Healthy Soil - Reflections from Robin Roth
How often do you have a conversation with someone and come away with your entire understanding having been changed without you even realising it?
I had been working in Fairtrade for 5 years and was managing Europe’s single biggest Fairtrade company, and I really thought I understood just how critical Fairtrade was to farmers. I was convinced that without it, farmers really didn’t have much of a chance at all.
It was around then that was lucky enough to meet Vandana Shiva, who runs a small model farm, North of Delhi. On the farm she encourages farmers to take seeds from her seed bank, use them for free, sell the crop and return a certain percentage for storage and use the following year. The aim of this process is seed diversity, which prevents large companies from decoding the genetic sequence of a seed, registering it and patenting it (thereby enabling them to charge farmers to use it).
When I met Vandana Shiva for the first time she seemed kindly, thoughtful and sincere. I did not, at the time, know that she was an alternate Nobel prize winner, a serial litigator against, (and frequent vanquisher of) Monsanto, a public crusader against corporate malpractice and the adored defender of small farmer rights all across India.
In comparison to her, I didn’t really know anything.
She wanted to sell me GMO free rice and we were happy to buy, but afterwards, on a shared taxi journey to a conference where she was going to speak, I asked her, by way of conversation;
“What is the most important thing for a small farmer – the thing he or she needs more than anything else to ensure survival.”
“Healthy soil.” She replied quietly and looked out of the window.
“What about a secure income – or a good price for the crop – surely that’s more important?”
“A contented wife.”
“Seriously? Don’t you get that with a secure income?”
“And next," she carried on, quite unperturbed, “Healthy children.
She carried on and eventually she got to Fairtrade. It was about 8th or 9th on the list, and, I suspect a kindness to me, as I had just agreed to buy 3 containers of her rice at good Fairtrade prices.
It has taken me years to unravel what she said, and more importantly, what she meant. Healthy soil is the basis of all farming, of all growth, of all trade, of all nourishment and of all economic security. If the soil has gone, there isn’t a crop to sell.
I remember standing in the foothills of the Himalayas in Darjeeling. I was on an organic tea farm and the valley I was in was lush and green, with plenty of tree cover, and the endless lines of tea bushes were broken up by patches of woodland and forest. The (non-organic) estate straight ahead on the other side of the valley was stripped bare, dirty brown and there were small rock falls – avalanches you might call them - where the earth had just slid off the rock taking whole fields with them.
It was disturbing to look at, but most fascinating was the view down the valley to the enormous plains below. We must have been at 4,000 feet or so, so we could see some 50 miles or so. The plain below was a dust bowl – completely stripped of all vegetation – apart from directly below us.
The waters that passed through the organic tea estate that I was in carried no pesticides with them, and as a result, a stretch of green flowed out down to the plain below directly beneath us.
There were healthy trees to begin with, subsiding to scrub, and then grass. Eventually it all deteriorated into the dead plain as the clean water drained away. I will never forget that sight.
One day in Sri Lanka, another Fairtrade pioneer I have come to be greatly inspired by scooped up a handful of living, breathing sweet smelling earth and said to me.
“There are more living organisms in this handful of earth than there are stars in the universe. If you spray this with pesticide, you will kill nearly all of them. Then you don’t have soil anymore. You have dust.”
He showed me a neighbouring farm where they did indeed use pesticides. The crops were fantastically green, pumped full of nitrogen, and the earth was bone hard. To get a handful of it would have required a mini pack of explosives and the result would have been a cloud of dust driven away by the wind.
So what is “healthy soil?”
Well, even now, a scientist can’t tell you exactly what lives in this amazing micro-universe, nor will they be able to explain how this community of organisms co-exist, or what they all bring to the party, but they do know that it takes about 2,000 years of natural weather conditions to grow just 10cm of natural soil.
Every time a farmer turns the soil on their land and “dust” flies up into the air, we say good bye to another few decades of nature’s work. Soil degradation is not just about killing it, it’s about seeing it blown away. Eventually, as now visible in Ohio, the corn basket of the USA, the ground is – literally – getting lower each year.
It has taken me years to understand what Vandana said - and I am not a farmer - but I have seen severely degraded soil. It has become clear to me that it if soil is not looked after, crops, and the farming of them will not be sustainable for long, Fairtrade price or not.
I have also seen simple communities of forest farmers living on just half an acre of land each, but living with such abundance of food that it felt almost Panglossian.
If we are serious about Fairtrade, we need to be serious about the farmers who grow our food. In Europe we have consistently understood Fairtrade through our own eyes and our own understanding: we are doing some “good” to those in need. Many farmers would be insulted by this.
Fairtrade in Britain is all about conscious choices: spending a bit more money to help farmers who are committed to nourishing the earth is the beginning of an extraordinary journey. Over the coming months we want to share more of this journey with you.