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Can Organic Agriculture Replace Contemporary Agriculture? The Story Of How Cuba, A Small Island Nation, Survived Peak Oil

 

By Zhou Miao-Fei

Translated by Gan Ruyu

The operation of contemporary agriculture relies on fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers and insecticides. If fossil fuels run out, we cannot run machineries. Without chemical fertilizers and insecticides, will agriculture still be possible? Will people still have sufficient food?

Cuba, a small island nation to the south of America, has gone through the crisis of peak oil and the challenge of national survival due to a lack of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers and insecticides. However, Cuba has proven that even without all these, a country can still thrive, and its people can become healthier and happier.

After World War II, The Soviet Union and The United States of America were competing in all ways to become the world’s strongest. Both were engaged in a cold war that lasted for years. Soviet Union was joined by many countries, including Cuba. Hence, USA boycotted and placed an embargo upon Cuba. Since the 1960s, Cuba could only export its cane sugar to Soviet Union in exchange for food, medical supplies and 99% of its fossil fuels.

In 1991, with the collapse of Soviet Union, USA intensified its embargo upon Cuba and prohibited other countries from trading with Cuba. Almost overnight, food and medical supplies worth 750 million dollars were stopped from importing into Cuba. Cuba was crushed. The economical impact cost Cuba 80% of its imports and exports; the national production gross figure dropped dramatically by 34%; the yearly import of fossil fuels dropped from 14 million tons to 4 tons.

All of a sudden, the whole nation sank into depression. The transport system collapsed, the country ran out of steels, factories shut down, farming and agriculture were paralyzed, and there was a shortage of food. Basically, Cuba in desperation was facing social unrests, collapse of its government and starving people all over the country. The only way for Cuba to survive was for its people to put hands together and make full use of their existing resources.

To deal with the most basic yet urgent survival problem, Cuban government started rationing rice, corns, legumes, etc. on a mass-scale level. But the economy, agriculture, transport system, social and cultural aspects also urgently needed a reformation. During the toughest period, the waiting time for a public bus took 3 hours; without fossil fuels to generate electricity, power supply was continuously cut off for more than 16 hours a day; without electricity and being located in the tropics, the food could not be refrigerated, and using an air-con or fan was out of the question. Lacking cement and tools, construction and repair works could not be done. Private sedan was a rare sight; most people walked or cycled (Cuba produced 500,000 bicycles and bought 1.2 million bicycles from China). People also hitchhiked to school or work. Modified trucks, horse or mule carriages became “public buses”. Energy resources were used with extreme caution.

Food was the top priority for survival. According to the food ration, each person’s daily intake was one-fifth of previous consumption. Although there was no famine, Cubans experienced dire starvation every day. Within a few weeks, children below the age of 5 suffered from malnutrition, pregnant women became anemic, newborns were underweight. During these toughest years from 1992-1996, Cubans’ weight was reduced by an average of 10kg.

Meanwhile, Australia and other organic farmers came forth to provide assistance. Without petrol and spare parts, more than 90,000 tractors and harvesting machines manufactured by Soviet Union became useless. They were replaced by human labor and animals. Without chemical fertilizers and insecticides, only the self-sustainable technique of organic farming could be the answer. To increase food supply, Cubans started cleaning up empty plots. They learned to grow edible plants at their balconies, rooftops and corners of parks. This type of farming quickly gained the government’s support, replacing the old type of industrial agriculture.

As Cuba could no longer use sugarcane to exchange for fossil fuels, the nation’s sugarcane farms were converted into vegetables and fruits farms. The farms did not have to be large. Many public lands were divided and allocated as community farms. People shared the costs of buying seeds or renting tools. The government also provided farmlands and built simple houses in the rural areas. The aim was to encourage relocation of urbanites, for them to grow their own produce and become self-sufficient. All the lands were provided free of charge, with the condition that it must be used for farming. Slowly, Cuba survived its toughest 10 years in history, called the “special period”.

The oil crisis changed Cubans’ lives in all aspects, especially in agriculture. Before the “special period”, Cuba used its land just like all the other countries in the world — deforestation, overgrazing, demineralization of soil leading to desertification. Its use of insecticides exceeded USA. It was the most industrialized country in Latin America. When its economy was at its peak, it exported cane sugar, coffee, tobacco, etc, and imported basic food items such as 55% of its rice and 50% of its cooking oil. Back then, its industrialized agriculture seemed to be producing a higher yield. Yet the basic needs of its people were not fulfilled.

During the “special period” in 1993, Australia and other organic farmers started helping Cuba to build an organic agriculture. To improve the soil, they used organic fertilizers such as compost, green manure and animal manure. They also applied techniques such as crop rotation and polyculture. They replaced chemicals with organic fertilizers and organic insecticides. It took them 3-5 years to restore life in the soil.

Other changes in agriculture included giving up tractors and large machineries that had been previously used during the industrialized period. Replacing these machineries were human and animal labor and techniques that would not harm the soil. Older farmers taught the younger generation animal husbandry and how to plough with a buffalo, and to increase buffalos to help with farming. The use of human labor reduced dependency on fossil fuels. There were also farmers’ markets in each community. Farmers could sell their produce directly; the locals could buy fresh produce on the spot, reducing long-distance delivery and saving energy consumption.

Today in Cuba, 80% of its agricultural produce is organic. Farming is one of the highest paid occupations. Organic fertilizers and organic insecticides are being exported and sold in Central America. Most of the farmlands (12-15%) are farmed by individuals, and on average they produce the highest yields. Farmlands managed by groups come next. The rest are public farmlands where the produce is specifically for exporting. The most surprising thing is that there are more than one thousand farmers’ markets in the capital, Havana, where the population is 2.5 million. The city dwellers get 50% of their food from nearby community farms, and it is 80-100% for the suburban dwellers! The transition into organic community farms brings great benefits; the biggest being the improvement in the health of the people. Their diet consists of fresh plant-base food that is high in fiber and low in fat. Walking and cycling have also reduced illnesses such as diabetes, cardiac arrest and stroke.

