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BBC TV Natural World - A Farm for the Future

An excellent documentary that was screened recently in the UK.

Date:   3/28/2009 5:43:33 PM   ( 14 y ) ... viewed 5987 times

This is easily the best video I have come across so far.

General Theme

(To save time I have edited text from this blog, as he does much the same as what I do! I am grateful to the author for inspiration)

In this documentary, wildlife film maker Rebecca Hosking investigates how to transform her family’s farm in Modbury, Devon into a low energy farm for the future, and discovers that nature holds the key.

With her father close to retirement, Rebecca returns to her family’s wildlife-friendly farm in Devon, to become the next generation to farm the land. But last year’s high fuel prices were a wake-up call for Rebecca. Realising that all food production in the UK is completely dependent on abundant cheap fossil fuel, particularly oil, she sets out to discover just how secure this oil supply is.

Alarmed by the answers, she explores ways of farming without using fossil fuel. With the help of pioneering farmers and growers, Rebecca learns that it is actually nature that holds the key to farming in a low-energy future.

She visited a smallholding in Snowdownia (Eryri), where the owners had taken some worn-out pasture, and over twenty-two years had transformed it into a very productive small farm.  First, they had allowed much of the woodland to re-grow, and then created clearings in which they managed animals and vegetables.  The whole area was like a piece of temperate rain forest (it can be wet in North-West Wales), and harvesting from what is effectively a multi-storey field allowed apparently very large yields per acre.  Cattle were not only fed on the grass, but on ash branches from the tree canopy.  The tallest trees may seem to be otherwise unproductive, but their roots bring up nutrients from the deepest layers, and their root fungi shunt nitrogen from areas of surplus to areas of deficit.  The ferns and bracken collects potash, and phosphates are recycled by seed-eating birds in the form of guano.

In this and other smallholdings, biodiversity, in the form of mostly native species, is actively encouraged.  Flowering plants cater for pollinating insects and predators such as hoverflies, while Khaki Campbell ducks are the most efficient at eliminating slugs.

She then showed us supermarkets with oil-consuming transport networks providing bread made from grain which required energy-dependent fertilizers, and had to be dried at considerable fuel cost.  She compared this with one farm in the South of England with a nut orchard, which could produce almost sustainable chestnuts with the same nutritive value as the grain from a field the same size.  If this were to be the future, our diet would change back to one more like a Mesolithic one, from before the time when agriculture spread to these islands from mainland Europe.

This kind of food production is much more labour-intensive than today’s agriculture, and lots of people would have to “re-ruralize”.  Today’s urban youth.  Indeed, we might become a much more parochial society.

At the end of the programme, Ms Hosking mentioned the possibility of government action to bring about the necessary changes.  It is predicted that "Peak Oil" will be here before 2013. Personally I think this is unlikely, as the role of government seems to be to hide the unspeakable truth from the people it governs.

Near the end we are left with Colin J Campbell's words:

"What we can say now without any shadow of doubt, is that petroleum man is just about extinct by the end of this century. That poses the thorny difficult question - Will homosapiens be as wise as his name implies, and figure out a way to live without oil which is the bloodstream of virtually everything."

To that Ms Hosking says:

"And it seems to me, the sooner we can begin that transition to a new low energy future, the easier the task will be."

However I would say it's a life or death issue. If you can't feed yourself and your family when there is no oil, how can you possibly hope to survive?

Specific Video Notes

One of the worlds most respected authorities on Peak Oil is Dr. Colin J Campbell PhD from the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO). In the video he says:

"Despite searching the world, with all the advances in technology and knowledge and the incentive and everything, we've been finding less and less for 40 years, and in 1981, there was a kind of turning point when we started using more than we found in new fields, as we started sucking down what had been found in the past. Eating into our inheritance you could say.  So I don't think there is really any serious doubt that we are close to this turning point, a sort of turning point for mankind you could say, when this critical energy for agriculture in particular - which means food, which means people - is heading on down. Now there's a huge debate raging of exactly the date and the height of the peak of production. Really I think this misses the point. It doesn't matter whether it is this year, next year, 5 years out. What matters is the vision that after this peak, you have a decline of only 2 or 3% a year, but there's a huge difference between climbing for 150 years, and descending for 150 years."  [5 - 6 mins]

Ms Hosking visits the Soil Association conference, November 2008, on the future of British farming (see their news page for a reference to this documentary). Highlights are shown. Journalist and farmer Rosie Boycott points out that we won't be able to pop along to the local 24 hour supermarket when this crisis hits. Fortunately I see she was been appointed as Food Adviser to London (where I live) just before that conference. Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy asks "How are you going to feed Britain? How are you going to feed London?" Jeremy Leggett of Solar Century says "it will hit us by 2013 at the latest, not just as an oil crisis but actually as an oil and indeed an energy FAMINE." Peter Melchett, the Soil Association's Policy Director, says "Farmers are going to have to move from using ancient sunlight, using oil and gas, to using current sunlight". Patrick Holden, Director of the Soil Association comments "and that seems to me, the most enormous challenge that agriculture has ever faced, certainly since the industrial revolution, because we have so little time to do it". Unnamed: "If we can get government to be part of that, so much the better but if government won't be part of that then we have to do it without them". Lang: "These are the new fundamentals on which the food system is going to have to be based otherwise we are buggered". [10-11 mins]

