Regenerative farming and gut health

Most non contagious diseases are coming from our food, here’s why…

From healthy soil to healthy gut

Unwittingly, agriculture has been attacking the life forms in our soils through a chemical onslaught, tillage, leaving the soil bare and the repeated growth of the same monocrops. These vital lifeforms need air, water and living roots to feed from and do far better with a mixture of over seven species grown all together. It is these microbes that we now need to help us capture carbon in the soil and reverse both our climate and health crisis. 

The massive reduction in diversity and numbers of soil microbes has negatively affected our gut health, as we aren’t ingesting so many. A 2019 study published in the journal Microorganisms, explained that the variety of microbes both in humans and in soils are plummeting at roughly the same rate and this simultaneous decline has been happening since the 1940’s.

The collection of microorganisms that live in our gut control inflammation, permeability of gut (leaky gut), brain chemistry, hormones, metabolism, nutrient levels and what you absorb and don’t absorb. They may well also affect food cravings, cancers and what your body does with fat. In fact, our gut microbes control so much of our health that many believe that most, non-contagious diseases, result from poor gut health, including; arthritis, heart disease, kidney disease, autoimmune disorders, chronic pain conditions, fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, many skin conditions, autism, type 2 diabetes, food intolerances, plus anxiety, poor concentration and depression. The stomach is linked to the brain and between 70 and 80 percent of our immune system is in the gut!

Many farmers and NHS are only just waking up to this fact!

Fertilisers and pesticides are sold to our farmers as solutions but are causing problems for both our plants and ourselves!

Ordinarily, plants have to work to get the nutrients they need. They feed microbes through their roots and in return the microbes feed nutrients to the plant. (This action also helps sequestered carbon). If nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus is given in a fertiliser form, the plant doesn’t have to photosynthesise as much to produce the food for the microbes, the microbes aren’t fed and microbe numbers are reduced. Also, the plant loses out the other trace elements and minerals, ordinarily being fed along with the nitrogen etc, via the microbes. This makes the plant weaker and less able to fight pests and disease. It is then treated with pesticides to save it, which increases microbial loss further, killing good soil microbes as well as the bad ones! 

Unlike minerals, vitamins & antioxidants are not supplied by the soil, so you cannot add them using fertilisers. They are produced by the plants themselves as a natural pest or disease defence mechanism. If using artificial pesticides, plants don’t have to produce these protective chemicals, so they are not in our food and we are missing out. 

The application of pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides etc.) does not only take place while the crop is growing but can also be applied as a seed treatment, or post-harvest to assist with transportation, storage or for cosmetic reasons. Most of our beloved potatoes have an average of around thirty different active chemicals sprayed on them and wheat has over twenty!  Individually the chemicals we consume may not harm a healthy person but our reduced gut microbiome makes us weaker and therefore more likely to be adversely affected by them.

Soil ecologist, Dr Christine Jones is really concerned about the negative effect fertiliser has on the nutritional content of our food, particularly that a large proportion of it is grown in liquid or compost with no microbial life and therefore lack the nutrients which are difficult, expensive or indeed impossible to add artificially.

Loss of plant diversity reduces microbial numbers and strength.

Our gut microbes, like soil microbes, thrive on a diversity of food sources. According to Slowfood, we have lost 94% of our vegetable varieties over the last 100 years and nearly half our calories come from just three crops!

We pay very little for our food in the UK and to be profitable, many are forced to produce food that grows as big and as fast as possible. This again reduces the nutritional content as they simply don’t have time to absorb as many nutrients.

“If a newborn baby grew as fast as your average supermarket chicken, by her third birthday she would weigh 28 stone,” according to Kate Parkes, RSPCA chicken welfare specialist.  

Our animals, like ourselves, are increasingly eating foods that are neither natural or good for them. We are becoming obese as we are eating obese animals, over processed foods are reducing gut health and we have to eat more nutrient deprived fruit and veg to get the nutrients we need.

Mineral deficiency is estimated to afflict more than a third of humanity in all areas and 64% of adults in England are considered overweight or obese.  Diabetes is costing the UK £10 billion a year and causing over 500 premature deaths each week.