The measures taken by Cuba in response to the oil crisis are indeed commendable. There is much for us to learn from them. Normally when facing an economic crisis, a country would first reduce its social welfare. Not for Cuba. In terms of education, Cuba had only 3 universities initially, all free of charge. During the “special period”, there were nearly 50 universities located at different towns around the country in order to cut down traveling and energy consumption. As before, education was all free of charge.

Without fossil fuels, energy sources are derived from nature: solar, wind, water and biological resources. 2000 schools in the community, hospitals, community centers and some private houses are installed with solar panels. Biological resources come from the scraps and wastes from the cane sugar factories. Residential houses are designed to shade out sunlight with good ventilation to reduce indoor temperature. On average, each Cuban only consumes one-eighth of energy compared to Americans. 30% of the energy consumed comes from biological resources. There are also plans to gradually increase the usage of green energy.

Today, the standard of living in Cuba may not be as high as before 1991; the average yearly income is USD3,500. However, compared to USA, Cubans have a higher life expectancy rate, a higher newborn survival rate, and a higher literacy rate. Not to forget its free education.

The “special period” has forced Cuba to switch from being a consumer of natural resources that relies on imported fossil fuels to being a self-sufficient nation. There are 3 factors for its success – making use of natural resources, community bonding and cooperation among the people.

Nature actually supplies us with sufficient resources – sun, wind, water, land, animals, plants, microorganisms, and human power. When we work with nature, the resources flow in a sustainable cycle. By using solar power, wind power and organic farming, Cubans have proven the abundance of natural resources. Apart from using these natural resources wisely, teamwork and unity are also necessary among the huge population. Whether it is a city or village, Cuba localized its communities, providing people with accessible schools, workplaces and recreational areas. This is to cut down delivery and transportation. Meanwhile, it has increased human interactions. Residents take care of each other. Farmers often donate fresh produce to elderly folks, childcare centers, schools, pregnant mothers, etc. This has strengthened bonding among the people. Most importantly, Cubans are diligent, willing to cooperate, compromise and sacrifice. That was how they survived the crisis hand-in-hand.

The most difficult 10 years are now over for Cuba. As this fossil fuels crisis was caused by the collapse of Soviet Union and the embargo by USA, it was called “artificial peak oil”. However, humanity is now on the verge of facing a real worldwide peak oil crisis. Therefore, many countries are taking Cuba as a model with the hope to move through the transition smoothly.

Cubans have understood deeply the preciousness of energy resources: as an island nation with limited resources, its political independence must rely on economical independence; to gain economical independence, independence of energy consumption is foremost. But energy does not equal to fossil fuels. The sun and the earth can support life for millions of years. If we cannot depend on them for survival, something is wrong with our ways of living. Reduce consumption, give back to resources. We can make the earth a better place!

Notes:

  1. “Peak oil” is a theory by geologist/physicist, M King Hubbert. As fossil fuels from the earth are finite, the supply will eventually reach a peak and then decrease until exhausted. The estimated peak oil time is within these few years.
  2. After former US vice-president Al Gore stepped down, he has spent years working on protecting the environment. He has shown many worrying statistics regarding global warming and its serious effects. Mr Gore received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. On 17 July, in his speech at the D.A.R. Constitutional Hall in Washington, USA, he beseeched the American government to give up its reliance on fossil fuels. Instead, he proposed a complete reliance on the use of solar, wind and thermal mass to generate electricity within the next 10 years. It was mentioned that 40 minutes of solar energy is sufficient for the whole world’s consumption for 1 year.
  3. The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil is an American documentary distributed by The Community Solution in 2006. It was directed by Faith Morgan.

Original Chinese article is published in August 2008 issue of Lapis magazine

The Stolen Harvest

Heather Ryan

In the last thirty years the concentration of market forces internationally has reached dizzying proportions. The agricultural sector is no exception, as just five corporations control the entire global grain trade. This has led to increasing vertical consolidation of the food economy. Most of the world’s seed industry is split between two monolithic companies, Monsanto and DuPont. These two companies and a small handful of others intend to genetically engineer and patent the entire food sector, hoping to control the global food economy.

Prior to the Seattle street protests at the World Trade Organization’s ministerial in 1999, this maverick takeover by corporations of the global economy happened without accountability to the public. Seattle shut down the trade talks and shook corporations to their core, letting them know that grass roots activism, not just trade, had become globalized.

The protests were evidence of the growing resistance movements building internationally around issues such as genetic engineering (GE.) Ironically, the US public, while living in the biotech breadbasket, has been the last to wake up to the current global food crisis. While US activists, policy makers and scientists have been laboring for several years behind the scenes on these issues, it is the growing people’s movements in Europe, spilling over into US consciousness, which has begun to stir up public comment.

It is crucial that people become more aware of the links that are connecting us all on the planet at this time. The same market forces that are bringing to bear the bankruptcy of small farmers in the US are extinguishing small farmers in Africa. In the Philippines, activists are struggling to keep genetically engineered crops out of their country, and to elevate the status of farmers’ knowledge and experience on par with scientists’ input. Activists in Brazil are also fighting successfully to keep GE out of their country, and to provide support and technical assistance so small farmers can farm organically.

In India, farmers have been waging a successful battle to preserve seed diversity and keep genetically engineered seeds out. In Karnataka and Andra Pradesh, farmers’ unions have destroyed Monsanto’s GE cotton crops. Activists in the north founded Navdanya, a movement to establish seed banks and practice non-compliance with corporate agricultural monopolies throughout India.

A few books have emerged that adequately explain how market forces are impacting local economies. Stolen Harvest: the Hijacking of the Global Food Supply (South End Press, 2000) by Vandana Shiva is one such book. Shiva brings her background as a scientist and her role as an ecofeminist philosopher to bear as a powerful voice in the debate against globalization.

Shiva founded her own research institute, the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy in the Himalayas in northern India in the early 1980s. From there she publishes numerous books and articles and wages legal battles on behalf of the Indian people.

