combine different clinical parameters and thus obtain a complete diagnosis that can allow us to identify personalized therapies that include the correct and personalized prescription of drugs and diet.
In addition, information about genes and metabolites can help doctors to provide a more effective, comprehensive and personalized health care plan for each individual in the future.
Our lifestyle (nutrition, exercise, drug intake) affects our health. The quality of the food we eat, the quantity and the diversity in our diet influences the balance of our microbiome and, consequently, our health.
Biodiversity and integration: Biodiversity is always positive both in the environment and within our gut. Let’s respect and improve biodiversity by all means!
Another important point to consider is that the excessive use of antibiotics (in humans, animals and plants) not only affects the microbiome but also causes resistance. Antibiotic resistance is a major problem today! To get an idea, watch this video that illustrates the problem and, for more information, check out the World Health Organization webpage dedicated to this topic. We will develop more on this topic in future posts. Stay tuned!
I care where food comes from for social and health reasons. This is why I have joined the Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale (or G.A.S., in English “solidarity purchasing groups“).
I got to knowGAS by word of mouth. But, I could have searched Google for “gruppi acerto solidale Milano” to find this website that lists all the GAS in Milan or this one talking about them and explaining the concept of social economy in Italy. Just be careful because if you search Google for “GAS Milano”, you will gather all possible offers that supply gas to your home.
What are these GAS?
The GAS are consumers who get together to buy food and other commonly used goods directly from producers or from big retailers at a price that is fair to both.
These groups often share a critical approach to the global economic model which aims a less consumerist way of life. When purchasing, GAS priorities are the respect for the environment and solidarity between the members of the group, the producers and their workers and not savings.
What are the characteristics of the products purchased by GAS?
GAS prefer local products (to minimize the environmental impact of the transport), fair-trade goods (in order to respect disadvantaged producers by promoting their human rights, in particular small farmers, women, children and indigenous people) and reusable or eco-compatible goods (to promote a sustainable lifestyle).
If you want to find more information about these groups, we suggest the sociological study of Cristina Grasseni, and the economic analysis of Matteo Belletti and Lucia Mancini.
Our GAS experience.
My husband and I decided to join a GAS based in the newly gentrified Milanese neighborhood of Nolo, which stands for “North of Loreto”, where we live.
This area of Milan was originally highly densely populated by migrants from South America and South East Asia and is nowadays more and more mixed with young Italians who opened art and design galleries, hipster-looking bars and shops selling both bikes and flowers. I will talk about the economic aspects of solidarity purchasing groups in Italy in my future posts. Stay tuned!
How to become a GASista?
May. A complex procedure to adhere.
The GAS we chose to join is maybe biggest in Milan: more than 100 members. Most of the members do not actively take part to the GAS meetings and activities, such as the organization of evening talks on the several topics such as the virtues of rye, Sunday afternoon bargain-based markets to exchange members’ second hand belongings or supporting not-for-profit projects that produce organic hop.
Because the GAS is very big, over the years its members have created a three step procedure to allow new candidate members to enter the group.
First, there was an interview with one senior member who explained to us (the candidates) how everything works. Our tutor emphasized the GAS’ five criteria to choose suppliers, which are also the leading values of the GAS:
1) bio; 2) local (as far as possible); 3) compliant with tax law obligations; 4) compliant with labor law obligations.
Based on the criteria above, the GAS general meeting regularly assesses producers’ requests to supply the GAS and choose one or two suppliers per category of product.
GASistas can then make orders for specific products within given deadlines set by the selected suppliers (every other week, every month, etc.). Products are delivered on Wednesday night, depending on the type of product, every week, every month or just once or twice per year.
Second, we were invited to participate in the monthly general assembly: a pretty chaotic, cheerful encounter of souls (I’m sure I’ll have other occasions to talk about them).
Third, there was an additional meeting where we have been requested to pay a small membership quota. If we were not very motivated, we would have given up after the assembly which ended up to be quite entertaining, after all.
June. Our first general meeting. We took part in our first mandatory general assembly on a warm evening at the beginning of the summer. There, we met the relatively few members that have been actively participating in the GAS life since its foundation: a bunch of seemingly-professionals and teachers in their fifties, led by a democratically elected coordinator who most likely works as a project manager and likes Excel tables.
Many members do not take part in the monthly general meetings and only show up at the GAS offices on Wednesdays night to collect their purchases. When one has kids or has obligations at university like exams or classes on Thursday morning, s/he does not easily give a Wednesday night away to GAS meetings. This is maybe the reason why, among the members participating in the general meeting, last Wednesday night, there were not many young gasistas, students and families.
GAS life is full of surprises. As mentioned, the range of services and activities supplied by our GAS turned out to be far wider than expected. The basic rationale of meeting once per month is sharing values, increasing awareness about healthy and organic products, promoting more sober and fair consumption habits among the members and deeper knowledge about how the food chain operates.
Last Wednesday, at the GAS general meeting we discussed two main issues:
Shall we adopt organic hop plants?
The GAS had been asked to give financial support to a not-for-profit organization aimed at developing an organic hop garden by “adopting” some of their hop plants.
Thanks to the financial contributions of its supporters, the organization would then sell the hops produced to local breweries. So, the question was whether the GAS was willing to adopt one, two or three hop plants and for how many years.
The gasistas seemed to forget that, by “adopting” some of the hop plants, the GAS was basically just making a simple donation. Instead, they discussed for about half an hour whether it was better to adopt one hop plant for three years – that is the maximum life span of a hop plant, after which the hop is going to be harvested – or to adopt three hop plants for just one year. Should the GAS adopt the hop plants for just one year, was there a possibility that these plants would be abandoned in the middle of street after the first year? Someone eventually asked if the organization would than send us some pictures of the hop plants we decided to adopt.
Briefly, we went home wondering if the whole thing was serious or fun.
Let’s support our fisher!
In the second part of the general meeting, the GAS member responsible for coordinating fish purchases explained that the GAS’ reference fish producer was in trouble.
The women cooperative formerly supplying the fish had failed. Only a woman and her husband had remained and had been fishing the GAS’ fish in Liguria for the past couple of years.
Recently, they had asked the GAS members to finance the buy of a small second hand lorry to distribute their fish in local street markets in Liguria. In return, the GAS members obtained a credit for the fish they would later purchase from the anglers couple.
Unfortunately, in the past few months the couple had not fished much as the water currents pushed the fish in the deeper waters. They also had troubles placing their fish in local street markets due to competition of lower-priced fish coming from Croatia, Greece and Turkey. For more information about this issue look here and to know more about the effects of imported fish on bream pricing in Italy here.
