The plan for today: Start a Garden!

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!

What 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

Aromatic plants growing outside the kitchen of the trendy restaurant “Carlo e Camilla en Segheria” in Milan, Italy. This restaurant is inside an old sawmill.

In industrialized countries, startups have even created fully atomized and conditions controlled vertical farms.

Many cities around the world are doing urban gardening, also known as urban farming or urban agriculture!

Have a 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! 

Urban agriculture  

Urban 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 commercial enterprises.2

Urban garden next to the old wall of the upper city of Bergamo, Italy.

This 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).

The 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

There is 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!

But what 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.2 Additionally, 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

These strawberry plants grow happily in an urban garden in Bern, Switzerland.

Across 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.

I hope 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.

Let’s 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 

Importantly, all biological methods (e.g. biodynamic, biointensive) aim to have and maintain a 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.   

The Segantini Park in Milan-Italy, is a park designed and created by citizens together with the municipal administration. Inside the park, citizens take care of 3000 square meters vegetables garden and 15000 square meters of a reforested area. The field has been prepared using the biointensive method taught by Fernando Pia, a farmer from Patagonia.

Let’s remember 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).

So, the long term success of our biological garden will depend on achieving an equilibrium within our ecosystem (field, garden or balcony).

We will 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 but before, we need a plan based on our space and needs.  

1.Select the Space and Design a Project

Plants 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).

And if you cannot chose, select the place you have available. I will plant in a community park and in my balcony, and you?

After 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, etc.  

Keep in 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 exiting! 

Preparing seedlings for planting.

Inform 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

As 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 year.

In four 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  

In tropical regions, best time for seeding is not so evident and will depend on rain season and other environmental factors.5

We can 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. 

Also, if 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 

Interestingly, 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. 

As we mention there are different biological methods of growing food following agroecological principles.

3. Seeds

When talking about seeds, now days, there is a big debate regarding genetically modified seeds (genetically modified organisms or GMO).

According 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 food is 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

A large 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 with them.7

Also, there are implications for the rights of farmers to own their crops due to the existence of intellectual property rights of GM seeds.7  

Interestingly, 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.

We will talk in more in detail about seeds and GM seeds in a future post, keep tuned!

Seeds 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.

Sowing arugula in seedlings.

Once 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.

If possible, select GMO free seeds that are open pollinated, biodiverse and local varieties, maybe antic crops.

The 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

The 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   

Arugula growing on my balcony inside old wooden drawers.

Interestingly, 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.

To build 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

This 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 

Aerobic 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

The daily dump composters are terracotta vases used successfully in India to treat organic waste at home. Photo taken at the “Brocken Nature” exhibition at the Triennale Museum.

The idea 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!

It is 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 decomposing).4

Following 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    

Artichokes growing in the Segantini park in Milan, Italy.

Let’s protect and build a healthy soil and make our garden reflect natures biodiversity.5

6.Water

Water is 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!

In cites 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.

Well, 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

Let’s keep in mind that the amount of water needed will depend of course on your weather conditions.

We will 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.

In 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.

Perennial 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

Rosemary, 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 our food!

Depending 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!

Keeping 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

Building 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.

Arugula growing on my balcony inside old wooden drawers and almost ready to be eaten.

In 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 biodiversity).12

Let’s all be part of the solution and plant a garden today!!

By M. S. Gachet

REFERENCES:
1 FAO. Urban and Peri-urban Horticulture.
2 The World Bank, 2013. Urban Agriculture. Findings from Four City Case Studies. Urban development series.
3 FAO. Resilience.
4 Kreuter, Marie-Luise. Orto e Giardino Biologico (2003)
5 Jeavons, J. and Cox. C. El Huerto Sustentable: Cómo obtener suelos saludables productos sanos y abundantes (2017)
6 WHO. Food Safety. Frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods.
7 FAO. Genetically Modified Crops: Seeds of Hope or Deception?
8 Peter Donelan. Cultivo de Semillas (2009).
9 FAO. Composting process and techniques.
10 UN. Sustainable Development Goals.
11 FAO. Perennial Agriculture: Landscape Resilience for the Future.
12 Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2019: Cities and Circular Economy for Food.