One of her most recent victories happened last year in the European courts. She and other activists had filed for a revocation of patents owned by W.R. Grace on the neem tree, a tree central to Indian culture and valued for its medicinal properties. They were awarded the revocation, earning a strong victory in the fight against biopiracy.

Biopiracy is the theft by first world multinationals of plants and indigenous knowledge held in common by Third World people. US patent laws allow corporations to claim living organisms as inventions. International trade agreements have enabled this system of ownership to become global policy. Farmers have cultivated varieties of crops for generations. They deserve the right to be able to share and trade freely seeds and knowledge with other farmers. Without this right, corporations will ultimately control our food supply.

US-based Ricetec has patented Basmati rice, a grain indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. Ricetec claims a variety of basmati rice as their own invention without acknowledgement to Indian farmers. Shiva is currently waging her battle to preserve basmati in commons for the farmers of India.

One of the central themes in Stolen Harvest is the case for respecting all life. Shiva asserts that traditional agriculture provided food for worms and soil bacteria as well as fodder for cows. Her respect for life attracted the following note from the Dalai Lama, “All sentient beings, including the small insects, cherish themselves. All have the right to overcome suffering and achieve happiness. I therefore pray that we show love and compassion to all.” She provokes the debate, what is our responsibility to other species? It is false, she postulates, to subscribe to a theory that we must destroy nature and deprive other beings of their right to food in order to feed ourselves. Traditional methods of agriculture, though unprofitable for large corporations, actually feed people and replenish nature. The current system of chemical inputs and monoculture crops deplete the soil and switches fields from crops that actually feed local populations to cash crops that are cultivated for export to first world countries.

The theory that we need industrial agriculture to feed the world is a myth propagated by multinational companies to create profits. As it turns out, small organic farms are actually more productive than large monocultures. True food security will be achieved only by retaining local farmers, and making sure people have control over the means of producing food in their communities. An increase in yields, should biotechnology be able to deliver this, will not ensure hunger cessation. Most large monoculture farms exclude many of the local food crops that were grown to feed people, and instead are growing food for export.

Food security will also be achieved through preserving indigenous seed varieties, seeds that have been cultivated over centuries to be specifically adapted to regional climates and growing seasons. Seed diversity has declined rapidly since the spread of the Green Revolution. Corporations have propagated a narrow range of varieties in broad regions around the globe. This uniformity of food variety leaves the planet vulnerable to widespread loss due to disease or crop failure.

Companies have developed genetic engineering technologies to further dominate the agricultural seed market. By patenting GE seeds, and then buying up the seed companies, corporations can then regulate what seeds are available to farmers. US corporations are developing seed sterility technologies, dubbed “terminator technology,” to make seeds create sterile offspring. This has been created to protect corporations’ investment, and to ensure that farmers will be dependent on corporations to have seed every year. Current seed legislation prevents farmers from growing seed for sale to other farmers, thus enforcing dependency on the corporations.

Genetic engineering has been proffered as a panacea to the growing global farming crisis. Farmers in the United States, lambasted by the drastic reduction in farm subsidies levied by farming legislation in 1996, were vulnerable to the biotechnology purveyors who promised higher crop yields and easier weed abatement. Accompanying these hollow promises were higher “technology” fees and stringent contracts that gave biotech companies immunity for any crop failure or incurred environmental damage from employing this new technology. The contracts also forbade the farmer from saving or sharing seed, and gave corporations the right to trespass for three years hence to ensure protection of their proprietary investment.

It wasn’t long before farmers were left holding the biotech bag. Beyond the immediate shortfalls of yield drags for engineered soya and insect resistance to the toxin emitted by engineered corn, international markets were drying up and buyers were turning to traditional harvests or organic ones. In the midst of ballot initiatives and petition drives, it seems the fastest way to halt the spread of genetic engineering is to educate buyers.

Unwitting American farmers, however, were left paying the true costs. Even worse, shipments of genetically engineered grain were diverted from European ports to be dumped on Third World peoples. In India, the indigenous mustard oil supply suddenly became uniformly contaminated. All sales of mustard oil were banned, causing thousands of small growers, pressers, and sellers to lose their livelihoods. Overnight, genetically engineered soybean oil flooded Indian markets. Although soybeans are not endemic to Indian culture, they were being pushed as the superior alternative. Laws were passed banning unpackaged oil.

In response, women organized in the streets of Delhi. Working with Shiva, activists distributed organic mustard oil in protest of the oil ban. Women demanded culturally appropriate food free from genetic engineering contamination.

The mad cow crisis that has erupted in Europe sends a clear warning bell to all who think industrial agriculture the way of the future. Shiva contrasts a vivid picture, positing the sacred cow of Indian cosmology beside the mad cow of Western agriculture. The cow, to Indian peoples, is a physical and spiritual representation of abundance. The cow is integral to traditional farming practice, providing labor and fertilization in the fields. In western societies, the cow has been reduced to a machine, either for milk or meat production. To accelerate growth, cows have been fed the remains of slaughtered animals. It is this disrespect of nature, of crossing natural boundaries, that Western industry does with impunity. Genetic engineering, by inserting the DNA from different species, promises to wreck similar havoc if allowed to continue.

Shiva has persisted, in the face of incredible opposition, to provide a voice on behalf of Third World peoples. Her clear writing style coupled with deep perception affords us brilliant material with which to equip ourselves in fighting for our planet and our lives. We owe a debt of gratitude to Shiva and to all peoples who, in defense of our planet, refuse to give ground.

Sources:
Stolen Harvest, Personal interviews with V.Shiva, World Hunger: 12 Myths by Lappe and Rosset.

Organic Compost DIY

Zhou Miao-Fei
Translated by Gan Ruyu

Due to the dense population in Taiwan, most people here live in apartments or tall buildings. Those who love gardening would certainly grow their plants in flowerpots of all sizes. How then does one get planting soil and compost? What is compost?