Briefly, they have no fish to pay back the GAS members’ loan.
The GAS hence thoroughly discussed the option to adhere to the anglers’ proposal to recover their credit by participating to fishing trips organized by the couple on their fishing boat. Basically a fish-it-yourself-if-you-can package, priced as little as 70 euros per boat trip + dinner.
July, August and September. Some doubts.
During summer my parents’ vegetables garden literally explodes with all sorts of vegetables: courgettes, haricots, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes. Tomatoes are so special, fresh, ripe and tasty that, apart from making ketchup-like sauces and preserves. We are all happy with eating tomatoes in salad with just olive oil and basil every single day.
So, when adhering to the GAS, I was hoping that for the whole summer, I will be supplied with the same tomatoes I had at home and which supermarkets do not even imagine they exist.
Unfortunately, they explained us that between mid-July and August the GAS shuts down, as most members are on holiday and cannot take care of orders. Huge disappointment!
We couldn’t help looking forward to the autumn vegetables: pumpkins are my favorite. My husband still prefers salami.
We decided to continue.
October. Another general meeting.
The nice part about the monthly general meeting is that before the assembly, the GAS members have dinner together. They take something they cooked themselves and share it with the others. It is a way to get to know each other a bit more and to share preferably vegetarian recipes.
A surprise guest came for dinner. This time, Spartaco had dinner with us. He works at RiMaflow.
Maflow was an Italian multinational corporate entity with factories all over the world producing components for the automotive sector. In December 2012, due to allegedly financial speculation, the factory where Spartaco used to work shut down production.
Unexpectedly, in February 2013 this factory was occupied by the same workers who had worked just up till the day before and lost their jobs and Maflow became RiMaflow. To know more about this story click here.
Today, RiMaflow is a recovered factory where three organizations operate thanks to a gratuitous loan approved by the bank that owns the property. About 70 people work at the factory, carrying out different activities which include the coordination of a fair-trade and organic food network, carpentry activities and recycling e-waste (such as computers and electronic household devices) and other types of waste.
RiMaflow aims to prove that it is possible to realize a model economy that can affect standard market mechanisms, starting from building new types of producer-consumer relationships.
While writing this post, we found out that there are similar initiatives all around world. Have a look to the work being done in Argentina).
This diner was indeed very inspiring.
December. Some thoughts about our GAS experience so far.
GAS is a complex market within the market. Over these first few months we tried to understand the economics behind these groups and tried to explain ourselves why fair, organic and local food is expensive.
An objection concerns the users of GAS: GAS are in fact not for all users. On the one hand, they are undeniably pricey and exclusive and, on the other hand, due to the complex order-and-collect mechanism, little accessible markets.
Briefly, some work still needs to be done to make a mass market out of GAS.
Our GAS experience also raised some additional objections.
It is easy to understand how organic food – which is sometimes so much more vulnerable to pests and adverse climate conditions – and “fair” food – whose producer is compliant with tax and labor laws – faces high prices, but less so when food is produced very close to consumers because this food does not need to travel so far.
Also, sometimes we perceived some naivety in some little experienced farmers who supply our GAS. They seemed to be rather concerned about marketing their activity than delivering quality food: as a result, their pears were awkwardly small and little tasty but the events (such as lunch-parties at the cottage, Halloween bonfires, etc…) they organized over the past year at their farms, their websites and the design of their packaging were over-cared of.
Growing vegetables and breeding animals are hard, time and energy consuming jobs: they can hardly tolerate “extracurricular” activities and improvisation. Still, the GAS seems to select producers based on the dreamer farmers image that the producers manage to convey more than based on the quality of the food they deliver.
To sum up, we got the impression that our GAS still does not expect enough from its producers. This is just a first impression from our GAS experience which we will try to investigate and develop better later on this blog.
By A. Miranti Full story of the cover photo can be found here
As Hippocrates, the father of medicine, already stated ca. 460 BC, …”Let food be thy medicine and thy medicine your food”… ourhealth is directly related to the food we consume!
This raises up the question, what shall we eat to be healthy?
The WHO (World Health Organization of the United Nations) emphasizes the importance of eating fruits, vegetables and legumes, and to restrict consumption of free sugars, trans-fats and salt.1
Importantly, it points out that diets evolve over time, being influenced by social and economic aspects including cultural traditions, individual beliefs and preferences, food prices and environmental factors.1 Therefore, an ideal diet can only be established inside the local contexts, meaning that there is a huge diversity of diets.
In recent years, the awareness
regarding a sustainable way of eating has increased.
For FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)…”sustainable diets are diets with low environmental impact which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.”…2
So, sustainable diets are
healthy diets for which the economic, social and environmental aspects are
taken in consideration, right?
A nice way of looking at the relationship between the nutritional value of food and its environmental impact is the double food and environmental pyramid model developed by the Barilla Center of Food and Nutrition and adapted to the Italian Mediterranean diet. For example, animal products that have a high environmental impact (bottom of the environmental pyramid) are recommended to be consumed in low amounts (top of the food pyramid) and fruits and vegetables that have a low environmental impact (top of the environmental pyramid) are recommended to be consume in high amounts (bottom of the food pyramid).
Of course, all of this has to considered
within the local context. If you live in north Canada as Inuit do, you might
not be able to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and you probably get
high quantities of animal products, and that is ok! In fact, for centuries, we
all have adapted to our local conditions by eating mostly local food.
And very importantly, we shall
not all eat the same to be healthy. For example, indigenous people inside the
amazon don’t need wheat as a source of carbohydrates as they have manioc, they don’t
need olive oil as they have other sources of healthy fats (e.g. sacha ichi, Brazilian
nut, macambo), they don’t need salmon as they have paiche. Wouldn’t you agree?
And we are not saying we should eat strictly local food but, if we prefer it on regular basis, we support the local economy, preserve local traditions and protect local environments.
A very interesting article presented in the National Geographic magazine shows the evolution of diets and how similar or diverse these are in different countries. Really worth seeing.
