Cultivating Conservation

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Reproduced from the Oxford Conservation Volunteer’s “The Weasel”. Summer 2012 edition can be found here.

Cultivate is a new co-operative which is working to increase the amount of local food grown and eaten within Oxfordshire. It is growing food without the addition of artificial pesticides and fertilisers, on a small-scale (2ha), and with a lot of people power. The co-op had OCV out onto the land for a fencing task, which was brilliantly done. But there were also a lot of questions about how conservation works on agricultural land and Cultivate’s role in that.

Thankfully, there is growing evidence that the local food movement and organic agriculture is good for people (it improves access to healthy food; it gets people involved in growing; and it allows people to learn about the food they eat), for the environment at large (there are fewer food miles when it’s local; there are fewer petrochemical inputs when it’s organic; soil and surrounding environments are minimally impacted), and for biodiversity specifically (landscapes and food systems are tolerant and even welcoming to a wider array of biodiversity) [1][2].

There can be drawbacks to organic farming, the most commonly touted being the increased prices of produce and the decreased yields. But the general feeling in the organic and local food movements is that food prices are much too low to begin with – they don’t accurately represent the amount of time, inputs and travel needed to get from ground to grocery, which also means that growers aren’t being paid nearly as much as they ought to be for a pretty difficult job. And yields… well, that’s still up for debate really. There’s a lot of discussion surrounding increasing yields per hectare. But maybe we don’t need to increase yield if we eat the product instead of feeding it to animals. Long-term experiments show that organic agriculture does reduce yield by about 20% as compared to conventional farming. But fertiliser inputs are cut by 34%, pesticide inputs by 97% and energy use by 53% compared to conventional systems, a massive reduction [2].

Soil quality and structure is dramatically better in organic systems than in conventional. There is more ‘biological activity’ happening in the soil of organically grown crops – more earthworms, more mycorrhizae, more insects and arachnids. Even – though not as appealing as earthworms to the grower – more weeds. Weed roots help to break up the soil and give arthropods shelter. Plus, like it or not, weeds are biodiversity, too! And, speaking of plant diversity, small-scale growing allows the farmer to grow a wide range of crop varieties – so, instead of one or two potato varieties, we’ll be growing six very different varieties and there will be an entire bed devoted to exotics and heritage varieties, especially geared toward saving seed for subsequent years.

Better yet, organic agriculture improves upon conventional agriculture in regards to the higher taxa. Below-ground and ground-level biodiversity is better off when it’s not constantly under chemical and mechanical siege. This leads to more pollinators (and more to pollinate), more food for birds and small mammals, and a better overall food web. And really, really lovely food for us!

Organic growing is not the only alternative growing system. Permacultureagroforestry and biodynamics are all incredibly successful alternatives to conventional high-input systems, and Cultivate will be exploring using a range of these techniques as our land and skills expand.

1. Godfray, 2011. Science, 333.
2. Mäder et al, 2002. Science, 296.

Other interesting links:
Campaign for Real Farming 
Heritage Seed Library

… In other news, a new study has found that people CAN do something surprising or unexpected if they REALLY put their minds to it. A case study at Cultivate in March 2012 found that 15 people have the ability and stamina to put up 260 metres of fence in one day (three straining posts, six lines of strained wire, and what felt like a million intermediates). Astounding results.

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