V.I.S. (Very Important Soil)

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 natural resource. 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

The Segantini Park in Milan-Italy, is a park designed and created by citizens together with the municipal administration. Inside the park, citizens take care of 3000 square meters vegetables garden and 3000 square meters of a reforested area.

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 organisms).2

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 (see below).3

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!

In Santo Domingo de los Colorados, Ecuador, medium and large companies produce tropical fruits such as papaya for local and international markets. Most of them are grown as monocultures. They represent a source of income and food for families in the area. Photo by Karla Gachet.

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 below)3.

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 the ecosystem.

Two men from the community of Boanamo, Yasuní, Ecuador, go out hunting for wild pig and monkeys near their home. They still use blow guns with darts poisoned with Curare, all of which they make themselves. Unfortunately, with the introduction of rifles, they over hunt and sell animal meat in the black market. Photo by Karla Gachet. The full story can be found here

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 erosion.3

Blanca Ashanga harvests corn in a field in the Quichua community of San Pedro Sumino, Napo, Ecuador. All the community works in what they call a ‘Minga’ where everyone contributes and harvests for the community. The proceeds of selling the corn will be used for services in the community. Photo by Karla Gachet.

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 are they?  

Soil-based ecosystem services

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 nitrogen cycle:

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 unsustainable! However, 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 agriculture with a better management of natural resources. It requires agroecology!

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

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 social justice.3

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 sustainability!

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

So, the soil is central to agriculture and therefore sustainable agriculture is essentially dependent on soil health.3

But farming 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 agroecological practices:3

Source: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4729e.pdf
Illustration: @salvaranic

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 organization, A growing culture, 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 thirds)?5

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 becoming farmers.

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 agricultural production.6

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.

Cocoa producers in Africa. Cocoa is the main ingredient in chocolate. The market price of cocoa is not determined by the countries that produce it. The market price of cocoa does not always value the costs of economic, social and environmental production.

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.7 Let’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 Amazon rainforest.

Veta 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.

Las Cañadas, located 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.
Marigold flower on my balcony. Marigold is an easy going plant, a good friends of vegetables. Pollinators love them. In addition, the petals can give flavor and color to salads, rice, purees, etc.

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. Gachet et N. Zanuto
Full story of the cover photo can be found here.

REFERENCES:
1 FAO. FAO Soils Portal.
2 FAO: 1985. Irrigation Water Management: Chapter 2 – Soil and Water
3 FAO: 2015. Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition. Proceedings of the FAO International Symposium.
4 Chapter 6: Nitrogen in the Soil-Crop System. In: Soil and Water Quality – An Agenda for Agriculture. NATIONAL ACADEMY PRESS, Washington, D.C. (1993).
5 World Bank Group: 2016. Who are the Poor in the Developing World?
6 Lowder, S. et al., FAO, 2016. The Number, Size and Distribution of Farms, Smallholder Farms and Family Farms Worldwide.
7 FAO: Organic agriculture.
8 The World Bank, 2013. Urban development series.
9 Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2019. Cities and Circular Economy for Food.

V.I.F. (Very Important Food)

Food is what we put on our plates to eat, to maintain life and much more! Food is love, passion, cultural and personal identity, natural resources, nutrients, work, sweat, trade, economy, transformation and experimentation; but with the world’s environmental, social and economic differences in addition to the continuous increase of the population, good, clean, fair and healthy food for all at all times is the greatest challenge of humanity.

Sustainable development goals

The United Nations countries (193 in total), together with 150 leaders around the world, have adopted a set of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) to be met by year 2030 that aim to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. Not surprisingly, most of the goals are related with food or could be achieved with a fare and sustainable food system, the goals aim for:1

1. No poverty;
2. Zero hunger (achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture);
3. Good health and well-being for all at all ages;
4. Ensuring inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning;
5. Achieving gender equality;
6. Access to clean water and sanitation for all;
7. Access to affordable and clean energy for all;
8. Promoting decent work and economic growth;
9. Promoting sustainable industry, innovation and infrastructure;
10. Reducing inequalities within and among countries;
11. Making cities and communities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable;
12. Ensuring responsible consumption and production;
13. Taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts;
14. Conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources;
15. Promoting sustainable management of forests, combating desertification, halting and reversing land degradation and halting biodiversity loss;
16. Promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies; and
17. Revitalizing and creating global partnerships to achieve the goals.