According to FAO, diets that are
healthy and sustainable have the following characteristics:2
diverse (a wide variety of food)
balance between energy intake and
energy needs (or eat what the body needs)
based on minimally processesed tubers
and whole grains; legumes; fruits and vegetables – particularly those “robust”
(or less prone to spoilage) and those which require less of rapid and more
energy-intensive transport. Meat, if eaten, in moderate quantities – and all
animal parts consumed
eat in moderation: dairy products
or alternatives (e.g. fortified milk substitutes and other food rich in calcium
unsalted seeds and nuts
small quantities of fishand aquatic products sourced from
very limited consumption of food high in fat, sugar or salt and low in micronutrients (e.g. crisps,
confectionery, sugary drinks)
oils and fats with a beneficial
omega 3-6 ratio such as rapeseed, olive oil, avocado oil (and others)
tap water in preference to
In fact, these characteristics can be adapted to all
diets, don’t you think?
But let’s wait a second, before industrialization and globalization,
weren’t these characteristics followed by most cultures? It might be wise to look back and retake some food habits practiced by
A practical example of a healthy and sustainable dish
has recently been presented in the study of the EAT-Lancet Commission.3 Worth seeing!
Why is diversity so important?
The diversity of diets is not only key for protecting the
loss of biodiversity (i.e. genetic, species and ecosystem diversity4) and environment degradation but to preserve human food cultural knowledge
Keep in mind that diversified varieties, cultivars, and breeds of the same food have different nutritional content.4
Since the beginning of agriculture (ca. 12000 years
ago), we have faced a dramatic loss of plant and animal species used by humans as
food. For example in Thailand, from the 16,000 varieties of rice traditionally
cultured, today, only 37 are being cultivated.4
Not all of us should be eating the same things. Local traditions need to be
preserved for our health and for the health of our planet!
Recently, a scientific study has quantified the mass of life on earth (biomass) and has shown that within the animal kingdom (0.4% of the entire biomass), there are many more humans than wild animals and that there is around 40% more livestock than humans.5 This is crazy!
Accrording to FAO, countries, communities and cultures maintaining their traditional food systems not only conserve their local food specialties with the corresponding diversity of crops and animal breeds but are also less likely to suffer diet-related-diseases.4
A great scientific work safeguarding agricultural and
tree diversity to achieve a sustainable global food and nutrition security is
being performed by Biodiversity
International. One recent publication has shown that a great
diversity of cultivated vegetable species (1097) still exist around the world –
some of which could have the potential for a widespread diffusion, and many others
could fulfil important roles in nutrition at the local context.6
Also, a nice photographic social study performed by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio is presented in several books that
can be viewed online. They show photos and information about food habits and traditions of
people around the world. Really worth looking!
Why are we losing traditional food heritage?
industrial development, population increase and urbanization have changed
patterns of food production and consumption affecting deeply ecosystems and
For different reasons, the global market requires high
yields of some foods to be commercialized around the globe at a low price. This
need has pushed agriculture towards intensive farming and the cultivation of big
areas of monocultures and livestock. The abundance of these “cheap” global foods
(cheaper than locally produced foods) has simplified diets and damaged the
ecosystem (intensive-use fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, deforestation,
etc.). We will talk more about this topic, so stay tuned!
Also, to understand
our current food system better, have a look at the YouTube video created by Denis van Waerebeke (available in English with subtitles in many languages) which explains
the global players, dynamics, problems and inequalities affecting food
production and what can we do to be part of the solution. Worth watching!
The simplification of diets, the decline in
consumption of local nutritional food and the little time/interest we invest in
our food (cultivation, selection, preparation) are related to the increase incidence
of chronic diseases (nutritionally-poor and energy-rich).
Poor dietary habits and unhealthy diets are the cause of many nutrition
Interestingly, before all the scientific and
nutritional awareness about food (mostly on individual nutrients), culture
mediated the relationship between people and nature, and therefore, people’s
relationship with food as well. Industry, wanting to sell more, has undermined
the authority of traditional ways of nourishment, impacting how we eat and
causing serious harm to human health.
Food as a Public Health Problem
Today, 815 million people are undernourished7 while 1.9 billion are overweight, and from this 650
million obese.8 About half the global population is inadequately nourished (hunger,
micronutrient deficiencies and overweight/obesity).9
If we think
about it, these pandemic nutrition problems are a direct consequence of food waste
(link to post 3). Not only does our current food system waste 1.3 billion
tonnes per year10, but we waste food when we eat more that we need.
To waste food means not consuming it and overconsumption!
But let’s think about for a minute, our current food
system seems to be designed to waste, we need to change this! We need to
produce respecting our planet (including technological advancements) and the
people working to preserve it (e.g. agroecological farmers, sustainable
fishers). It sounds reasonable, don’t you think?
Changes might not be done in the twinkling of an eye, but if we start at home (paying attention to what we buy, from who we buy, at what price, buying seasonally, locally and only what we are going to eat and support the work of farmers producing taking care of the ecosystem (at home or abroad) and politicians willing to take actions in their favor) and talk about it, soon we will be more until we become the majority. Then, the industry that wants to sell will sell what we want.
Things can change if we really want them to change. We,
as individuals, can make the difference, we are already doing it!
But to change, we need to get informed and understand how things work and
what is good for our health which is not disconnected from what is good for our
society and our planet.
A healthy diet is a diet that must satisfy energy
needs (proteins, fats, carbohydrates) and essential nutrients (vitamins and
minerals) through food, to attain and maintain optimal health and physiological
Importantly, our bodies need energy (energy
requirement) for a series of functions that are essential for life or basal
metabolism (e.g. heart beating, respiration, brain activity, cell function and
replacement; synthesis, secretion and metabolism of enzymes and hormones, or
everything that our smart bodies do on their own), to process food and to perform
physical activity. Additionally, at some stages of our lives we need more energy, to
allow growth and development during childhood, deposition of tissue during
pregnancy and the secretion of milk during lactation.11
So, every day and depending on our body needs (age,
gender, body size, body composition, metabolism and physical activity), we need
to achieve an energy balance. This happens when the dietary energy intake (what
we eat) is equal to the total energy expenditure (what the body consumes).11
Malnutrition occurs when, at long term, the energy balance is not
reached (either too much or too little)
and/or there is a deficiency of nutrients.
Sources of energy
Fats and carbohydrates are the main sources of dietary
energy, though proteins also provide important amounts of energy, especially
when total dietary energy intake is limited.11
Current energy recommendations for a healthy diet
suggest a distribution of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are in the range of
15, 29 and 55 percent daily (conversion factor of 4, 9 and 4 kilocalories per
gram (kcal/g) for proteins, fats and carbohydrates).12 Meaning that, if an adult consumes 2000 kcal/day as commonly recommended, the
energy intake should be divided in 300 kcal coming from proteins, 580 kcal from
fats and 1100 kcal from carbohydrates (or 75 g, 64 g and 275 g) daily.