 

 

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The Hydroponic / Aeroponic / Aquaponic – Vertical Farming Debate

The Hydroponic / Aeroponic / Aquaponic –  Vertical Farming Debate

Definitions:

Hydroponics refers to a system where crops are grown with their roots exposed directly to a nutrient-rich water solution, either permanently (raft systems) or periodically (ebb and flow systems), either without any growth medium, or with the use of an inert medium, such as rock wool, coconut fibre, perlite, gravel, or expanded clay).

Aeroponics utilises a similar nutrient-rich water solution, but this is sprayed onto roots and lower stems, or aerosolised in a high-humidity environment.

Aquaponics combines hydroponics with aquaculture (usually focused upon fish that can be reared for food). In an aquaponics system the fish produces ammonia rich waste, much of which is converted to nitrate and nitrite by bacteria. The nutrient rich water is used to feed plants, and the plants, in turn, help clean the water for the fish.

Vertical farming generally refers to a stacked growing systems, with crops grown not only in rows on one level but in layers, each above the last. These are often housed indoors in a controlled environment. Many hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponic systems utilise this vertical growing arrangement.

Analysis:

Hydroponic, aeroponic or aquaponic systems provide us with a way to produce food without relying upon soil and with lower overall water requirements than traditionally grown crops. This is immensely useful in regions that are prone to drought or have very poor soils. Many are also housed indoors, in a carefully controlled environment, which makes it possible to extend the range of crops grown, particularly in harsh or adverse growing environments. When these systems are combined with vertical farming, they can also produce significantly more food per acre. Because sunlight cannot reach all parts of a densely-packed vertical farm, however, they are often designed to rely heavily upon artificial lighting.

As all “ponic” systems are soil-less, they are obviously unable to contribute directly to one of Regenerative Agriculture’s most well-advertised aims, soil restoration and soil carbon capture – although some produce biomass as a by-product, which could be used as an input for systems that do restore soil. Long term soil carbon capture requires a plants and microorganisms to work symbiotically and without soil this is impossible.

The intensive but sterile industrial conditions also mean that most cannot contribute to increasing biodiversity. Large operations typically rely upon heavy inputs of synthetic fertilizer, produced through ecologically damaging and fossil fuel intensive processes – the one upside being that they do not leach into the surrounding environment as easily as those applied to fields because of the more tightly controlled growing environment.

As many such operations are driven by purely economic interests, as soil biologist Christine Jones puts it:

“In a hydroponics system you can grow more, larger, leafier vegetables the more nitrate you add. If you’re making money selling hydroponic vegetables you are of course going to put heaps of nitrate in the solution. Much better to consume antioxidant, bioflavonoid, phytochemical rich fruit and veg grown in diverse plant communities in biologically active soil. In a natural soil system, there’s a great deal of two-way communication between roots and soil microbes. Ideally, we want plant roots and the soil to behave as a host with microorganisms. This can’t happen when the roots are in water, being passively fertilised with whatever humans think is appropriate. Also, it is impossible to have mycorrhizal fungi in the liquid medium whether its hydroponics or even aquaponics which is organic. That has consequences for mineral delivery to the food plant and therefore consequences for human health.”

Indeed, nitrates are controversial, as a high nitrate intake has been associated with a number of health issues. However, the growing consensus is that negative health impacts of dietary nitrates from vegetable sources, only exist for vulnerable populations – e.g., very young children or those who don’t receive enough Vitamin C from their diet. In most other populations there are now thought to be a number of health benefits to a diet that includes a lot of high-nitrate vegetables. However, it is theoretically possibly for leafy vegetables in particular to absorb higher amounts of nitrate when heavily fertilised than they ordinarily would. If they were also lower in other complex phytochemicals, such as polyphenols and antioxidants, due to being grown with an improperly balanced feed, this could reduce the health benefits and reintroduce some of the risks.