In fact, we can make organic compost in flowerpots. The ingredients are our kitchen scraps and plant-based wastes from our home. By recycling these free ingredients, we can create organic compost that is rich in nutrients, aerating and moisture absorbing. This is the best type of planting soil.

So what do we need? First of all, prepare several flowerpots. It doesn’t matter if they are old or new, big or small, although the bigger ones can produce a faster and better result. The size of the pot and how many to use depends on the volume of your kitchen scraps and plant-based wastes. There should be drainage holes at the bottom of the pots to facilitate aeration and drainage.

The pots should have plates that are neither too small nor shallow. You can add a bit of water in the plate to prevent ants. The plates can also hold the liquid occasionally drained from the pots. If the pot is placed directly on earth, then you don’t need the plate. You can place the pot next to a fruit tree or grow some plants around the pot. The liquid drained from the pot is top quality liquid fertilizer. You can use it to water your plants. Never throw it away.

Next prepare a bucket of soil for covering the kitchen scraps and plant-based wastes. Any type of soil will do. If you don’t have soil, you can buy the cheapest planting soil or coconut husks (you should be able to get it at nurseries. The husks are crushed into brick form that will expand after being soaked in water).

Next is the material for covering the pot. The main purpose is to prevent the moisture inside the pot from evaporating. It will also stop the nutrients from being washed off by rainwater. Be creative. Just make use of “junks”. Cut a piece of wire mesh, covered with a piece of thick cardboard, and then add a piece of brick as weight. This is the practical way. Cut a larger piece of transparent plastic sheet and let the edge droop down the side of the pot. Your child can observe the natural transformation inside the pot. This is the educational way. Or like me, just cut a piece of old useless carpet to cover the pot. This is the lazy way.

The best ingredients for making compost are plant-based. Don’t use meat scraps, dairy products and oily kitchen scraps. They produce foul smell and attract harmful insects. Plant-based compost, at the most, will just attract harmless fruit flies, ants and other insects. It will produce a fresh, earthy smell like humus in the forest. The finished compost is also full of effective microorganisms that will improve degraded soil.

Plant-based kitchen scraps include old leaves, stems, roots or skin of veggies; all fruit peels (watermelons, mangoes, bananas, passion fruits, etc.); fruit flesh (apples, muskmelons, guavas, etc.); eggshells, groundnut shells, etc. Plant-based wastes include flower stems from cuttings and withered flowers, leaves and twigs from pruning, shredded papers, dust collected in the vacuum bag, weeds, etc.

The ingredients will work better if cut into smaller pieces. Those in green color and contain more moisture will decompose faster. With the high temperature in summer, a big piece of watermelon skin can fully decompose in one to two weeks. Those in dark brown, more woody and harder type such as branches, tough fruit peels and dried leaves decompose slower and less thoroughly. But they can still improve soil and hold moisture and nutrients.

My friend has a big garden and is always troubled about getting rid of fallen leaves. Now the leaves are one of the ingredients for my compost. In autumn, sweeping the public pathways can also bring me one big bag of fallen leaves. All plant-type “garbage” can be good ingredients for making compost.

Start by filling the pot with 5cm of soil or coconut husks. Then add in kitchen scraps and plant-based wastes. Covered with a few spades of soil. Be generous. Don’t just sprinkle a thin layer. The soil can absorb water and prevent flies and insects. Then sprinkle some water and cover the pot.

How much water to sprinkle? This is hard to say. Some kitchen scraps with higher moisture content can do with less water; drier ingredients or on drier days would require more water. If you ask your granny and mother how much salt and sauce they add in the cooking, they will certainly answer, “Roughly. Something like that.” But such an answer contains much experience and love! Anyway, the ingredients should feel like a squeezed sponge – moist but airy – that would be perfect. Don’t worry if it’s too much or too little, they can be adjusted at all times anyway. When there is too much water, it will drain from the holes at the bottom of the pot. You can also turn the soil, remove the cover, let the water evaporate a bit, or add more soil to absorb the water. When there is too little water, just sprinkle a bit more. Simple!

The next day you get another batch of ingredients. If you want them to turn into compost faster, chop the scraps into smaller pieces and throw them into the pot. Similarly, covered with soil, sprinkle some water and cover the pot. Your daily kitchen scraps and plant-based wastes from your home can be added into the pot layer by layer like a sandwich. Each time you add a layer, if you’re keen, you can turn the soil a little to aerate it. This will speed up the decomposition process. If it doesn’t have enough air or is too damp, it will produce foul smell. Top up the layers until the pot is full, then keep it covered and wait for it to turn into compost. Check on it once a week. If the ingredients are very dry, sprinkle some water every now and then to keep it moist. The time it takes to fill up the pot depends on the pot’s size and how much ingredients you have.

Then you can start another pot. Start by filling the second pot with 5cm of soil or coconut husks, add in the scraps, covered with soil, sprinkle some water, cover the pot, repeat until the pot is filled. Similarly, sprinkle some water occasionally to maintain the moisture. Then start your third pot.

For your third pot, add in 5cm of soil or coconut husk as before, add in the kitchen scraps and plant-based wastes, covered with soil, sprinkle some water, and keep layering like a sandwich. Is it ever going to end?… you might start to wonder now.

If you only have scraps like leafy veggies and fruit peels, and your pot has a diameter and depth of at least 50cm, during the hot summer when you’re making your third pot, you’ll find that your first pot is already nearly completed. The originally filled pot is now only half full. Turn it with your spade and you’ll find that the kitchen scraps are now gone. What’s left is something black, crumbly, soft and light, which you can use as fertilizer or planting soil. If you have a lot of twigs, leaves and weeds with a small pot during the cooler season, by the time you’re making your third pot, the first pot may not have fully decomposed yet. But if you see any black and crumbly material in the first pot, you can still retrieve it to use as fertilizer or planting soil. It won’t harm the plants’ roots. So even if it’s not fully decomposed yet, you can still use it.