Additionally, dietary fiber (ca. 2% daily requirement)12 is very important for a healthy diet as it interacts with the gut’s microbiome
maintaining or improving the microbiota. In recent years, the awareness about
the importance of human microbiota (microorganism within our body) has increased.
We will talk more about this topic. Stay tuned!
We need quality and diverse food that provides energy, vitamins and
minerals needed to live in a healthy way!
It’s worth noting that the values recommended for
daily energy requirements are used as a matter of convention and convenience as
they represent an average of energy needs over certain period of time and that
there is a large inter-individual variation.11 So, if we considering
the average energy value for everybody (e.g. 2000 kcal), some people could be
eating either too much or too little.
It is possible to calculate individual energy
requirements12, soon we will perform an exercise to share it with
you, don’t miss it!
The Best Diet
There is misunderstanding about the exact components
of a healthy diet, and many diets considered to be healthy.
The confusion is probably because the scientific
information available is misleading. Many studies have been based only on
individual nutrient (e.g. fats, carbohydrates), others have been sponsored by
companies which comprises the accuracy of the conclusions, and a lot of
knowledge has been spread without really understanding the long-term benefits.
To clarify these misunderstandings, it would help if
scientific studies would focus on nutrients in the context of food, food in the
context of diet and diet in the context of lifestyle.
Common sense about diet is not common yet!
Luckily, it seems like most recognized diets have a
lot in common. This is the outcome of the True Health Initiative, a global community with more than 400 world-renowned health experts. The
initiative evaluates scientific information and spread fundamental evidence and
consensus-based truths about lifestyle as medicine.
What do most recognized diets recommend?
(true food). Not too much. Mostly plants”…
And drink mostly water with it!13
In essence, most diets recommend meals rich in
vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, nuts, whole grains, seeds with or without
other elements such as dairy, eggs, meat (consumed in small portions), and
prevailing quality over quantity.
Seems easy, right? But, what is true food?
True food refers to food that grows in nature (fruits,
vegetable, grains, seeds, nuts, etc.), minimally
processed (traditionally or innovatively transformed/conserved (e.g. bread,
cheese, yogurt or under vacuum); the less additives the better and even better
if they are all natural), sustainable
(produced on healthy soil using clean water, respecting the environment and
conserving biodiversity), and ethically
produced (towards humans and animals).
The production of true food treats the environment, plants, animals and
people with respect avoiding intensification (that requires the use of
chemical fertilizers, pesticides and antibiotics) and exploitation.
However, this is not the way most food is produced. The cost of this food is cheap for the
consumer but comes at a very high price for the farmers and the environment. It destroys our society, our planet and our
health because at the end, it is all connected!
If we care about consuming true food, we support not
only a healthy way of eating but we also build a community that shares values
of respect towards nature and humans beings.
In post 2 we talked about food as a good and the environmental connotation of its production. But, food is much more, once it is prepared and placed in the table, it connects us, brings emotion and joy to our life and at the same time it nourishes us!
Food is meant to be enjoyed! Pleasure is good for our health.
If we think about it, people having fun tend to be healthier.
Lifestyle as Medicine
Nowadays, there is a general consensus that health
needs to be approach in a holistic way – meaning that food is very important
for health but not less important than physical activity, sleep, happiness, low
levels of stress and good social interactions. Lifestyle as medicine is not
only important for disease prevention but also improves the outcome of many
On this regard and remarking on the importance of
healthy diets have a look to the YouTube video What is the best diet? with Dr. Mike Evans from the Reframe Health Lab. Many nice
videos on his website that are really worth watching!
Many factors influence our health – and a very
important one is what we eat.
It is important to eat in a sustainable manner,
prevailing quality over quantity, thinking of our health and our planet, respecting
all living beings, and safeguarding local food traditions and biodiversity!!
Let’s remember that changes in the food system can
come either from above (e.g. politics-related work, activism) or from below (e.g.
food demand, health literacy, label reading ability).
The industry produces what the consumer wants! So, we,
the consumers, are able to change things if we really want!
We can start caring about what we eat in an active way. Let’s prepare our own food.Let’s start cooking!!
If we think about the increase in population (post 1) and the effect of human activities on global warming (posts 2, 3 and 4)), it seems like we have surpassed any chances of sustainability.
We really need to start regenerating! So, what can we do? Walk, ride a bike or take public transport, turn off the lights and unplug electronic equipment we are not using, use LED lights, don’t overheat or over cool, take shorter showers, reevaluate, reconceptualize, restructure, redistribute, relocate, reduce, reuse, recycle and, regarding food: pay attention to what we buy, from who we buy, at what price, buy local, seasonal and only what we are going to eat. Also and very important, let’s support the work of farmers producing with agroecological=permacultural=organic practices (taking care of the ecosystem: soil (post 5), water and biodiversity) and politicians willing to take actions in their favor, in favor of humanity!
else can we do? Start a garden!
Luckily, we don’t need an actual garden. In the cities, we can do it in a terrace, balcony or even outside the window. Also, we could get together with our family or community and use common areas such as terraces, patios, and rooftops.
When soil is unavailable, plastic lined wooden crates, costume made tables, pods or any recipient can be filled with garden soil or a “substrate” made from local materials (e.g. compost made with vegetable peels, coffee and tea). And if substrates are unavailable, plants can be even grown on water enriched with a soluble fertilizer.1
countries, startups have even created fully atomized and conditions controlled
Many cities around the world are doing urban gardening, also known as
urban farming or urban agriculture!
look at the amazing work done by the Green Bronx Machine with school students in one of the poorest and unsafe neighborhoods in
New York city and not only there! This is very inspiring!
agriculture is an industry growing, raising, processing and distributing a
diversity of agricultural products from plants and animals, using human, land
and water resources, products, and services found in and around the urban area (village,
town, city or metropolis). The scale of such practices may vary form
subsistence-oriented cultivation, recreational type of agriculture, small-scale,
semi-commercial gardeners and livestock keepers, to medium and large-scale
form of farming integrates horticulture production techniques with
environmentally friendly technologies suited to cities, such as rainwater
harvesting and household waste management1 (except for the fully
automated vertical farms that have a higher energy consumption due to the use
of artificial light).
following figure shows general information about urban growth and farmers:
As we can see in the figure, urban areas are growing (and will grow more in the future) demanding jobs, land, water, and food. For this reason it is important to consider the multiple benefits that urban agriculture offers:2
even an award given by the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, acknowledging the innovation and economic and political efforts of
cities in developing sustainable food systems and promoting health diets.