The produce these systems turn out can be a valuable source of fresh food, particularly when they are integrated into communities where this is in scarce supply. However, as mentioned, fruit, vegetable and salad crops grown in these soil-less systems are not generally as nutritious as those grown in healthy soil. One reason for this is that, they aren’t always given as full an array of nutrients as would be available to them if they were grown under field conditions – sometimes they only receive in the range of 8 – 12 of the most essential ones. When this is the case, there may be many things that people need that will not be in their food – trace elements such as selenium and iodine are classic examples. Humans do not thrive if deprived of these essential elements, and if we’re not getting them from our food, we need to take supplements which are not always easily assimilated.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the current model for most hydro-, aero- and aqua-ponic systems is that many of those investing in them are still operating within the typically industrial paradigm, that prioritises economic considerations over all others. It is this that has helped to normalise systems that require a lot of energy and man-made material (often plastics) to create systems that have high ongoing energy demands and require significant inputs, that are then sourced with very little thought for sustainability, let alone building soil.

There is no reason why such systems cannot find a place in a regenerative food system but to do so they must break with the prevailing industry model. A few examples of steps that could be taken in this direction are included below:

  • reducing reliance upon synthetic fertilizers and look to existing waste-streams to source chemically and biologically complex organic liquid fertilizers.
  • giving more thought to the materials used in their construction,
  • giving more thought to the way they are designed, so that their energy requirements can be, in the first instance, reduced or satisfied passively and in the second, met in a more sustainable way.
  • moving away from sprawling industrial complexes to smaller, family-run operations, integrated into their local communities.
  • escaping the bubble of a controlled environment and focusing instead on growing a more diverse range of crops and integrating with their wider surroundings so they can start to play a role in increasing local biodiversity.
  • Ensuring that inedible biomass produced as a waste product is used productively, or moved along the supply chain to somewhere where it can be so used.
Further reading

Professor James White in the United States, who has studied plant endophytes for over 40 years.
http://regenerativeagriculturepodcast.com/how-plants-absorb-living-microbes-and-convert-soil-pathogens-into-beneficials-with-james-white

And here’s a great YouTube video.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBq_hHJOWy4

Here’s one of James White’s recent articles …
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/ps.5527

And articles from other authors on a similar theme ….
https://nph.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/nph.13312
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5787091/pdf/fpls-09-00024.pdf

 

 

 

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Regenerative food hubs: super-supermarkets

There is little doubt that it is currently difficult to access organic, pasture-fed food from farms which use regenerative methods.  Even in a place like Cornwall, popularly presumed to be a byword for local farming and produce, most local vegetable products have been treated with chemicals and many butchers cannot tell you the precise history and source of their meat!  If you do have the time and inclination to seek out healthy and regeneratively produced food, you usually have to shop in a number of different places – not easy for those who are working all day and wasteful and costly in fuel usage.

This is not an acceptable state of affairs, given the urgency of the challenges to our planet and our health.  Do we just accept this dismal  situation, or do we try to do something about it?  We firmly believe that we can and we should do something about it – NOW!   We therefore wish to encourage and support the growth of local food hubs that sell food and goods with regeneration at their core.  

Such food hubs will provide an incentive for farmers to get onto the regenerative path, before the rollout of ELMS. They will provide a recognised place to sell their food more locally, food perhaps they are experimenting with, new crops with new regenerative techniques. Research suggests that many farmers wish to sell locally, but just don’t have the mechanism to do so. Some are trapped in big contacts, but not all.

The food hubs will differ from town to town, depending upon what is needed.   Each one should, however, sell a broad range of goods in a suitable location, have a slick online platform and offer home delivery at least once a week. They could be an extension of a farmer’s market, farm shop, community orchard etc. They could also incorporate a community kitchen and potentially provide education concerning wholesome and sustainable food, composting, waste management and more. They could link in with the local gleaning network and food bank schemes. They could offer a location – with website – for food and other ‘sustainable’ businesses to not only sell their produce, but to physically make their goods there too. They could incorporate a refill section, weekly repair café and even a low-cost hire facility for goods only rarely used. They could be places where the local climate action group meets and works from,  offering resources and information to the local community.  Opportunities abound from the fact that food gathers people together. In this way such hubs tick climate / environmental funding streams.

Food hubs, once established, can work together in regional groups and buy dried, tinned and other essentials from wholesalers in larger amounts, in order to bring down prices for consumers.   There would also be the opportunity to sell non-food goods that are up-cycled or recycled, or are sustainable in some way, particularly those that are made locally.  Many creative, kitchen table and small enterprises such as organic bread makers, micro dairies, pizzas, jams, curry making,.. could be supported, further boosting the local economy. In this way it ticks an LEP funding stream.

