Monday, 24 November 2008

Transition farming

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the Soil Association annual conference in Bristol. The venue was Brunel's Passenger Shed at Temple Meads, an impressive venue with its vaulted rood and couldn't be better placed for transport links. About 400 people came to listen, talk, eat and celebrate. These events always have an incredible energy and this year was no exception.

The food is always good, but some years have been less good than others; this was a vintage year! Phil and Barney Haughton are at the forefront of the organic and local food scene in Bristol and had a major part to play in the quality of this year's catering. Phil Haughton runs The Better Food Company, which is a superb shop, and sorted out all the lunch time and break food. Barney Haughton runs Bordeaux Quay, a great cafe/brasserie/restaurant/shop/cookery school on the waterfront. This played host to an amazing Slow Food dinner - everything was sourced from the South West and ranged from shellfish to soup, perry to pork and vegetables to venison. There were probably 25 different things to eat (over a period of 3 hours!) and the tastes were simply amazing.

Transition: farming in 21st century Britain was the theme of the conference, largely inspired by the Transition movement, focussing on the responses organic farming and growing can make in reply to the threats of climate change and peak oil. Nearly all the talks, and some transcripts, are available on the Soil Association website.

This is a summary of some of the main sessions:
  • Caroline Lucas reminded us of the seriousness of the world food crisis, where it is estimated 75% of Africans are at risk of hunger, whilst the industrialised world is full of obese people. But Government policy will only change when a real crisis looms over us; at this point, she claims, "food crises could drive elections". She also outlined the ridiculousness of biofuels, where the grain required to produce bioethanol to fill an SUV tank is enough to feed a person for a whole year.
  • Jeremy Leggett talked about the current "triple credit crunch" - money, carbon and oil. He thinks oil flow rates will hit even industrialised countries hard by 2013, citing "political/phantom" reserves, drops in discovery and lack of investment as sure signs that the peak of world production is very close. Even with oil at today's deflated prices oil projects are being cancelled left, right and centre; marginal projects such as tar sands have such poor net energy gains they are going to be increasingly uneconomic.
  • Pete Smith explained how the areas of the world facing the biggest population growth (Africa and Asia) will be hot hardest by climate change, putting pressure on natural ecosystems and potentially catastrophic results for people. Agriculture and food is responsible for between 17 and 30% of total Greenhouse Gas emissions (depending on country). Soils are an enormous carbon sink and will have an enormously important role to play in sequestering carbon back in to the soil.
  • The international lecture was given by the wonderful and inspiring Vandana Shiva. She argued that multinational corporations in the food sector, such as Monsanto, Dow, Cargill, etc. have jumped on the bandwagon by claiming they can help solve the climate and food crisis. Industrial agriculture creates more food as commodities, which in turn creates more international trade, divorces the population further from the land and results in one billion people hungry and one billion people obese. We are fixated with yields; however this is only the measure of a single commodity - output is the measure of a whole system. A diverse system is (a polyculture) is sustainable on every level; GMO's will only worsen the food crisis. We must invest in natural capital, it's the only capital that really matters.
  • Catherine Sneed from San Francisco gave a highly inspiring and moving talk about her work with prisoners. She helps rehabilitate offenders, engaging them in horticulture on a massive scale, from the prison farm that provides a large proportion of the prison's annual food, to huge tree planting programmes and garden restoration across the city. The effects this has on prisoners is incredible and really proves that plants have the ability to heal. Surely a very cheap way to turn a problem in to an asset?
There was so much more besides, all of which can be found on the Soil Association website. Do spend some time to read it - it's very good material.

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