Urban agriculture plays an important role in building resilient cities!
is resilience? According to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the
United Nations) “resilience is the
ability of people, communities or systems that are confronted by disasters or
crises to withstand damage and to recover rapidly.”3
Urban agriculture encourages agricultural practices in urban areas to
build cities that are resilient, green, inclusive, and sustainable.2Additionally, urban gardens can be highly productive. FAO studies show
that a 1 square meter (m2) garden can produce any one of the
following products: ca. 200 tomatoes a year, 36 heads of lettuce every 60 days,
10 cabbages every 90 days or 100 onions every 120 days.1
the world, cities in both developing and industrialized countries are including
urban agriculture and forestry in their climate change strategies and actions
plans. For example:2
– in Toronto, Canada, financial support to community based agriculture projects is giving for the formation of community orchards and gardens, home gardens; promotion of composting of organic waste and rainwater harvesting; supporting farmer’ markets and preferential procurement of food; – in Durban, South Africa, it is being implemented the promotion of productive green roofs for stormwater management, biodiversity and food production (testing the replacement of crops for maize to adapt to lower rainfall) and community reforestation and management; – in Callao, Peru, urban agriculture is being included in municipal development plans and special municipal structures are being set up. Additionally, municipal budget is allocated to urban agriculture.
now we all agree that urban agriculture is a fantastic practice offering many
benefits to city inhabitants. And that by doing city gardens/farms, we can
actively help mitigating climate change while profiting from fresh food.
In post 5 we saw the benefits of using agroecology for growing our food.
keep in mind that the type of urban agriculture is highly dependent on the
location and the agricultural method use for planting. For example, the farming
performed in the household space (on-plot) is often destined for subsistence
while the one performed using publicly available or private open space in the
city (off-plot) can be intended to commercial farming.2
all biological methods (e.g. biodynamic, biointensive) aim to have and maintaina healthy and fertile soil where strong and
healthy plants grow respecting all living organisms within the ecosystem.4 Which means, that there are many ways of doing our garden, we just have
to take care of the soil and respect all life forms.
that within a healthy ecosystem co-exists animals, plants, fungi, algae and
bacteria and therefore, a balance between all these living forms is the key for
sustainability (sustainable = lasting for a long time).
long term success of our biological garden will depend on achieving an
equilibrium within our ecosystem (field, garden or balcony).
need time and patience to understand what is going on, the right association,
nutrients and water requirements, composting, rotations, etc. But once we
manage, it will be for sure very
rewarding so let’s start experimenting!!! Let’s have fun learning from nature!!!
But, where do we start?
In practice, to start we need healthy soil (post 5), seeds and clean water butbefore, we need a plan based on our space and needs.
1.Select the Space and Design a Project
need light for growing, so if possible, place the garden in a sunny and lighted
place, close to a source of water and away from sources of contamination (such
as building structures painted with lead).
you cannot chose, select the place you have available. I will plant in a
community park and in my balcony, and you?
selecting the right spot design a project based on you preferences and needs. What
do you eat, which plants might favor your ecosystem, which are annual,
mind that you can be creative using already available containers and most
importantly, you can start slowly, with one plant in a small pot or, plant many
and learn from their interactions trying to grow part of your food. Maybe you
are lucky and can grow directly in the soil! So many variable, how
yourself about the time for planting, the water requirements, which plants are
good neighbors, the light they need to grow, etc.
Remember that plants are living organisms and if not in nature (specially
in direct contact with the land), they need you to take care of them!
2.What to Plant and When
already mention, the selection of which plants to grow and when depends on our
own eating preference, the plant itself, where you live and the season of the
season countries the calendar defines the seeding time. In spring, crops
producing in summer are seeded (e.g. tomato, potato) while in autumn, winter
crops (e.g. cabbage, broccoli) are planted. Experience farmers considered that
the optimal cropping time is between the last and the first light frost in
spring and autumn, respectively.5
tropical regions, best time for seeding is not so evident and will depend on
rain season and other environmental factors.5
get the information about cropping seasons at the local Ministry of
Agriculture, from local farmers and/or in online networks. Also, seeding and
harvest times are usually indicated in seed packages. In cities, small plants
to be transplanted can be usually acquired during the planting periods.
the weather is favorable (cropping seasons longer than 6 months), it is possible
to cultivate some vegetables more than one time within the season.5
some people also looks at the phase of the moon to select the best time for
planting. It is known to influence crop productivity and it for sure influence
water levels inside the plant.
mention there are different biological methods of growing food following agroecological
talking about seeds, now days, there is a big debate regarding genetically
modified seeds (genetically modified organisms or GMO).
to the World Health Organization (WHO), GMO
are organisms (plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material
(DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. The food
produce with GM seeds or GM foodis developed because there is some
perceived advantage either to the producer or consumer such as lower price,
greater benefit (in terms of durability or nutritional value) or both.6
proportion of the world’s farmers are disillusioned with GM crops and object to
their production. They perceive more environmental damage that conventional
agriculture and harmful human health impacts of GM crops and the chemicals used
there are implications for the rights of farmers to own their crops due to the
existence of intellectual property rights of GM seeds.7
humans have modified seeds since ancient times by crossing species and
selecting resistant varieties or flavor/color appealing crops. This man
modified natural process takes longer time to be produce than GMO and involves
nature in the adaptation processes.
talk in more in detail about seeds and GM seeds in a future post, keep tuned!
can be planted directly on the soil or planted in small trays and only when
plants have germinated and grown a bit, they are transplanted into the garden
or final pots.
plants have established themselves, in order to help conserve moisture, mulch
(layer of material (straw, shredded leaves, dried grass, etc.)) applied to the
soil surface) is recommended.
possible, select GMO free seeds that are open pollinated, biodiverse and local
varieties, maybe antic crops.
second year of cropping and depending on the amount of plants, it is possible
to collect and keep our own seeds! If you are interested on this, check out the
manual of Peter Dobelan (Spanish version available online) that give a very nice
explanation and cite different sources for consultation.8
Here, we can
find a some biointensive growers that can help us to get good seeds for “true food” in different countries.
4.The space and the seeds
selection of the seeds depends on the space you have available for their growth.
In literature, there is a lot of information about how many plants can be seeded
in a square meter (m2) or a square foot. For example, in 0.5 m2
space, it is recommended to sow 1 plant of tomato.