We need to expand the good and make it more convenient and accessible.

Funding for this may be available through the Town Funds, Business Angel Networks and / local council + community share offers. Local councils that have declared a climate emergency may be embracing a doughnut economic model. Private investment makes sense as, given the right location, they could well be central to the community in the long term. Town and city councils should though offer suitable premises for such hubs for free or reduced rates, so as to encourage the regeneration or our farm land and reduce travel costs. Obviously, such hubs need to work sympathetically within the neighbourhood and they will have to be sustainable’ in the long term.  This is where real growth lies though.

The online sales portal could be through the Open Food Network – currently looking to improve their site – or perhaps Better Food Traders, or even BigBarn if they create a regenerative section based on a new Organic /Regenerative label. We don’t have time to get everything perfect before working on this locally! Regenerative farmers can be found through regenerativefoodandfarming.co.uk farmstofeedus.org, Facebook Page- ‘Regenerative Farming UK’, Nature Friendly Farming Network and though the Farming Forum’s ‘Conservation and Direct Drill Sections. Most of these farmers don’t have capasity to sell more but it’s a chicken and egg thing, once there is a route to a large enough market, they can make that jump. Slowly the shop will expand and improve.

 

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The Organic Debate

The organic and biodynamic labels certified by DEFRA’s approved list (Ref 1) are by far the most effective measurement we currently have to ensure the food we choose is good, not just for us but also the environment.  The food from organic farms should contain little or no harmful chemicals and organic plants should not be grown from genetically modified or chemically treated seeds. Such chemicals not only upset the life of the soil and the plants grown in it,  but can be directly harmful to us and/or confuse our bodies into irregular management; that in turn, is harmful.

 

If, however, the organic farmer is only planting monocultures, is overgrazing and is continuously damaging the soil by leaving it bare, or regularly digging it up, then long-term,  the ‘natural capital’ / environmental assets might well be diminishing.

There is also an issue that organic certification is expensive for the farmer. Many in fact, especially the smaller growers, find the costs too prohibitive. Many farmers too, would rather have the freedom to very occasionally, use chemicals, if there is a dire need.

Organic isn’t the only answer , but an organic farmer is further down the regenerative path than many.  Thus, conventional farmers are increasingly looking towards organic farming methods for inspiration.

What is needed is a trustworthy regenerative certification, of which there are now two in the UK: https://regenagri.org and https://agreenerworld.org.uk. These are relatively new certifications and so you are unlikely to come across them for a while.

In the USA, Patagonia and the Rodale Institute have launched a certification scheme called Regenerative Organic Certification which you may start to see on imported goods.  Regenagri is also international.

Ref 1) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/organic-certification-list-of-uk-approved-organic-control-bodies/approved-uk-organic-control-bodies

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The veggie / vegan debate

While it is obvious that battery farming is both ethically and environmentally disastrous, other livestock operations can have beneficial impacts on the fertility of the soil and its ability to capture carbon.  Conversely, some vegetables, grown using non regenerative methods, can be environmentally harmful, especially if over processed, packaged and sent across the globe.

Essentially, though, we all need to reduce significantly the amount of meat and dairy products we consume, especially poor-quality beef, lamb and farmed fish and ensure that what we do consume, comes from regenerative / low input systems. (LINK TO LABELS).

The amount of land globally used for meat production needs to reduce massively. Currently a ridiculously high proportion of farm land across the world is used to produce cereals for animal feeds. (See text in italics below) We cannot continue like this and still feed a growing population with healthy food, trap carbon and increase biodiversity.