The dictionary defines food as any substance (usually of plant or animal origin) consumed to provide nutritional support (i.e. carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals) by an organism. In fact, carbohydrates, fats and proteins, are building blocks of all living organisms on earth. Nutrients are assimilated by the organism to provide energy and maintain life. 

Food commodities

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) estimates that the total agricultural production worldwide is about 6 billion tonnes per year.2 So in order to better understand food production and its footprint on natural resources (environmental footprint), food has been grouped into eight commodites2:

1. Cereals (excluding beer);
2. Starchy Roots;
3. Oilcrops and Pulses;
4. Fruits (excluding wine);
5. Meat;
6. Fish & Seafood;
7. Milk (excluding butter) & Eggs and;
8. Vegetables

Interestingly, cereals represent the biggest agricultural commodity (34% of the world’s production) followed by animal products (20% (meat, milk & eggs and fish & seafood))2 as shown in the figure below:

But let’s go back to the beginning…

Food production requires essential elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen (which form all living organisms)), water, soil and biodiversity. 

To produce food we need a lot of natural resources as well as energy for postharvest handling and storage, processing, distribution and consumption2… and therefore, food has an impact on the planet.

The Environmental Footprint of Food

The “environmental food footprint” refers to the energy and resources required for its production and is measured through four indicators: the carbon footprint, the blue water footprint, land occupation and the impact on biodiversity.2

In regard to the carbon footprint, the foods with the highest impact are cereals and animal products, accounting for 34% and 33%, respectively. For the blue water footprint, the foods with the greatest impact are cereals, fruits and animal products, accounting for 52%, 18% and 16%, respectively. However, animal products have a larger water footprint per tonne of product than any crop. As for land occupation, animal products represent by far the biggest impact occupying 85% (78% meat alone) of the total surface area of the soil used to produce food.2

Concerning biodiversity, farming (conversion of wild lands and intensification) is the major global threat. This occurs especially in developing regions where 72% and 34% of species are threatened by crops and livestock production, respectively, versus 44% and 21% in developed countries. Also noteworthy, deforestation due to agricultural expansion occurs mainly in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa (62%), Latin America (25%) and Asia (13%)2 and has destroyed 5.2 million Ha/year between 2000 and 2010 (the net annual loss of forest equivalent to an area about the size of Costa Rica)3.  

Meat and dairy products have the highest global food print of carbon, raw materials and water per kilogram of any food, not to mention its impact on land occupation and biodiversity.2

Mennonite sisters from the Santa Rita community in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, get up early every day to milk the family’s cows. This milk is used for consumption in the form of milk, cheese or butter. The family also has a cheese factory. The members of the community sell them their milk and they make the cheese that is later distributed in the city of Santa Cruz. Photo by Karla Gachet. The full story can be found here

On this regard, the global movements Reducetarian and Meatless Monday are generating awareness on the health and environmental benefits of reducing the portions of meat derived products on our diets. Take the challenge and try it out!

If you are interested on the environmental footprint, check out the Global Footprint Network website which shows in detail the information about the environmental footprint of more than 180 countries and also based on your energy consumption calculates your personal environmental footprint. We will talk about the topic soon. Keep tuned!  

But, why should we think about this? Why is this so important?

Humanity is facing an important problem: How will we feed the growing world population in a fair way, without overexploiting nature, without excluding people and without tormenting animals?

Agriculture is not a natural process. Humans have domesticated nature to produce food. However, before the Industrial Revolution, people respected the environment and natural cycles more than they do today maybe because of the lack of technology and/or they were less concerned with the financial system.

Paradoxically, with the development of technologies and the understanding of processes, the overexploitation of natural resources started: monocultures (and to allow them the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers) and intensive animal farming consequently vitiated societies with an excess of food at consistent low prices which makes it possible to waste. In truth, the low cost of food is paid at a high price by the environment, animals, farmers, and the society.