How to use it? Organic gardeners get very excited over self-made compost, because it can turn the most degraded soil into the most fertile one. Therefore cherish your compost once it’s done. It contains all sorts of effective microorganisms that can’t be seen with naked eyes. But there are countless of them that will benefit you, others and improve our ecology.

You can scatter the finished compost around all types of plants as fertilizer. You’ll find that the plants are soon filled with vigor. For example, the flowering plants will produce even more vibrant and beautiful flowers. You can also use the compost for germinating seeds or raising seedlings. Besides planting, you can use the compost as a source of friendly bacteria. With your third pot of compost, every time you add the kitchen scraps and plant-based wastes, you can scatter a handful of compost from the first pot, then cover with soil and sprinkle with water. You’ll find that the decomposition is faster and more thoroughly. Self-made compost is like the gold of gardening. It brings nothing but countless benefits.

When your third pot is filled, you can continue with your fourth pot, fifth pot,… or go back to your first pot. If you didn’t use your first pot, when you’re starting your fourth pot, the decomposition of your first pot is even more thorough. And your second pot should be almost decomposed by now. Of course, if you have lots of ingredients and your pots are small, you may need to continue filling your fourth and fifth pot before your first pot is thoroughly decomposed. A small pot of little volume cannot produce enough heat. The decomposition will be slower and less thorough. However, it can still be used. You don’t have to worry if the effects will be lesser or if it will harm the plants.

If the compost from the first pot is almost used up, keep some as compost “activator” and reuse the first pot. Keep some compost in the pot, add new kitchen scraps and organic wastes, sprinkle a handful of the compost from the first batch, cover with soil, sprinkle some water, and repeat the layers. By now the second pot is nearly completed, and you may start using the compost from this second pot. When it’s used up, start layering in this second pot and start using the compost from the third pot. Once the first pot is filled, maintain its moisture and let it decompose. When the second pot is filled, start layering the third pot, and use the compost from the first pot.

When you’re using this three-pot cycle and the decomposition is not thorough, you can use a four-pot, five-pot, or six-pot cycle. Therefore you can repeat using the flowerpots; you can reduce the organic wastes from your family; you can continuously create organic compost. If you’re not keeping plants at home, you can give your compost to friends or fertilize the plants in the nearby park. The next time you go there, you’ll find that the plants are greeting you happily.

I don’t have much space at home. So I don’t cover the flowerpots that I use to make compost. I like to fully utilize these pots of compost.

I love to sow seeds in the flowerpot that is filled with compost-making ingredients. On the top last layer, I add another layer of planting soil of about 5cm. I sow the seeds and cover them with some soil. I water it daily. In this way, I’m making compost while raising seedlings. I use the liquid drained from the bottom of the pot to water other plants. The biggest benefit of raising seeds on the top layer is that the composting process generates heat. It’s like a warm blanket in winter to help the seeds germinate faster. Raising seedlings in the big pot also helps prevent pest and maintain moisture. When you’re raising seedlings, take note that their roots are still tender. The pot should be placed under the shade or at a bright spot without direct sunlight. The soil must be kept moist.

When the seeds start germinating a few days later, you’ll notice that the soil is slowly sinking. Two to three weeks later when the seedlings have four to six leaves, you may transplant them. I’ve found that by using old chopsticks to transplant the seedlings, it causes the least harm to the tender roots. You can also dig in with your fingers and scoop up the soil around the seedling. You may find that the seedling have deep healthy roots that extend into the compost. Keep all the roots intact while transplanting. Therefore sow the seeds apart. When transplanting, include all the soil around the seedling and its roots (some deep roots may be longer than the seedling itself, so dig deeper). As the compost is crumbly, it prevents the roots from entangling and breaking. Once transplanted, the seedlings will soon grow up strong and healthy.

After transplanting the seedlings, you have half a pot of half-decomposed compost. As mentioned before, I’ll use it as compost activator or spread it around the plants as fertilizer, or use it to grow vegetables. When I’m planting vegetables, I’ll first make compost in the pot. Fill the pot with a layer of soil, a layer of kitchen scraps and organic wastes, a thin layer of compost and so on. When the layering reaches 2/3 of the pot, I’ll fill the remaining space with the half-decomposed compost. Then I’ll dig a few holes and transplant the veggie seedlings into the half-decomposed compost layer. I’m killing three birds with one stone – recycling kitchen scraps, making compost and growing veggies. Oh, the liquid drained out from the bottom is used as liquid fertilizer. So it should be killing four birds with one stone!

If the veggie seedlings get crowded as they grow bigger, I pluck some from in between to make fresh green salad. Let the remaining seedlings reach their full growth. If they get crowded again, pluck some again for eating, let the rest keep growing. This way you get a continuous supply of fresh greens. Don’t forget, the old leaves and roots can be used to make compost. Once you’ve finished eating all the veggies, the soil can be used to cover the compost ingredients, recycling it into rich planting soil. You don’t need fertilizer with this method. But since our agricultural system has not been effective in recycling organic matters over the years, the vegetables and fruits that we consume currently are generally low in micronutrients compared to before. So for a few times a year, I like to add items rich in micronutrients such as seaweed and molasses to make up for the deficiency.

I have more than 20 big and small pots and polyfoam boxes for making compost continuously and repeatedly. Depending on needs and season, I sow seeds, transplant or pluck, keeping big and small seedlings for eating. So in this small garden of pots, some have just been sown with seeds, some transplanted, some with full-grown veggies for eating, some with veggies flowering for seeds saving. In short, I have an endless supply of organic veggies. Next, I’m thinking of using bigger pots to grow fruit trees.

After recycling and making compost like this for a while, you’ll find that the quality of the soil is getting richer and richer, and the plants are all healthy. If your soil comes from nature, or if you place your compost pot on earth, you’ll notice earthworms and other tiny organisms breeding there. They have moved in for the humus in the compost which is their food. Our kitchen scraps and organic wastes depend on them and other microorganisms to be broken down, digested, and turned into tiny particles that can be absorbed by the plants. The humus, small twigs and dried leaves that have not thoroughly decomposed are like sponge. They contain nutrients waiting to be absorbed by plants’ roots. As time passes, they gradually break down further and turn into tiny particles that can be absorbed directly by plants. This is how self-made organic compost supplies plants with the most perfect nutrients. And we will benefit from eating these self-grown veggies and fruits.