Intensive battery farms use more fossil fuels in their production and maintenance than outdoor reared animals. There are around 1,700 intensive factory farms in the UK including around 800 megafarms. This is far fewer than the USA,  where much of the greenhouse gas data comes from.  The Committee on Climate Change reports that, on average, British meat produces only half of the global average rate for greenhouse gas emissions. (Ref 1)  Animals raised in these cruel factories often need antibiotics, affecting their gut health and then our gut health in turn.  They are given food that isn’t healthy for them or the planet in its production.  Their meat, unlike pasture/forage fed, hasn’t got the same CLA’s and healthy fat ratios.  It  isn’t healthy for us like those grown at a more natural pace, eating food they were designed to eat, in surroundings that don’t make them stressed and bored. (Ref Graham Harvey)

Those reared on a regenerative farm are chosen so that they can live outside for all or nearly all the year. In mid-winter, they may well need some extra food supplied, but it should preferably be grown locally or be a by-product. In the main though, animals should be able to forage for a broad range of fodder. Their stocking rates are lower than conventional’ farms and they have more room to roam and interact naturally. So regenerative raised animals should have high welfare, but  the two certifications are little used.  Therefore, look  for organic, RSPCA and outdoor bred labels in order to ensure as best a standard of welfare as possible. Higher welfare usually means higher nutritional level. (SEE GLOSSARY – CERTIFICATIONS).

It is easiest to trap carbon in fields with a mixed species of seven or more plants. The Jena experiment in Germany (Ref 2) has proved this. With a species mix of 8-16 they saw an increase of carbon production in soil of 21.8% more than in a plot with low density of 1-4 plant species. The experiments and observations have also proved that mixed species enable the soil to create more humus and a deeper soil generally, which enables better water management with more nutrients, including nitrogen. Gabe Brown, a pioneer regenerative farming in the USA, agrees and takes it further to say that adding animals into the mix, again increases fertility and further carbon capture. Nitrogen is needed by plants and is usually added artificially. Artificial nitrogen fertilisers are attributed to poisonous algae blooms, the near death of the Great Barrier Reef, the massive explosion in Beirut from age-deterioration and the major issue of reducing the proper function of our soils and plants. Indeed, synthetic fertilisers are one of the most energy intensive, environmentally damaging inputs in agriculture. Therefore, it is important to add it naturally whenever possible and it is efficient to do so through a mixed herbal ley /pasture.

 

We can either add Nitrogen with artificial fertilisers, or with plants that help microbes to make it,  including legumes – also clover and vetch found in herbal leys, which also have other benefits.

We could just leave these mixed herbal leys and cut them for hay or silage, but farmers do need to be profitable and animal grazing can also add an extra level of fertilisation with their urine and manure. Such herbal leys can also be used to give the land a break from growing crops and reboot the fungal and microbial life in the soil. We cannot eat such grasses and herbs and so, in a world where food is needed for a growing population, it makes some sense to provide meat from such a system. We must always beware, though,  that overgrazing and use of synthetic inputs can increase soil erosion and carbon loss.

Some may argue that there are regions of Britain that don’t lend themselves to arable production. Indeed, it would be very hard to produce crops on the many thin, hilly soils, but agroforestry, silvopasture and rewilding offer alternatives for such areas. They will require much time, knowledge and care to create. This marginal land, not suitable for crop production, could be rewilded,  but again, such land benefits from the introduction of some animal species and these will eventually need management in order that stocks don’t get overlarge for the area. (Link Isabella Tree).  Again, meat from such management is far healthier for us than that which is mass produced in intensive farms.

We cannot discuss farmed meat without discussing methane. It’s a nasty, though short lived, greenhouse gas that ruminants mainly burp. Cows are by far the main offenders, hence the need to especially reduce global beef and dairy consumption. Choosing meat produced on regenerative farms would somewhat mitigate the amount of methane produced.  This is because of the benefits of the carbon and nutrients captured through the herbal ley and the natural  animal fertilisation.  Hence,  the processing by the animals would have more benefits than the negative effects of the methane.  This is why the NFU are confident that they can reach net zero on their GHG emissions by 2040. (Ref 3).

We currently import 42% of vegetables we consume and 89% of our fruit, increasingly from water stressed countries. These crops are usually from intensive systems. Yes, it provides incomes but it also means that those countries have fewer natural resources to feed themselves and large amounts of air, sea and road miles are used in delivery. We need to reduce plastic use and fossil fuels use.  It therefore makes sense that we reduce the amount of animal fodder, such as maize, that we grow. That accounts for around 22% of farm land usage here in the UK.  Good land is also used for biofuel production.  We need to consider turning over much of that acreage to food production for human food.