In the biointensive
method however, that uses a greater soil depth (60 cm), allows to optimize the
space placing “good neighbor plants” very close together to create a living
mulch and at the same time optimizes the use of land, water and work, producing
high yields of food.5
plants as human get along well with some plants and not with others. When you
are planting it is very important to consider which plants are good neighbors
and which plants are bad neighbors, and the requirement of nutrients to feed
the soil accordingly.
a strong and healthy garden it is mandatory to keep a healthy ecosystem around
it. A local healthy ecosystem, like in nature with forest, local bushes and plants with flowers, will welcome
beneficial insects that will fight against harmful once. In our urban
ecosystem, to accomplish this, we will plant perennial plants such as Borage
and Ortica (that we can also eat) together with poppy flowers and margaritas
that can be found in the surrounding parks.
5.Nourishing and protect the Soil (Composting and mulching)
As we mention in post 5, the most important part of a healthy garden is to have healthy soil. The soil provide all nutrients require for plants growth and is the home of an immense variety of microorganisms.
Composting is the natural process of rotting in which microorganisms recycle organic material
(e.g. leaves, leftovers from the kitchen) and
transform them into humus (high carbon containing organic matter that
plants uptake to live).9
process can take place in the presence (aerobic) or absence (anaerobic) of
oxygen. However, aerobic composting (in presence of air which contains ca. 21% oxygen)
is faster and more used.9
composting requires air, moisture, microorganisms, nutrients, soil, organic
matter and temperature to obtain humus. Under the right conditions, a certain
type of microorganisms start to grow and proliferate raising the temperature
from 20 to 45°C, initiating decomposition of organic matter. At this
temperature, a second type of heat active microorganisms start multiplying
increasing even more the temperature (60-70°C) which favors the killing of
pathogens and seed weeds. Then temperature will start dropping allowing the
activation of other organism such fungi that will continue the decomposing
process until the formation of humus (2-4 months for young compost up to a year
to obtain a mature one).9
is to become more sustainable and take the unused part of our food to return organic
matter (carbon) and nutrients back to the soil. Isn’t it great!
also very important to protect the soil.
You probably noticed that fertile soils are always covered by vegetation
(either leaves or other plants) in association with many living organisms. This
protection known as mulching, has
multiples advantages for the ecosystem (generates a microclima that keeps
moist, heat and allows aeration, provides nutrients to the microorganisms,
protects the soil from rain and wind and generates uniform conditions for
growing) and for the farmer (less
tillage as the soil is softer, less weeding as consequence of suffocation, less
watering as humidity is kept and less use of fertilizers thanks to the mulching
the principals of organic agriculture there are 3 ways to mulch: using rest
materials (such as hay, leaves, grass); applying superficial composting
(immature compost (e.g. peat) on the surface protected by leaves or grass) and;
the coverage with living plants (the more natural way of protection).4
Let’s protect and build a healthy soil and make our garden reflect
a precious natural resource. Without
water there is no life! However, this vital resource is not well
distributed in the planet. Water scarce in many parts of the world. In fact, “ensuring access to clean water and
sanitation for all” (sustainable development goal number 6 (SDG6)) is one of the 17 goals that the world aims to achieve by 2030.10
Plants require a lot of water to produce food!
rich in water resources, an obvious solution is to use municipal water.
However, this is not a sustainable or economical alternative. The amount of
energy use to treat water for human consumption is high and this level of
purity is not needed for agriculture.
according to FAO, 1 m2 garden requires 1000 liters (L) of clean
water a year (less than 3 L per day). To ensure a regular water supply, micro-gardeners can store and channel
rainwater via a system of gutters and pipes. Rainwater is virtually free (after
the investment in harvesting equipment) and usually of good quality. From a
roof of 20 m2, growers can collect 2 000 L of water for every 100 mm
of rainfall, enough for the year-round cultivation of a micro-garden of 2 m2.1
in mind that the amount of water needed will depend of course on your weather
talk in detail about water and other great initiatives/people that use this
vital resource in an intelligent way, so keep tune!
7. Maintain a healthy ecosystem
As mention before, to create a healthy soil (post 5) and therefore, healthy gardens and nutritious food, we need to take care of the ecosystem.
cities, this can be challenging. However, we can ask our governments for more
parks and to plant local trees, bushes and flowers in urban areas. Also, let’s
vote for politicians that propose and support green projects and initiatives.
Inside our gardens, we can do our share! Let’s cultivate
local perennial species that will support conserving the native ecosystem and
our food garden.
species (crops, forages, shrubs and trees) are those able to regrow and
continue to produce grains, seeds, fruits and biomass after a single harvest.
In fact, perennial systems could transform agriculture for smallholders and
family farmers because perennial crops (grains, oil seeds and legumes), are
more flexible and resilient to climate.11
oregano, nettle and salvia are examples of perennial plants that we can grow in
our balcony. Most, don’t require extensive care and can be used for flavoring
on where we live, we could to do more for conserving our ecosystem. For
example, bats help to control mosquitoes (in Italy people place bat houses in tall trees
so they can also live inside the cities). Isn’t it cool!
gardens productive should be “relatively” simple. Depending on what we crop, we
can fertilized regularly at low cost if using the compost produced from
household organic waste. Pests are controlled by non-chemical means,
intercropping aromatic herbs that naturally repel insects, such as basil,
parsley and mint and if necessaire we can use additional controls such as
colored sticky traps and insect proof nets.1
gardens in cities can help achieving SDG11(make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and
sustainable) and SDG13 (take urgent
action to combat climate change and its impacts)10 and at the
same time provides us with true food.
addition, cities can trigger a circular economy model for food, since they can source food grown in a regenerative and
local way (where appropriate), rethink
food waste by reducing avoidable waste and project the transformation of
this waste into new products that generate new sources of economy and; design and market healthier food products,
helping consumers to reorient their preferences and habits to support
regenerative food systems (healthy, sustainable diets with greater
Let’s all be part of the solution and plant a garden today!!
In post 2, we saw that to produce food we need energy, soil, water and biodiversity. So now, let’s talk about soil!
Soil is a very complex
It contains all naturally occurring chemical elements and simultaneously
combines solid, liquid and gaseous states. Soil
is also one of the most biodiverse habitats on earth.1
But, what is soil made of?
Around the world, soils are
very diverse. They
differentiate according to their physical, chemical and biological properties.1
There is a whole science behind soil and it is super interesting, especially if
you are thinking about making your own garden.