It may seem simple that we are just using some big pots to recycle our kitchen scraps and organic wastes, and turning them into organic compost for growing plants, but we’re actually creating a micro-ecological system. We’re helping to promote and fulfill our responsibility towards the planet’s ecology; we’re benefiting living beings and the environment. As we move along with this natural ecology, we’re benefiting our future and ourselves.

Original Chinese article is published in August 2008 issue of Lapis Lazuli Light magazine (Taiwan). It is available at http://www.lapislazuli.org/TradCh/magazine/200808/20080805.html

The Many Benefits of Permaculture

Robin Pan
Translated by Gan Ruyu
Ever since the start of industrialization, humans have caused unprecedented destructions to Nature. In a way, the many recent natural disasters have waked people to realize that change is necessary. There are in fact many pioneers, those who have awakened much earlier, leading missions to save our earth. One of them is Bill Mollison, the co-founder of Permaculture.

During the training camp in Austin, Texas at the end of 2007, organized by Lapis Lazuli Light, Selwyn Polit introduced Permaculture to us. Polit came across Permaculture in 2001, and he later became a Permaculture assistant trainer. He felt that Permaculture has broadened his views, which enabled him to see the world from a different perspective. Even now whenever he is teaching, he feels that he is learning so much.

The co-founder of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, grew up in Tasmania, Australia. He was a nature-lover since young. As an adult, he taught at a local university. During 1940s, he joined protests against humans’ destructions on Nature. However, he later realized that these protests were not constructive at all. Thus he became determined to make changes through actions. He developed the framework of Permaculture with David Holmgren. He left his teaching job in 1979 and devoted himself fully to Permaculture. In 1981, the first batch of students graduated from the Permaculture Design Certificate course.

During the workshop, we watched two films: one on Permaculture community and one on how to improve soil desertification. Let’s take a look at the Permaculture community first.

A Permaculture community is very different from a conventional community. Among the first considerations are conservation and efficient usage of energy and resources. The houses are built in rows with front facing back. The foundations of the houses are slightly raised and built near to each other, forming a swale in between, and not the usual driveway (see illustration 1).

When it rains, the swale will store the rainwater which can then be used for irrigation. One way to conserve energy is to build a trellis or pergola outside the south-facing window. Grapes can be grown here. The south-facing wall is also installed with a metal water tank. During summer when the grapes are full-grown, the plant provides shade. When the plant withers in winter, the water tank absorbs heat in the day and releases the heat in the night, providing natural warmth. Outside the house is a veggie garden. The main crops in the community are fruit trees. They are inter-planted with diverse varieties, just like nature.

Such a community brings many benefits, for example:

1. Optimal use of water resource
Rainwater is fully utilized and not drained into the underground pipes. In this way, surface and formation of the ground are taken into consideration for efficiency. A conventional community only selects a “beautiful” site for building houses, without maximizing the potential of the natural environment and giving back to the environment. Of course, when designing for effective use of rainwater, one must consider factors such as the ground’s absorption capacity and the amount of rainfall.

2. Increased sense of spaciousness
A Permaculture community may have a high population density. However, the many fruit trees planted evoke a feeling of spaciousness and one does not feel that there are that many people around.

3. Food utility and income 
The plentiful fruit trees planted in the community means a supply of fruits without additional transport cost (generally transport cost increases the price of agriculture produce twofold). Grapes produced here are enough for consumption and even for making wine; corns can be made into crackers; the surplus of almond can be sold to increase the community’s income. The local rainfall is only 15 inches but it is enough to irrigate all the fruit orchards. This is also very different from a conventional community where trees are mostly planted for ornamental purpose with no practical use.

4. Safety of food source
Residents eat what they grow, without the need to worry about genetic modification or pesticides.

5. Increase of parents’ leisure time
Such a community is very suitable for children because everyone helps to look after them. With the children playing together, parents free up time from having to constantly watch over their own kids.

6. Increase of traffic safety
The community’s priority is on human activities and plant care, not on the convenience of vehicles. Thus there is no driveway within the community, meaning zero traffic danger.

7. Increase of learning opportunities and playing ground for children
Seasonal fruit trees are natural teaching materials on seasons for children. There are also more space for play. Fruit orchards contain secretive spots that make hide-and-seek game more interesting. Children can also learn to pick flowers, make garlands, harvest fruits, and learn to trade.

8. More room for understanding among the neighbors
The play interaction among children increases the exchanges within the community, thus increasing more room for understanding among the neighbors.

9. Expenditure cut down
Compared to energy and food consumption of a conventional community, such expenditure of a Permaculture community is reduced by 30%.

From this example, we see that planting big number of fruit trees within the community can serve multiple functions. Fruit trees provide shade, food and scenery, improve air quality, provide a playing and outdoor learning ground for children, improve soil quality and its water absorption capacity. When Nature creates an element, that element often serves many functions. We should learn from Nature. While designing a community, each element should perform more than one function.

This may be a revival of ancient tribal culture, but in modern times, it can be seen as a new philosophy too.

Mr Polit said that every person can have their own definition of Permaculture. He personally defines Permaculture as: “With patient observation and practical sustainability as the basis, analyze and design a system that is ethical and sustainable.”

Being ethical means:

1. Care of the earth;
2. Care towards the people;
3. Create and share surplus

The goals of Permaculture are:

1. Reforestation or greening of the earth (use less woods and grasslands, re-grow forest).
2. Rebuild and restore soil (eroded soil).
3. Grow crops within human habitat.
4. Create a regenerative system (not poison animals and plants).
5. Create sustainability, gives back to the earth at every season more than taking from the earth.