We will always need to import food that can’t be grown here, but again, like meat intake, we need to reduce this, especially food production and delivery methods which are more fossil fuel dependant.

It’s not the Cow but the How!

Finally, it is important to draw your attention to the amazing results that animals have had in the desert edges of Africa, Australia and the USA, where mob grazing through holistically managed cattle is improving the soils and making arid areas greener. The trampling of their hooves creates moisture- collecting cups in the soil. Short sharp, holistic grazing, mimicking the movement of buffalo, spreads seeds and their  excrement fertilises the seeds and the soils.  Their hooves trample and combine the mix, so then microorganisms, such as dung beetles, can take over, helping fertilise and make green the land again. It is here that animals are needed more than anywhere else! The work was started by Allan Savory (LINK TED TALK IN FURTHER READING). His institute is working hard to increase such effects and many farmers in dry regions of Australia and the USA are using his techniques for great gain.

Karoo Region, South Africa: (On left) Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG). Photo credits: Kroon Family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Genetically Modified Organisms / Genome / Gene Editing Debate

Breeding of various sorts has been, and continues to be, an important part of the way we produce the plants that we grow as crops and the animals that we raise as livestock. Around 50 years ago researchers developed techniques which made it possible to create genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Since then, two things have happened. Firstly, a number of different techniques have been developed which have increased both the range and the precision of the genetic engineering / genome editing process. Secondly, there has been an ongoing and complex debate about the ethics, safety and broader implications of these practices and of the organisms which are produced.

In nature, whenever their habitats have overlapped, animals belonging to the same species have mated with one another, and likewise, plants that belong to the same species have cross-pollinated one another, even when they have very different traits. In some cases people can facilitate these processes by bringing two (or more) sexually compatible individuals from the same species into proximity with one another.  Conventional breeding, though, often involves going a step further than this, and although not always the case, as a diverse range of practices can now be included under that heading, it has  involved practices like artificial insemination for animals and pollen transfer between plants – practices which still try to mimic natural processes.

In animals, a practice like artificial insemination allows us to cross, say, two breeds of cattle. In plants, taking the pollen from one flower and applying it to those of another, allows us to cross, say, two varieties of tomato. When there is diversity within a species, whether animal or plant, these crosses, if they are successful, can give rise to interesting and useful combinations of traits. There are, however, barriers that prevent us from crossing just anything with just anything else. In animals, mating is sometimes restricted to within a species, but one often finds that closely related species are also able to mate and produce healthy offspring. For example, a horse can mate with a donkey, and give birth to a mule. The mule is nearly always sterile, though, because it cannot make successful sperm or eggs – the chromosomes do not match well enough. This is known as ‘inter-specific’ hybridisation, because it occurs between different species. In plants, inter-specific hybridisation is fairly common and usually produces fertile plants, although there are still some restrictions. In some cases plants also hybridise across genus boundaries.  Some species of hawthorn, for example, have been known to cross with some species of rowan. These wider crosses, however, are much rarer.

Whatever methods are used, the aim of breeding is to produce a new generation of plants or animals (or other economically important organisms) with more desirable traits than either parent (or gene donor) has on its own. In some cases, genetic modification or engineering is used as a shortcut, a way to achieve something that could, in principle, be achieved through conventional breeding.  GM makes it cost less and involves a much shorter time frame.  More often, however, the aim is to transcend the barriers that prevent us from achieving certain things using conventional breeding methods, such as taking genes from one plant, and inserting them into the genome of a much more distantly related plant, or taking genes from bacteria and introducing them into plants – something that only occurs in very rare circumstances in nature.

As a single gene has multiple functions, a single change in the way a gene functions can have multiple and profound results throughout the organism. Such changes, when they occur in the human genome, are responsible for complex diseases like cystic fibrosis, haemophilia and sickle cell anaemia. Therefore, things can potentially go very wrong, although the positive outcomes could be massive. These positives could include adaptation of animal feed to reduce production of methane in ruminants, maize that can cope better with drought conditions and cassava that has extra vitamin A to help prevent blindness in African children.