Here some basics:
Soil is made of mineral particles (originated
from the degradation of rocks), organic particles (originated from the
degradation of organic matter (plants and animals)) and biota (living
Soil particles leave tiny spaces between them
(pores) that can be filled with air and/or water. The amount of water (and as a
consequence the quantity of air) retained by the soil (infiltration) is
important for plant growth.2
Living organisms moving in the soil help to
aerate the soil favoring plant growing conditions.2 Soil is the home
of an enormous biodiversity (plants, macrofauna (e.g. ants, termites,
earthworms), mesofauna (mites, collembola), microfauna (protozoa, nematodes)
and microflora (bacteria, fungi), from which little is known (with the
exception of plants where ca. 90% species are known).3
Soil biodiversity plays a critical role in
sustaining long term soil health and providing soil-based ecosystem services
The soil and agriculture
Physical and chemical properties of the soil
(see figure above) together with factors influencing soil formation (CLORPT:
climate, organisms, relief, parent material and time) are largely responsible
for soil fertility and consequently agricultural productivity.3
To improve soil fertility,
external agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides, are used. However, crop yields declined after several years
of intense soil use, despite the continuous use and increasing application of
these agricultural inputs.3
The strategy of improving
soil fertility by adding exhausted minerals and controlling pests is obviously
not the best solution!
It became necessary to
think about the quality of the soil.
Soil quality considers the importance of the
soil as a living system, with a wider role including not only biological
productivity but also environmental quality (impacts on air and water) and the
effects on plant and animal health.3
In recent years, the discussion of sustainable
development has increased and the paradigms of “soil health” and “soil
security” have emerged.3
According to FAO, a healthy soil has the continuous
capacity to function as a vital living system, within ecosystem and land-use
boundaries, to sustain biological productivity and to promote the quality of
air and water environments, and maintain plant, animal, and human health.1
For a sustainable and resilient production
system, maintaining soil stock nutrients is essential. However, soil stocks are
linked to ecosystem functions via the soil biota (i.e. living organisms).
Living organisms adapt to environmental change through natural selection (while
the physical and chemical components do not) hence they play a central role in
sustainable productivity and the provision of other ecosystem services (see
It is difficult to think
that the conventional practice of adding missing nutrients (e.g. nitrogen,
phosphorus, potassium) can be applied to living organisms. There are so many living organisms in a healthy
soil and probably many of them are endemic of a specific ecosystem. It will be
very hard to achieve!
Ok, so what do we do?
It is more efficient to let
the ecosystem take care of life within the soil and we take care of conserving
A healthier soil
Soil security is a broader, multidimensional and
integrative concept. Soil security is concerned with global
environmental sustainability issues such as the maintenance and improvement of
the global soil resource to produce food, fiber and fresh water, contribute to
energy and climate sustainability and to maintain biodiversity and the overall
protection of the ecosystem.3
To clarify the interactions between agroecology and
a healthy soil, let’s use the example of agroforestry.
Agroforestry is an agricultural system in which
trees and shrubs grow around or among crops or pasturelands.
Studies performed mostly in Africa (in tropical
maize-based agroforestry systems) have shown that soil biota abundance (the
number of living organisms) is higher in cultivations with trees than in the
ones without them. Additionally, the biological activity (e.g. earthworm’s
activity) is increased near trees producing larger quantities of fast
decomposing biomass that is rich in nutrients (e.g. nitrogen).3
The benefits of agro-ecosystem synergies, such
as those generated by tree-crop-soil-livestock interaction, are the reduction
of external trade-offs (e.g. fertilizers, pesticides). Additional alternatives
to reduce trade-offs favoring ecological synergies include crop rotation,
intercropping and the pruning of trees to reduce competition for sunlight that
at the same time generate biomass for mulching (or the coverage of the soil
surface) helping to conserve soil, water, to improve fertility and to control
Living in symbiosis with
nature is challenging but possible! Small innovative farmers around the world
are already doing it!3
Now, it becomes clear that a healthy soil does
not only take care of food production, and is the home of an exuberant
biodiversity but also, it also provides ecosystem services. But, what exactly
Soil-based ecosystem services are processes
delivered by the soil (e.g. nutrient capture and cycling) that supply a service
to the ecosystem (e.g. food production).
There are two types of services: agricultural
and non-agricultural. The following text box explains them:
A healthy soil sustains life, protects the soil, cleans the air, conserves biodiversity and keeps, stores and supplies water. But not only this, as we also saw on the previous post, soil has the potential to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere and mitigate climate change by conserving the forest while producing our food through agroecology.
In post 4, we also talked about nitrous oxide (N2O), an important greenhouse gas (GHG), remember? Well, N2O production is connected to agriculture and soil as well! Let’s see how.
Nitrogen and the soil
Nitrogen (N) is critical
for plant growth.4 But even if there is a lot of N in the air, it cannot be directly taken
in by plants. It needs to be transformed by the biological processes (e.g.
bacterial) of mineralization, nitrification, immobilization and
denitrification.2 At the end of the cycle, N goes back into the
atmosphere.4 Importantly, there are certain bacteria capable of
fixing N directly from the atmosphere forming the N-containing organic
substance that plants can use.1 The following figure shows the
Importantly, only a certain amount of nitrogen can be stored in the soil. The surplus (caused by the addition of
nitrogen containing fertilizers), is
lost in the atmosphere, in runoff and leaked resulting in contamination of the
air, surface and groundwaters.4 This is how agriculture, due to
an excess quantity of nitrogen containing fertilizers, produces N2O,
a powerful GHG!
This is ecologically and economically
if we understand the needs and the dynamics of a healthy soil, we can make
these processes more efficient, avoid soil degradation (i.e. removal of
nutrients and erosion) and reduce GHG emissions.
The challenge of climate
change, soil security and food security, requires a more productive and
resilient agriculturewith a better management of natural
resources. It requires
The international initiative 4 per 1000 aims to demonstrate that agriculture and specifically agricultural soils play a crucial role in achieving food security and reversing climate change (see post 4). Really worth checking it out!
Agroecology, “the ecology of the food system”, is a science, a global movement for
food security and sovereignty and also an agricultural practice. It is an
evolving concept that can also be referred as permaculture, organic agriculture, eco-agriculture, conservation
agriculture and minimum or no-tillage. Its main goal is to transform the food systems towards sustainability,
supporting the balance between ecological soundness, economic viability and
But, what is wrong with the conventional
agriculture besides its unsustainable relationship to a healthy soil from which
we just talked about?