Permaculture has many principles. Here are the several highlighted points:

1. Observe Nature
To select a good location, it is important to observe. Patiently observe wind, water, sun, shade, activities of animals above and underground, including the microorganisms.

2. Focus on the patterns, edges and shapes created by Nature
For example, the shapes of star, flower, diamond, octagon, hexagon, lines, curves, flow, circles and spirals. These observations can be applied as such — for example, cultivating a herbs garden on spiral-shaped ground-terrain can bring such benefits: as water flows downwards, position the herbs according to their water needs. Plant more drought-tolerant herbs on the upper level and move down accordingly. This is water-saving and space-saving. The plants’ need for sunlight can also be positioned accordingly. Plant them closely together is easier for maintenance. Pest deterring plants can be planted beside. This is like the spiral shell of a snail, a great representation of efficient space management.

How about edge? The knowledge comes from observing Nature. Edge is where the different energies meet. When there is an edge, that’s where the party is! For example, where the tides meet, there is an abundance of special plants, which also attract many animals. Edge also includes the meeting point of water and land, land and air. Generally most farms would plant trees along the boundaries. That is because trees are the habitat of bees and many beneficial insects. Because of edge, rivers do not flow in a straight line. This is one way Nature increases edge. When a river flows in curves, the speed will slow down, accumulating nutrients and thus encourages new life. We can also build a garden in keyhole-shape to increase edges (see illustration 2).

3. Diversity
We do know that when there is a diverse group of people at a banquet, conversations become more interesting. It’s the same with planting. To encourage diversity, plan to save 15% of the harvest for pest. Even if it’s the same species of plant, different varieties should be planted. Why? One example is the great famine of Ireland. Millions of people died. At that time there were only two types of potatoes being grown, both of which could not survive the disease and pest problems. If more varieties of potatoes had been grown then, at least some would have survived.

It’s also not necessary to grow only for human consumption. In Mr Polit’s garden, passion fruits and extra hot chilies crop were planted by the birds. Therefore birds would also plant what they want to eat. Ornamental plants should be given a place too. Bottom line is to create an environment that would encourage a natural balance in the Nature. Mr Polit said that when you have a balanced environment, Nature will naturally help you harmonize it. He gave an example: once he saw a rat in the garage. The next day he saw a green snake in the garden. Another day passed. The snake was gone, so was the rat.

4. Each element performs many functions
We have seen the multiple functions of fruit trees in the community. Mr Polit gave another example of rearing chickens. You get eggs and fertilizer. Mr Polit also built a mobile chicken dome to let chickens fertilize at different spots. Chickens scratch and loosen the soil. They also eat the seeds of weeds, cockroaches, snakes and kitchen scraps. The heat generated from chicken manure and their bodies can be used to warm the greenhouse. He also has a bicycle that can mow the grass while exercising. Therefore, when designing an element, check if the element serves many functions. If not, it’s time to change the design.

5. Each important function is supported by many elements
An important function is best supported by different elements. For example, water resources can be from wells and streams; mulch the ground to prevent moisture evaporation from the soil; plant densely, create curvy swales to slow down water flow, install rainwater tank (with the benefit of no chemical pollution) – these are all ways of conserving and increasing water supply.

Food supply can be from one’s garden, farmers’ market, community supported agriculture (CSA – a co-op system where the residents get the produce from local farms on a regular basis, another way to support local farmers), community farms (grown and shared by local residents). All these will help guarantee the freshness of the produce. In fact, the current industrialized agriculture harvests its crops – tomatoes, apples, etc. – while the crops are still green, resulting in little freshness and nutrients of the food.

6. Relative location
The position of each element should compliment each other. The chicken house is near to the compost area, facilitating the transfer of chicken manure. The veggie garden should be near to the house for easy harvesting. Keeping a chicken cage inside the greenhouse during winter serves as a heater. Mr Polit said that at the East Coast, there are many greenhouses which include many animals in their design.

7. Efficient energy planning
That means, plan to conserve energy. This is especially important as we have diminishing energy resources nowadays. A good placement of elements within our own home is one way to conserve energy. This is similar to the Chinese feng-shui. Pay attention to the flow path of energy in order to utilize it well. For example, make use of the southern sunlight and rainwater. Sunlight, wind and water will affect how and where a crop should be planted. You can also use keyhole garden to increase the edge effect, maximizing the benefits in the smallest area.

The other film that we watched was Greening the Desert by Geoff Lawton. At an area in Jordan near the Dead Sea, 400ft below sea level, the ground there had almost been fully saturated with salt. It was extremely hot. People there used mostly plastic trellis, chemical fertilizers and pesticides in farming.

To improve the situation, Lawton built a curvy swale with raised mound along both sides. With this, Lawton had created an edge effect to encourage life. The swale stored rainwater to moisten the soil over the winter. Once the soil absorbed sufficient water, both sides along the swale were mulched thickly. Drip irrigation was installed, trees were planted. Nitrogen-fixing legume plants were planted on one side, which also served to provide shade. On the other side, drought tolerant fruit trees, such as prunes, figs, pomegranates, etc, were planted. The figs were fruiting within 4 months. Everyone said it was impossible.

Further test revealed that the salt level in the soil had reduced. The main component of most chemical fertilizers is salt. Thus long-term use of chemical fertilizers will cause salination of soil. Planting the legume trees was to help improve soil structure. The thick mulch covering the soil also acted as compost. During winter, mushrooms actually popped out amidst the mulch. The local people have never seen mushrooms because the soil had never been moist enough for mushrooms to be able to grow. Underneath the mulch, insects and other organisms started to appear, meaning that the soil had come alive. The presence of mushrooms also rendered the salt insoluble, thus causing no further harm to the soil. Some people think that mushrooms actually indicate the kind of nutrients needed by a tree. This incident proves that a degraded land can be revived.

Mr Polit felt that we should all have this knowledge, or rather, it’s commonsense. It is not something that requires a high education to understand, nor is it a miracle. It is something that everyone can use and do. For those interested in finding out more, you may check out the books below or search for Permaculture on the Internet.