Unlike the USA, South America and China, the UK’s laws governing genetically modified crops are restrictive and in line with those of Europe.  Brexit, however, has got discussions going again and although it is unlikely that laws will change sooner than 2024, there have been discussions about the benefits and costs of ‘Gene Editing’ in the House of Lords. The conversations have started due to a push from companies that have invested heavily in genetic editing technologies, especially in the fields of human and animal health, as well as crops. This worries some farmers as it could reduce agricultural trade with Europe if our laws are watered down.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric on the side of GM is often outdated, urging governments that GM is the only way to feed the growing population or of reducing the need for chemical pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, because crops can be mutated to be resilient. We now know that investment into regenerative agriculture increases resilience and can offer increased yields, without the need for genetic modification or chemical inputs.

What is alarming is the sale of genetically modified seeds for crops that can cope with pesticides such as Glyphosate / Roundup. These seeds grow despite being saturated in toxic chemicals that kill everything else that grows. This is incredibly destructive to life – both above and below ground – and may have implications for  own health,  but it gives much power to large agrochemical /seed producers.

 

The other sad fact is that good money, too, is being invested into gene editing to reduce disease in animals farmed intensively, such as pigs and chickens. This has been brought about by the important push to reduce the use of antibiotics in Europe. Surely it is better to improve animal welfare so they don’t get the diseases in the first place?

 

In the 1990s there was much debate in the British press and resistance from the general population fearful of scientific experiments going wrong. The organic industry is also very concerned that GM crops are often ‘stronger’ than  original, ‘natural’ crops and therefore have the ability to overrun, or hybridise.  Contamination of organic crops is inevitable because seeds tend to travel on the wind or by vehicle of animals and birds. As organic farmers are not allowed to used GM seeds this could put their accreditation in jeopardy.

 

Finally there is a small,  but not insignificant, possibility that cross pollination and genetic modifications of animals could cause unknown – and possibly irreversible – problems for our environment, our animals, our food and ourselves. It is certainly an area in which to tread extremely carefully.

(Please see our SEED section to learn more about good seeds.)

This shows where GM food is eaten – https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/gm-plants/where-are-gm-crops-being-eaten/

What our food standard agency says about GM food – https://www.food.gov.uk/safety-hygiene/genetically-modified-foods

https://beyond-gm.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Beyond-GM_Nuffield_Submitted-Evidence_Final.pdf

 

 

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Hydroponic / Aeroponic / Aquaponic Debate

The Hydroponic / Aeroponic / Aquaponic –  Vertical Farming Debate

Definitions:

Hydroponics refers to a system where crops are grown with their roots exposed directly to a nutrient-rich water solution, either permanently (raft systems) or periodically (ebb and flow systems), either without any growth medium, or with the use of an inert medium, such as rock wool, coconut fibre, perlite, gravel, or expanded clay).

Aeroponics utilises a similar nutrient-rich water solution, but this is sprayed onto roots and lower stems, or aerosolised in a high-humidity environment.

Aquaponics combines hydroponics with aquaculture (usually focused upon fish that can be reared for food). In an aquaponics system the fish produces ammonia rich waste, much of which is converted to nitrate and nitrite by bacteria. The nutrient rich water is used to feed plants, and the plants, in turn, help clean the water for the fish.

Vertical farming generally refers to a stacked growing systems, with crops grown not only in rows on one level but in layers, each above the last. These are often housed indoors in a controlled environment. Many hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponic systems utilise this vertical growing arrangement.

Analysis:

Hydroponic, aeroponic or aquaponic systems provide us with a way to produce food without relying upon soil and with lower overall water requirements than traditionally grown crops. This is immensely useful in regions that are prone to drought or have very poor soils. Many are also housed indoors, in a carefully controlled environment, which makes it possible to extend the range of crops grown, particularly in harsh or adverse growing environments. When these systems are combined with vertical farming, they can also produce significantly more food per acre. Because sunlight cannot reach all parts of a densely-packed vertical farm, however, they are often designed to rely heavily upon artificial lighting.

As all “ponic” systems are soil-less, they are obviously unable to contribute directly to one of Regenerative Agriculture’s most well-advertised aims, soil restoration and soil carbon capture – although some produce biomass as a by-product, which could be used as an input for systems that do restore soil. Long term soil carbon capture requires a plants and microorganisms to work symbiotically and without soil this is impossible.