Well, conventional agriculture over-emphasizes
high yields (monoculture production) and short-term profit, that results in
remarkable economic profits for some, at the cost of ecological degradation
(e.g. soil erosion, loss of agrodiversity, pest outbreak) and social side
effects (e.g. poverty, malnutrition, dependency, loss of livelihood diversity).3
Fortunately, these problems can be tackled with
agroecology. Agroecology is a holistic
strategy to produce food approaching ecological, economic and social
Even though there are some general guidelines
associated with target systems, regions and major soil groups, agroecology
requires fine tunings to meet farmers’ needs and adapt to climate, edaphic
(soil) and biological parameters of a specific local context.3
soil is central to agriculture and therefore sustainable agriculture is
essentially dependent on soil health.3
is not a natural process. Humans domesticate nature and disturb the natural
soil processes to produce food. How can it be sustainable?
Well, the key to use the ecosystem in favor of
agriculture and that agriculture respects and protects the ecosystem. The
following examples show four important aspects of agroecology and the
The cases above are just a few examples of the
outreach of agroecology and demonstrate that it is possible to feed the world population with food that is good,
healthy and fair.
This can be done with smart innovative practices
coming from small farmers that have adapted farming to the ecosystem.
Let’s support farmers
practicing sustainable agriculture!!
In this regard, there is a very nice
that advocates for agroecological innovations coming from farmers. It is really
worth checking it out!
Are you still not convinced as why it is so important
to support farmers?
Please have a look to the following figure that
shows the world urbanization patterns of the population:
It is evident that more and more people move
from the countryside to the cities. Nothing wrong with that, right? But if the
main reason is to escape from poverty and to have a “better life,” then,
something is really wrong with our society…
Did you know that of the ca. 770 million people
living in extreme poverty (or 11% of the words population living with less than
1.90 US dollar a day) 80% live in rural areas and are mostly farmers (two
Food is mandatory for
living! Which make it incomprehensive that the people producing this essential good
are among the poorest! And no wonder only few young people are interested in
How can farmers be motivated to produce good
quality food if we do not pay a fair price?
Importantly, prices not only include the cost of
food production, but also a range of other factors not captured in the price of
conventional food (e.g. environmental enhancement protection, higher standards
for animal wellbeing, avoidance of health risks to farmers, rural development).
We need to support farmers,
especially agroecologial producers, so that they keep feeding the world with
good, delicious, healthy, fair food – with true food!
But, who are these farmers?
Worldwide, there are more than 570 million
farms, from which more than 475 million farms are smaller than 2 hectares (ca.
84% operating in 12% of the worlds agricultural land), and more than 500
million are family farms (about 90% operating in ca. 75% of the farm land). Family
farms are constantly distributed in almost all countries in the world and,
therefore, are likely to be responsible for most of the world’s food and
Also, in low income countries, small farms
operate more farmland that do small farms in higher income countries.6
So, we know now more about who is producing our
food but how do we support them?
Probably, the only way of really doing it, is to
find out who is our farmer. Shops are in the obligation of informing us and, if
they cannot do so or we do not trust the information obtained, it may be a good
time to change provider.
But, you might think that the so-called
biological shops selling organic food are just too expensive and products are
unaffordable…and you are probably right. A new economic system is now using the
word organic frequently and labels food with lots of certificates.
And yes, we agree that organic products are
limited, typically they have greater production and logistics costs due to the
smaller quantities of produce (e.g. transportation, marketing, distribution)
and farmers need to pay to be “certified organic”.7
When did it become normal that the food needed
to be certified to be organic? Isn’t food organic by definition? Shouldn’t the
food that uses chemical inputs be labeled chemically produce? Our food system
is upside down!
Actually, there are a lot of agricultural
systems that fully meet the requirements for organic agriculture that are not-certified organic. Especially in
developing countries, these products are sold locally (e.g. village markets)
directly to the consumer who benefit from knowing the origin of the food at
normal market price.7Let’s
support their work!
But what does the “organic label”
mean? Foods labeled as organic certify that the product does not contain
synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics, right? However, should we not care about what is inside our
food and where it comes from instead? It might be the only way to start
living in a sustainable way!
To achieve a transformation in the food system, changes
are needed. From the production to the table. From those who grow food, to
those who eat it, and all those who move the food in between.3
Some really outstanding projects that are making
the difference by using agroecological principles are:
Nagenahiru, in Siri Lanka, is a foundation that focuses on
the capacity of building disadvantaged rural communities addressing local needs
through economically viable, culturally feasible, socially just and
ecologically sustainable activities. They are achieving amazing things!
Eca-Amarakaeri, in Peru, is a Communal and Natural Reserve
co-managed by 10 indigenous communities and representatives of the Peruvian State,
covering an area of more than 400,000 hectares of forest. The financing comes
from the sustainable harvesting of Brazilian nut which generates a stable
income avoiding illegal logging, mining and other activities that threaten the
la Palma, in
southern Spain, is a farm within the National Park de Doñana that has managed
an integrated intervention of artificial wetland habitat for fish farming (29%
of the land), the ecoagricultural practices of rice cultivation and foraging
crops for cattle and horses growing (29% of the land) with the preservation of
the ecosystem (42% of the land), generating
new economic activities based on principals of sustainability.
in one of the last islands of the Veracruz Cloud Forest in Mexico, is a
sustainable agroecologiacal farm as well as a green enterprise sharing
knowledge through courses, seeds, plants and books helping others to implement
practical and integrated solutions to live in a more sustainable way.
But probably one of the best ways to start is
simple and can be started at home, in our community: let’s start a sustainable garden! There are a lot of benefits in
creating gardens in cities (urban gardening):8
Economically, it helps low-income households to grow food for consumption and the surpluses for selling (income generation). Additionally, it provides employment opportunities.
Socially, it can provide a sense of community, promote rural-urban connections. It offers recreational opportunities improving life quality for urban residents (particularly young and elderly people). The production and consumption of fresh and nutritious vegetables improves child nutrition.
Ecologically, it reuses wastewater and organic soil waste, reduces the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and helps cites to become more resilient to climate change by reducing vulnerability of urban residents (particularly poor), diversifying urban food sources and income opportunities, keeping green open spaces and enhancing vegetative cover reducing urban heat-island effect.
Cities have a vital role to play in shaping the food system of the future, they can offer valuable contributions for regenerative practices with the potential of creating a new sustainable economy.9
Let’s be an active part of the solution; buy local, sustainable, seasonal, Fairtrade items, support agroecological farmers and make your own garden.
Stay tuned – we are starting our own urban garden! You can be part of it here by sharing your thoughts, ideas and suggestions.
By M. S. Gachetet N. Zanuto Full story of the cover photo can be found here.