In Santo Domingo de los Colorados, Ecuador, medium and large companies produce tropical fruits such as pineapples for local and international markets. Most of them are grown as monocultures. Representan una fuente de ingresos y alimentos para las familias de la zona. Photo by Karla Gachet.

Additionally, from the 250-300 thousand known edible plant species existing in the planet only 4% (150-200 species) are used by humans. And from these, 3 (rice, maize and wheat) contribute to 60% of calories and proteins obtained by humans from plants. In the world, 75% of the food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animals.4

We are losing local knowledge and agrodiversity is disappearing (ca. 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost since 1900).4   

In addition to being environmentally unsustainable, our food system is economically inefficient. For every dollar spent on food, the society pays two in health, environmental, social and economic costs.5

Half of these costs are related to consumption (obesity, malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency) and the other half is associated with the way food is produced (waste, pollution (intensive production uses large quantities of pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics) and depletion of natural capital (water pollution, soil degradation).5

Conclusion

Things need to change urgently!! We are destroying our planet and losing food diversity due to our obsession for uniformity food (size, color, shape, taste) and high yield… We need to start valorizing diversity and living in a sustainable way!

Sustainability means ensuring human rights and well-being without depleting or diminishing the capacity of the earth’s ecosystems to support life, or at the expense of others’ well-being. It is a multi-dimensional concept encompassing environmental integrity (nature), social well-being (people), economic resilience and good governance (FAO).6

It all seems very complicated… so what can we do? A lot!!!

We can choose to eat differently, to select better, to buy at a fair price, locally, seasonally and only that which we are going to eat all the while supporting good agricultural practices. There are great initiatives around the world. Join us in this journey to discover them and start supporting them!!

Lexicon of Food has created a dictionary of themes and terms explaining the current food system that will change the way you look at food. Great graphic art and videos that are really worth checking.!  

Food Tank focuses on spreading the knowledge about environmental, social and economically sustainable initiatives to eradicate hunger, obesity and poverty.

Believe Earth is another one where inspiring people tell what they are doing to make the world a better place. 

A great example regarding the power of consumers to improve the food system is the French company C’est qui le Patron (Who is the boss). Consumers were asked the characteristics of the milk they wanted to consume (remuneration for farmers, origin, grazing time, no genetic modified organisms) and the price they were willing to pay for it (0.99 euro instead of 0.69 euro). The milk was very successful and the company is now also selling other food products.  

There are also many local movements such as the Ecuadorian citizen initiative Que rico es where smart consumers organize local markets and get involved with local problems regarding their food system (labels, nutrition, seeds, etc.).

With respect to the new sustainable business models that exist today, take a look at the solutions shown in Drawdown and ZERI. It’s really worth seeing!

The Ellen Macarthur Report proposes innovations that can be implemented in cities using the circular economy model with the potential to regenerate the food system. Get inspired and participate in the change!

We also recommend you check out Slow Food, a movement born in Italy and spread all over the world. The movement focuses on the protection of biodiversity and the importance of building a sustainable food system. Together we share the idea that diversity (biological, cultural, linguistic, generational, sexual and religious) is the greatest treasure that we have as individuals and as society and that the importance of good, clean, fair and healthy food for all is a priority.

Let’s become critical consumers!!

La Vega Central market in Santiago de Chile also known as “Feria Mapocho”. From the colonial time, farmers gathered in the area of “​​La Chimba” to sell their products. Today hundreds of thousands of people pass through La Vega Central daily. Many of the stalls have been inherited from parents to children. Photo by Karla Gachet. The full story can be found here

Only by becoming aware of our contribution can we take decisions that will allow us to build a sustainable world. Our consumer footprint has an impact… Let’s start making some changes!!

By M. S. Gachet et N. Zanuto

REFERENCES:
1 UN. Sustainable Development Goals.
2 FAO, 2013: Food Wastage Footprint. Impact on Natural Resources.
3 FAO. World deforestation decreases, but remains alarming in many countries.
4 FAO. What is Happening to Agrobiodiversity?
5 Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2019: Cities and Circular Economy for Food.
6 FAO. Sustainability Pathways.