The intensive but sterile industrial conditions also mean that most cannot contribute to increasing biodiversity. Large operations typically rely upon heavy inputs of synthetic fertilizer, produced through ecologically damaging and fossil fuel intensive processes – the one upside being that they do not leach into the surrounding environment as easily as those applied to fields because of the more tightly controlled growing environment.

As many such operations are driven by purely economic interests, as soil biologist Christine Jones puts it:

“In a hydroponics system you can grow more, larger, leafier vegetables the more nitrate you add. If you’re making money selling hydroponic vegetables you are of course going to put heaps of nitrate in the solution. Much better to consume antioxidant, bioflavonoid, phytochemical rich fruit and veg grown in diverse plant communities in biologically active soil. In a natural soil system, there’s a great deal of two-way communication between roots and soil microbes. Ideally, we want plant roots and the soil to behave as a host with microorganisms. This can’t happen when the roots are in water, being passively fertilised with whatever humans think is appropriate. Also, it is impossible to have mycorrhizal fungi in the liquid medium whether its hydroponics or even aquaponics which is organic. That has consequences for mineral delivery to the food plant and therefore consequences for human health.”

Indeed, nitrates are controversial, as a high nitrate intake has been associated with a number of health issues. However, the growing consensus is that negative health impacts of dietary nitrates from vegetable sources, only exist for vulnerable populations – e.g., very young children or those who don’t receive enough Vitamin C from their diet. In most other populations there are now thought to be a number of health benefits to a diet that includes a lot of high-nitrate vegetables. However, it is theoretically possibly for leafy vegetables in particular to absorb higher amounts of nitrate when heavily fertilised than they ordinarily would. If they were also lower in other complex phytochemicals, such as polyphenols and antioxidants, due to being grown with an improperly balanced feed, this could reduce the health benefits and reintroduce some of the risks.

The produce these systems turn out can be a valuable source of fresh food, particularly when they are integrated into communities where this is in scarce supply. However, as mentioned, fruit, vegetable and salad crops grown in these soil-less systems are not generally as nutritious as those grown in healthy soil. One reason for this is that, they aren’t always given as full an array of nutrients as would be available to them if they were grown under field conditions – sometimes they only receive in the range of 8 – 12 of the most essential ones. When this is the case, there may be many things that people need that will not be in their food – trace elements such as selenium and iodine are classic examples. Humans do not thrive if deprived of these essential elements, and if we’re not getting them from our food, we need to take supplements which are not always easily assimilated.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the current model for most hydro-, aero- and aqua-ponic systems is that many of those investing in them are still operating within the typically industrial paradigm, that prioritises economic considerations over all others. It is this that has helped to normalise systems that require a lot of energy and man-made material (often plastics) to create systems that have high ongoing energy demands and require significant inputs, that are then sourced with very little thought for sustainability, let alone building soil.

There is no reason why such systems cannot find a place in a regenerative food system but to do so they must break with the prevailing industry model. A few examples of steps that could be taken in this direction are included below:

  • reducing reliance upon synthetic fertilizers and look to existing waste-streams to source chemically and biologically complex organic liquid fertilizers.
  • giving more thought to the materials used in their construction,
  • giving more thought to the way they are designed, so that their energy requirements can be, in the first instance, reduced or satisfied passively and in the second, met in a more sustainable way.
  • moving away from sprawling industrial complexes to smaller, family-run operations, integrated into their local communities.
  • escaping the bubble of a controlled environment and focusing instead on growing a more diverse range of crops and integrating with their wider surroundings so they can start to play a role in increasing local biodiversity.
  • Ensuring that inedible biomass produced as a waste product is used productively, or moved along the supply chain to somewhere where it can be so used.
Further reading

Professor James White in the United States, who has studied plant endophytes for over 40 years.
http://regenerativeagriculturepodcast.com/how-plants-absorb-living-microbes-and-convert-soil-pathogens-into-beneficials-with-james-white

And here’s a great YouTube video.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBq_hHJOWy4

Here’s one of James White’s recent articles …
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/ps.5527

And articles from other authors on a similar theme ….
https://nph.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/nph.13312
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5787091/pdf/fpls-09-00024.pdf

 

 

 

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