The Ecologist

The GREEN research garden in Stroud, Gloucestershire, which generated eight years of research data. Photo: Matt Adams.
The GREEN research garden in Stroud, Gloucestershire, which generated eight years of research data. Photo: Matt Adams.
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No-dig farming to sustain nutrition in soils, crops, and us

Matt Adams

2nd March 2015

An eight-year research project into the nutrient content of food grown under three different organic gardening systems has left a filing cabinet full of documents, writes Matt Adams. Now he wants to analyse those years of accumulated data, in the hope that they can show the way to richer soils, more nutritious food, and healthier people.

We humans are as much creatures of the soil as earthworms - and we can no more live without it than they can. Our survival depends entirely on the top few inches of the earth we walk on - and we forget that at the peril of our own extinction!

Ever heard of the Good Gardeners' Association? It's a small charity formed in 1966 to promote no-dig, plenty of compost method of growing food - and for over 10 years (2000 - 2011) I used to run it.

Instead of practising conventional ploughing or digging, turning soil upside down on its head each year, it's all about leaving the soil well alone.

Yes - it's possible to grow the same things you already do, by leaving the soil undisturbed. Amazing!

One of the perceived benefits of growing food using the no-dig method is that it will be more nutritious. In 2003 I began to investigate how different methods of soil cultivation affect the transfer of essential nutrients, known to effect human health, from soil to crop.

I found partners who shared a similar interest to help. Together we set up GREEN (Gardens for Research Education and Nutrition) as a collaboration between three national charities based in Stroud, Gloucestershire.

Eight years of soil and nutrition data on 23 nutrients

At the heart of this project is a theory that we should respect the integrity of the soil and the complex microbial communities they embody: soil is 'alive' and has evolved over billions of years of our planet's existence to maintain and enrich the nutrient cycles of the ecosystems it supports.

As such, the theory goes, minimal soil disturbance is key to the increase and balance of essential nutrients from soil to crop. To investigate this idea we grew the same food in an organically certified garden, but under three different methods of cultivation.

Each method represents different levels of soil disturbance: no-dig, single-dig and the most extreme 'double-dig'. To understand the effect of soil disturbance we measured the microbial life in the soil each year and tracked 23 naturally occurring minerals known to effect health, in the soil and in the crop. Samples were sent to professional laboratories and Universities for testing.

We went on to gather eight years of soil and crop data. And the tragedy is, that data is about all that's left. I no longer work for the charity; the garden project came to an end in 2014; and the charity itself is in the process of closing itself down due to a lack of resources to pursue its work.

But that data - which I still have today - could just be incredibly valuable at this time when the food we eat is increasingly sparse in mineral and other nutrients essential for our health.

So I decided that instead of letting this work die in a filing cabinet I will use crowdfunding to raise money. I can then afford to pay myself to: analyse and write up what was found; get it out into the public domain for feedback comments; talk about the wider context of what this work could mean; and - depending on the findings - go on to promote the nutritional benefits of 'no dig' cultivation!

Soil - a rich and complex symbiosis that nourishes us

Life in the soil is a story of symbiosis - a brilliant example of cooperation in nature. Microbes such as bacteria and fungi are the experts at sourcing nutrients from the soil, rocks air and water - for example, nitrogen, copper, zinc, magnesium, calcium and selenium - and passing these on to plants in a form they can use. In return plants produce and supply food for the microbes (carbohydrate). Everything involved benefits.

"A loss of trace elements have been linked to obesity, insulin resistance, heart disease and mental illness" according to nutritionist David Thomas. In 2003 he wrote a report, using government data from 1940 to 1991, which suggests we have lost over 40% of key minerals from the food we eat.

More reports along this line are beginning to gather. Dr Julia Wright recently wrote an article for The Ecologist suggesting it could be as much as an 80% loss of vitamin and mineral content.

Ironically, she goes on to say, we can now produce enough protein and carbohydrate to feed 14 billion people but despite this global malnutrition continues to increase. In other words the foods we eat are no longer providing proper nourishment.

I am delighted that this year 2015 has been designated by the UN as the International Year of Soils. Twelve years ago, when I started the project, I had no idea this would happen. It seems an opportunity to good to miss that I am now at a point where I could contribute with this work.

How I got here

I came to run the Good Gardeners' Association after completing a degree in 'Environmental Quality and Resource Management' at the University of the West of England. I was asked to take on this charity and decided to accept as my way of engaging with the world as an Environmental Manager. Parts of my degree included a module on ecology and another on environmental politics and philosophy - both of which I loved.

I'm intrigued by a fundamental question that environmental philosophers talk about. The way we think / understand how the world works, which deeply influences what we do and how we live, can be classed in two ways: either we believe we are a part of nature; or we believe we stand outside of nature.

The practical outcome of these two philosophies is as follows. If we believe we are a part of nature, then we must logically believe that to harm nature is to harm ourselves. On the other hand if we stand outside of nature, then it's okay to control it, dominate it, destroy it, and subdue it to our will.

In the short term controlling nature has given us the 'green revolution', increased security by having more food, extended life and a whole host of other great things that are frankly pretty damn good. But we are beginning to pay dearly.

Climate change, degradation of soils, pollution of rivers and sea, the loss of wildlife habitats can be seen as the consequence of our collective actions. Related to this there appears to be a rise in chronic degenerative disease. Physical and mental health is deteriorating which is reducing the quality of our newly extended life span.

The majority view at present - at least in the powerful industrialised countries - is that we stand outside of nature. But my belief is that we need radically shift our consciousness and  recognise our own symbiosis with the wider natural world. As the leading organic farmer John Seymour once said:

"For all our technology, we humans are as much creatures of the soil as earthworms - and we can no more live without it than they can. Our survival depends entirely on the top few inches of the earth we walk on - and we forget that at the peril of our own extinction!"

My hope is that by pursuing my analysis into the eight years of data from the GREEN experiment, I may be able to bring that understanding to more people, and show how we can build a richer and healthier relationship with the earth that feeds and sustains us all.



Support: If you would like to support and learn with me please visit my crowdfunding page where you can make a donation! Thank you.

Closing date: tomorrow Wednesday 4th March, 11.00am.

Matt Adams is developing a small craft cider making business. A former Chief Executive of the Good Gardeners' Association, he has a B.Sc. in Environmental Quality and Resource Management as well as practical skills and a background in mechanical engineering, and a long held interest in Deep Ecology.

Editor's note: The trustees of the GGA, in support of Matt's efforts, have voted to grant him any residual sum that remains in the charity's account following the charity's winding up.

Also on The Ecologist: 'Reclaim Environmentalism!' by Derrick Jensen & Lierre Keith.


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