An internet interview with Richard Heinberg in California, he is a senior fellow of of the Post Carbon Institute (I previously blogged about him in my Peak Oil blog). He advises business, industry and governments on how to cope with oil depletion. Hosking asks him about alternative energies. He says we have waited too long to develop alternative energy sources. We have created a way of life that is unsustainable, that means "it can't continue". Bio fuels - rape seed. At Britain's current rate of energy consumption, a 4 acre fields would be used up in one third of a second. Heinberg points out that aside from transport, agriculture is the most fossil fuel intensive industry. In the western world, for every 1 calorie of food we produce, it takes 10 calories of energy. Hosking: All of our advances in agriculture are utterly dependant on fossil fuel. So where does this leave us? Heinberg: "It's possible, in fact, that food systems could collapse, not just in the poor countries but also in the wealthy current food exporting countries like the United States, Canada and Australia. We are going to have to transform our entire agricultural system very quickly if we are going to avert a global food calamity". Hosking then imagines a return to horses, but the knowledge of how to farm in this manner is all but gone [12 - 15 mins]

Hosking then examines the old farming methods with horses, and compares them with the new. In those days it was 2 horse power, now it is a 400 horse power tractor. Campbell points out that the oil we are using is the equivalent to 22 billion slaves (earth's population is now approaching 10 billion) but at the end of the century they will all be gone. Even if we wanted to go back to farming with horses we couldn't, as the UK has let it's farming industry die. There are now only one tenth the number of farmers there were when we used horses, and the population of Britain has doubled. Also, the farmers today do not have the physical strength for hard manual labour. The average age of a farmer in Britain now is 60, and there are only 150,000 left. Heinberg points out that we are in the perilous position of being a net food importer, because all the imports have to come by way of increasingly expensive fossil fuels. [15 - 20 mins]

[Readers of my Peak Oil blog may recall that this lack of farming skills occurred during the Cuban Special Period, and this forced them to get old farmers out of retirement to act as teachers on how to train and handle oxen. Could this be one way forward? But few such people are now alive. Look at the video about the work that Arthur Hollins did with grass, 20 - 26 mins into the video, and the fairly shocking implications his work brings to light (ploughing is bad for the soil). Sadly he died in 2005. This observer interview was conducted 3 years before his death. When he died he said he was happy with his progress. I think in future it will be up to us, by trial and error. This farm was nearly destroyed by bulldozers. when food giant Muller tried to buy the land (don't be seduced by the nice cow sounds at the Muller site, rotweilers barking would be more appropriate). Thank god it wasn't bulldozed. His methods may be a way forward for us all]

Old video footage helps to show how ploughing the soil kills it it. After 20 years of ploughing, no insects. Modern agriculture is dependant on this method, but it also requires the use of fossil fuel fertilizer. Once again Heinberg comes in, and points out that we are using fossil fuel fertilizer to grow things in soil which is now otherwise dead. And when we don't have these, we will need living soil. And that living soil takes time to BUILD, it doesn't happen overnight. [You may recall from this video I did in a blog that it takes over 60 years to make good topsoil, so this means that farms will be sterile well into the peak oil crisis, so add that problem to the lack of farmers as well] [25 - 27 mins]

Permaculture.Could permaculture feed Britain? We meet Patrick Whitefield, who, I just discovered, has written a few books (more reading). He says you have to work with nature, and design the labour and need for energy out of the system. We spend effort and money in going against nature, yet woodland is the most fertile of them all. He says you have to take the permaculture principles and bend them to your needs. [29  - 31 mins]

Next to Chris and Lyn Dixon's smallholding at Tir Penrhos Isaf in North Wales. Their method of farming (maybe gardening is a more accurate term)  encourages biodiversity - or in simple terms just letting nature take its course -  may be the way forward as it uses low energy. It seems we may have little choice, given the current state of British farming. [32 - 37 mins]

Next to Martin Crawford's Forest Garden in Totnes, Devon. He uses lime leaves in place of lettuce. Higher up are the fruit trees, and above that the canopy, which cycle nutrients via leaves, root system and fungi. The fungi even out the nitrogen balance. Some plants have multiple purposes, for example insect control. Labour, over a while year, averages a day a week, much of that is harvesting. 10 days a year for maintenance. In total, you can feed 10 people an acre. That is double what a conventional farm can produce. Nearby he also has a 4 acre nut orchard, which produces 2 tons an acre. [37 - 43 mins]

Back to the Dixon's in Wales, they have 7 acres, which is actually feeding them too much. Chris Dixon believes that gardening with hand tools is more productive and efficient than farming. Rebecca Hoskinsg comments that a veg garden with an experienced gardener can produce up to 5 times more food per acre than a large farm. [43 - 45 mins]

Richard Heinberg then comments that reruralization is going to be the general demographic trend of the 21st century. An examination of the wartime strategy - the "victory garden movement" [In the UK, this was called "Dig for Victory"] [45 mins]

Rebecca Hoskins draws the conclusions that biodiversity is extremely important, and looks towards future options for herself personally. She recalls Colin Campbell's words [quoted above at the end of the General Theme Section] [45 - 48 mins]

Possible Implications

How many people can the UK feed? It has a land mass of 94,000 square miles, that's 60,160,000 acres. So if all the land were completely fertile, and converted to a forest garden, it could sustain  601,600,000 people (based upon Martin Crawford's maximum yield estimate that one acre can feed 10 people max - conventional farming is half that figure, according to Rebecca Hosking). The UK has 61,000,000 people, so on the face of it this is doable, however in practice only a small proportion of the land would be fertile, then it would require knowledge of permaculture gardening. Those areas not fertile could take almost a century to recover. However we will have the effects of climate change as well, so that is an added complication. In future the key to survival may depend upon an individual or their community's skills and the land they occupy.

Will peak oil happen? You decide. Rather than link to specific news stories here is a google news search for peak oil (currently the list is headed by a CNN story about Cuba's special period which I previously blogged about). Here is a google search for peak oil. To balance things out, here's a news search and a google search for peak oil myth.


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