Jersey’s agricultural desert By Nigel Jones.
When we think about Jersey’s agricultural future we see that policies and practices over several decades have led to the farm fields of the island deteriorating into an agricultural desert. Every application of chemicals, insecticides, nematocides, fungicides, herbicides or indeed fertilisers, kill the life of the soil and therefore the life of the countryside.
Why do we do this? Why is it government policy to encourage and to subsidise farmers and growers to do so? In a single word, it is born of fear. This is an extension of the philosophy that leads to dosing ourselves and our children on antibiotics, bleaching light switches, and buying food only if it is hermetically sealed in sterile plastic film. We have been taught to fear the natural, wild and living land that we share. This is Victorian science, bolstered by 20th Century industrialism. This is not the science of the 21st Century. It is the past, not the future.
We now know that more than half of the cells in our body are not human cells. They are bacteria and fungus and other plant and animal cells that colonise our body, inside and out, from the moment we are born. Trying to eradicate ‘germs’ and live in a sterile, shrink-wrapped bubble, is not only impossible but it would be about as unhealthy as we could possibly be. Medical scientists are still discovering all the healthy, natural processes that out host of beneficial bacteria and other microbes encourage and enable in our lives, from good digestion to mental health, from fighting cancer to preventing obesity, from helping with allergies to helping fight off infections.1
Healthy soil is even more complicated and heavily populated than our healthy bodies.2 Millions of species and trillions of individuals live in soils, and similar numbers again live in the sea.3 Where did this idea come from that the best way to grow crops is first to sterilise the soil, kill and remove all the life, and then to feed the crops on pure dissolved chemicals while fighting back the microbes and the insects day and night? Could it have been the chemical corporations? Preying on our fears?
If you keep killing the living biome of the land, year after year, what happens? Life fights back and, following the laws of ecological succession, tries to recolonise the landscape. The first to arrive each year are the vegetarians. It has to be. There’s nothing else for them to eat other than the roots and leaves of your young crop. If you somehow get past the problem of these first colonists, the next to arrive would be their predators, the nematodes that eat root-feeding nematodes, the insects that eat leaf-eating greenfly, the crows that eat snails etc etc. But if each year, you immediately kill the vegetarians, the meat-eaters will never show up. You will keep on re-living Year One, and you will never get to Years Two, Three and Four when a healthy balance would naturally re-establish itself.
Fungus is an amazingly important, overlooked, and misunderstood, part of soil life. There are fungi that will capture, trap and kill nematodes with loop-traps as they pass by. Mycorrhizal fungi form deep and intimate relationships with living plant roots. Having done so, they exchange not only water from plant to plant but also whatever each plant requires. In some ways, mycorrhizal fungi are believed to act as the nerve system and the brains of the living land. They help to decide species
diversity: If they detect too many of one plant species in a small area, they will indeed starve, kill and recycle individual plants to make room for more diversity. I wonder, does this ring any bells for our obsession with monocrops? On the other hand, in a healthy, balanced environment like a mixed woodland with a good understory and massive plant and animal diversity, mycorrhizal fungi will provide plants and trees with invaluable protection from drought, communication about predators and insect attacks, and the continual redistribution of nutrients and minerals.
The roots of large trees can go deep to find water and minerals that smaller plants could never tap into, but that the fungal threads will make available to them. Colonies of bacteria that live on and around roots can extract phosphates from solid rock and nitrates from the air, and pass them directly into the roots, in exchange for sugar-sap. Then fungal threads will redistribute these nutrients to the whole living community, exactly as needed.
This is very similar to the way that a living body with a healthy immune system works, and in many ways the complex and subtle balances of healthy soil, in a healthy thriving countryside, are very similar to an immune system for the land.
By the skilful use of the microscope, and inoculations of living compost and compost teas, it is possible significantly to regenerate soil from being largely dead, in a year or less, not the three to five years that previous generations of organic farmers would have expected. They were limited to using only traditional trusted methods, received wisdom, and personal judgement. With a microscope, a good understanding of the realistic needs of the grower, and a good range of key indicator species, problems can be diagnosed, and compost mixed and brewed to order – and also checked by microscope – to provide exactly what is needed, week by week and month by month.
The regeneration of our countryside is now not only possible, but it is an imperative. The carbon that is not sequestered in our soil, and the life that is not thriving in our countryside, is a disgrace. We have the knowledge, the means, and the urgency to get on with this. Future generations will not look back well on us, if we stand idly by, letting their soil die and wash away in our summer storms.
Nigel Jones Jersey in Transition May 2018
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