Reviewing transition agricultural practice

By Dave Armstrong - 27 May 2014 6:25:0 GMT
Reviewing transition agricultural practice

In Cuba, Russian tractors used to transform the land into huge cooperative farms. Now there is great cooperation, but great oxen pull the plough, just as horses have been used in some city farms worldwide; Oxen image; Credit: © Voices of Transition/Milpa-Films

Nils Aguilar has a movie named, "Voices of Transition." It is available as a DVD - Voices of Transition, having won in Bratislava and been shown in several other film festivals.

This modern tale tells about food politics and how speculation and prices for pesticides, fertiliser and produce have ruled the marketplace. Local economy is the answer both to overpriced food and sustainable prices for farmers. In the past, mixed farming used to be sustainable, but with oil prices and ruined soils worldwide, green or organic agriculture can be impossible. After the false hopes of the Green Revolution, some soils have less than 1% organic matter. They can be considered "dead." At the sharp end of this food business, the trucks supplying supermarkets would leave them empty if they stopped deliveries for 3 days. Personally, I call that too much reliance on others, and it feels very vulnerable, speaking as a suburbanite.

France is considered in the first third of this movie. While Europe, Russia and North America have formed huge agro-industries, the trend now must be smaller. Small farms can personalise and diversify agriculture, providing local produce and employment. Monocultures still exist within small systems, but it is considerably easier to persuade farmers to try a diverse portfolio of crops. Many nations encourage their farmers to be conservationists, with woodland and wild meadow areas growing in popularity.

Trees provide natural fertility and shelter for all kinds of biodiversity. Both the English and French contributors suggest rows of trees within fields of the future. An evolution of agriculture into such useful and almost transferable plots worldwide would be ideal, with each climate zone submitting its own specialities. The gourmet requiring his special treat from far away could be managed within the system, but prices would come down for locally produced food and soils could be maintained for the future, instead of being washed away into the ocean.

More tree planting has been advocated for a century, but not for wood, necessarily. Recent floods could have been minimalized by upland forests. Agroforestry involves a single system of perhaps arable crops and lines of trees or a complete mix of plants all working within a planned system- a sort of "forest gardening." In this type of garden, rotating crops and nutrient swapping are used. One plant fertilizes another: for example, the extremely adaptable and urban Italian alder, Alnus ordata fixes nitrogen for surrounding species.

Hydrocarbons are suggested as being usefully-sourced from pine resin or other non-fossil sources. Ramial (RCW) chipped wood is also used here as a natural fertilizer. The land's function in the eyes of young French farmers is to feed a group of mainly local people and agroforestry can increase yield by 60%, compared with normal monocultural practice. Biodiversity becomes an actual benefit, instead of the luxury it now seems to be. The microclimate change from the presence of woodland is pretty obvious, while carbon capture adds greatly to the benefit with larger forests;

The robustness of a system has to be built-in. The second part of the film moves to England. Local resilience and fair trade is building in many places, such as "Transition Town Totnes" in Devon, England. Since 2006, enthusiasts have dug up a school car park to make a vegetable patch, created their own local money and used equally creative ideas to attract many local people into green living. Energy Descent Action Plans and renewable energy cooperatives have persuaded many to join in. Instead of their own expertise, they used external experts to modify their grand plans for the town.

Permaculture, organic gardening, forest gardens and cooperation from local stores brought employment and food production close together. Nut trees, vegetable patches and involvement has been the key. Such Transition Towns exist in 1100 locations in more than 40 countries. From Freiburg in Germany and Huntsville, Alabama to the island of Ibiza, schemes like those in Totnes are developing rapidly. Every inhabited continent is involved.

In Totnes, apple juice and cider are popular locally, so the agricultural market is well established for liquids! One personable gardener suggests Fuchsia seeds are edible, although few might take up that option. The whole essence is that the nutritional value of a very freshly picked fruit is far greater than those that are much older, but on the other hand preserving local produce for winter use must also be considered.. To box produce and distribute is a function of some farms, even in cities. Clients enjoy receiving their boxes as sources of basic greens and tasty vegetables. Another idea, "Many Hands," involves 10 hours of work on a communal plot or allotment, with 10 people thereby helping you with your garden or smallholding work.

WTO (The World Trade Organisation) aims for liberalisation of markets in capitalist systems, but the opposite situation of small producers with diverse products fits locally as a much more comfortable arrangement. While agribusiness relies on failing oil and gas supplies, Transition Towns get on without their fossil fuels.

The third section of the movie has Cuba as a happy example of autonomy in food production. Originally the nation was communist and blockaded by the US, but the collapse of the Soviet bloc stranded their heavy agricultural industry, with no fertilizers or oil. Improvisation saw people managing to grow produce without subsidy. Only fertilizers from wormeries are now used, basically recycling all the plants' organic waste.

Onion barriers, marigold and basil protect plants and host the predators of pests. The large city of Havana now produces 70% of its own urban vegetable consumption. Trees help with biodiversity, fruit and by encouraging pollinators, even in the city plots. Rabbits, oxen, goats and hens help with manure. And the people receive great food in their sub-tropical climate.