Websites

  1. http://www.Permacultureactivist.net
  2. http://www.austinprogressivecalendar.com/selwyn/Permaculture.htm  for Mr Polit’s website

Books

  1. Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, by Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay.
  2. Gaia’s garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway and John Todd.
  3. Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, by David Holmgren.

Original article is published in February 2008 issue of Lapis Lazuli Light magazine (Taiwan)

Are These the Types of Vegetables and Fruits that We Grow Up Eating?

By Zhou Miao-Fei
Translated by Yan En

Taiwan
I live in the rural area where I have frequent contacts with the farmers. The slogan of the veggie-selling granny in the market is “home grown, no pesticides!” I got someone to estimate the cost of reconstructing my mango orchard. The person earnestly shared his farming experience with me. Once he heard that we don’t spray pesticides and herbicides, he firmly and bluntly said, “You won’t get to eat one single mango!”

A friend of mine grows guava and he takes pride in not spraying herbicide. He loves to boast to his two neighbours who are also guava growers. He says that his guavas are more fragrant, sweet and delicious, and can always fetch a good price.

I asked him, “Do you use pesticide?” He said, “Of course. It’s a mixture of various pesticides and hormones. I get someone to do the spraying once every 6 weeks. After each spray, I stay off the orchard for one to two weeks.”

Pressing on, I asked again, “Can you not spray?” He firmly said, “No way! There are three guava orchards next to each other. If one is sprayed, the other two must follow suit immediately. Because the bugs fly!”

Are these the type of vegetables and fruits that we grow up eating?

England
Georgina Downs will be named as one of the “pioneers of environmental reform” along with Rachel Carson (the author of Silent Spring) and Erin Brockovich. That is because she has just won a landmark case in the High Court of England. She went to court with the British government for 7 years, suing the government for not sufficiently supervising the after effects of pesticide sprays, leading to impaired health of the people.

Ms Georgina Downs, currently aged 35, had been living in Chichester, West Sussex, a rural area in England since she was 11. There were farms nearby where pesticides were constantly sprayed. She was often sick and hospitalized, and had to apply for sick leave from school. However the doctors couldn’t find the cause. One day when she was 19, while sitting at home feeling exhausted and frail, she looked out the window and saw the farms being sprayed with pesticides. It dawned on her that the reason why she and her family members were constantly sick and unwell could be linked to the spray drift. She couldn’t get the answers when she asked the farmers. It turned out that legally, farmers were free to buy various types of pesticides, and they could use it anytime. There was no restriction and no rule that required the farmers to inform neighboring residents.

After some in-depth research on toxic chemicals, she found that pesticides can cause many types of acute and chronic sicknesses, and is also the culprit for her many years of disease. She turned to official environment unit for help, but she could not take any legal action against farms using chemical sprays. So she could only stay elsewhere at friends’ homes during the spraying period, each time for several weeks, which added up to a total of 5 months in a year.

She decided to fight back in 2001. Her thought was that if farmers were legally free to use toxic chemicals, this meant that the law had to be changed. Her courage and determination brought about a series of in-depth research and investigation: Was the government being too lenient on regulating spray drift which led to impaired health of the people? Was the established safety level of chemical sprays for human body safe enough? Had the government failed its duty?

The more understanding Downs gained, the more concerned she was with the seriousness of the issue. So for 7 years, she launched a campaign and with the help of a group of legal experts, she finally proved that the government had never truly evaluated the health issue of the people who were exposed to pesticides constantly. Along the way, she received lots of help and admiration, and she won many substantial awards, including Daily Mail’s Inspirational Eco Woman of the Year, Andrew Lees Memorial Award at the 2006 British Environment and Media Awards (BEMAs), and the Heroine Award at Cosmopolitan magazine’s inaugural Fun Fearless Female Awards in November 2006.

On 14 Nov 2008, the High Court of England ruled that the evidence on how the people had been victimized as presented by Downs was true beyond doubt. The damage control system used by the government had not protected the people. The court ordered to set a new regulation on the harmful level of pesticide sprays. This would also greatly affect the chemical industry. Downs made a declaration outside the High Court, expressing her anger towards the government for not having taken any action throughout the years. Below is an excerpt: “First of all, I want to announce that I have won the lawsuit in the High Court against the British government. This case is based on sufficient evidence that I have submitted to the British government for the past 7 years, and through thorough debate with the British government. I have fully proved that my charges are without errors.”

Australia
Australia is quite similar to England, in the aspects of protecting her people from pesticides and on the evaluation of the harmful effects of pesticides. There is no legal regulation that demands farmers to notify neighbouring residents when they spray the pesticides. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) has just introduced a policy – “Operating Principles in Relation to Spray Drift Risk” – to control the harmful effects of pesticides. But APVMA estimates that it will take several years before the policy can be implemented, as more than 2,800 types of pesticides require the test. They only test the harmful effects of one single type of pesticide, and not the combined harmful effects of being exposed to multiple pesticides (which are often sprayed simultaneously).

  • Pesticides are chemicals used to kill living organisms. They include insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. In 2004, England sold 31,000 ton of pesticides at the value of 467 million pounds, out of which 86% are used in agriculture and gardening.
  • The types of pesticides and spraying frequency for each type of crops are different, and they also differ by regions and the preference of users. Roughly within one growing season of grains (e.g. rice, wheat, corn, etc.)  5 to 6 types of pesticides are sprayed; for potatoes 13 types, for apples 18 types.
  • Acute symptoms caused by pesticides include: throat infection, burning sensation of skin / nose / eyes, blisters, headaches, dizziness, nausea, abdominal pain, muscle soreness and pain.
  • Chronic symptoms caused by pesticides include: cancer (breast / adrenal gland / stomach / colon / brain / skin / blood), nervous system (Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis), asthma, allergies, endocrine system.
  • APVMA Operating Principles in Relation to Spray Drift Risk (July 2008): www.apvma.gov.au

Translated from Taiwan Lapis Lazuli Light Magazine, May 2009 issue