We have a problem. As the human population grows and uses up resources it becomes more and more difficult to grow enough food for everyone. This is not a new problem, but we have temporarily overcome this problem via ‘The Green Revolution’ by using fossil fuels. Peak Oil and the way we treat the planet are leading us into to a problem of crisis proportions.
It is likely that if we do not engage the Next Green Revolution, that within the next 30 years, our food production will not be able to feed half the current global population and the remaining human population will experience drastically reduced levels of human welfare. The Next Green Revolution will not solve all our problems, but food and food security are right at the base of our pyramid of needs.
The Next Green Revolution will need to go hand-in-hand with a new relationship with our planet, and the natural goods and services that it provides. The Green Revolution is powered by fossil fuels, which not only give energy to till land and pump water, but also provided inorganic fertilizers and plant pest & disease controls. While this boosted agricultural production, it also gave rise to a whole range of issues. Tilling the soil destroys soil structure and loss of carbon, leading to erosion and loss of topsoil, poor drainage and poor soil aeration. Inorganic fertilizers leach through soils and wash into rivers, poisoning freshwater and marine environments. Salts from the fertilizers accumulate in the soil over time and reduce fertility.
Another thing that we will have to change is the waste and pollution that we generate. We send millions of tonnes of organic waste to landfill, where it rots, and gives rise to one quarter of the man-made emissions causing Global Climate Change. The toxic liquid that drains through landfills also poses a long-term threat to our fresh-water resources. The cost of disposal to landfill is artificially low; it does not encompass the real, long-term costs to society and the environment. These costs are ‘externalised’ or passed on to the environment and future societies. Achieving the Next Green Revolution requires that we re-think our relationship with Nature. It requires that we borrow fewer resources from the past and pass on fewer costs to the future. Enlightenment, as the enlightened tell us, lies in being in the present.
If we look to Nature for an example of what the Next Green Revolution might look like, the lowly earthworm provides us with an un-paralleled example. Earthworms depend on the garbage of the natural world for food: animal excrement and deceased plant and animal matter. The earthworms eat the ‘soup’ of microorganisms that break down this material. They are able to control the types and numbers of these and other micro-organisms that live both within their bodies and their local environment. Remarkable as these attributes are, it is what earthworms put back into the environment that is something to be marvelled at. Earthworm casts are rich in plant available nutrients, beneficial compounds and beneficial micro-organisms. Earthworms are successful because they create an environment that promotes healthy, fertile soil, healthy growth of plants, an environment that is able to support diverse and abundant plant and animal populations.
The key to earthworms’ success is that they put back ‘more’ than they take out, and in so doing, they create conditions that favour their well-being. Our exploitation of resources, short-term economic objectives, and our creation of waste and destruction of ecosystems, lies on the opposite side of that scale. So what does our Next Green Revolution look like? We need to reduce our impact on the environment, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and invest in fertile, healthy agricultural soils and healthy ecosystem function. We can make use of simple natural processes to divert organic wastes from landfill, by processing them into forms that safe to handle, and then encouraging the proliferation of beneficial organisms within it. Two main processes, working in tandem, have been found to give rise to the best results.
Composting is a process that involves the oxidation (respiration) of nutrients in organic matter by microorganisms. The respiration of these organisms gives off heat, and as the temperature rises within the material, different guilds of organisms dominate. Critical to the process is that there is sufficient oxygen and moisture for these organisms. The heat of composting kills pathogenic organisms, pests and weed seeds, making the end product safe to work with and free of unwanted organisms. Compost itself is rich in beneficial micro-organisms, but feeding compost to earthworms boosts the beneficial organisms many, many times – and it vastly improves the beneficial qualities of the end product. Research has shown that a single earthworm can have nearly 500 billion microorganisms living within its gut. In terms of numbers, this is around 100X the global human population, of microorganisms within a single earthworm!
We are constantly told that we should use soaps and cleaning products that kill 100% of bacteria, but it has been shown that there are more bacteria living both on and within us than there are human cells in our bodies. The vast majority of these bacteria are beneficial, and their combined weight is similar to that of a human brain (1,5-2kg). We would not be able to function properly without them; they play a vital role in processes like digestion, and in many cases they protect us from pathogenic micro-organisms. In the same way, beneficial micro-organisms play an essential role in the environment and sustainable food production. It makes good sense then to use natural processes that promote beneficial microorganisms to convert organic wastes back into a form that can be used to promote soil fertility and create conducive conditions for food production.
How then, do we industrialise the processes described above? The most nutritious organic wastes are often labelled ‘problem organics’ because they rot, giving rise to foul odours and the proliferation of pests and diseases. Conventional windrow composting, and even some of the more advanced composting systems are not up to the task. The answer to the problem lies in high-tech In-Vessel Composting (IVC) systems that provide an enclosed environment, plenty of aeration and maintain the correct structure for composting. Highly putrescent organics (like food waste) that are mixed with chipped garden (green) waste can be stabilised within a week or two, within advanced composting systems like the HotRot IVC system. Partially stabilised compost, or ‘pre-compost’, can then be fed to earthworms in an industrial-scale earthworm composting systems, like the locally developed Worm Hammock.
Waste to Food is a local initiative that converts commercial food waste into high quality organic soil amendments, fertilisers and plant pest and disease controls. Founding partners include Closing the Loop, Pick n Pay and the City of Cape Town. Waste to Food includes an Enterprise Development component – the earthworm composting is structured under micro-franchise agreements, allowing local, township entrepreneurs to own and operate their own businesses. At Waste to Food’s premises at the Philippi Fresh Produce Market there are food gardens, so they do literally convert Waste to Food. The commercial end product (vermicompost) is sold to the Agriculture, Horticultural and Floriculture Sectors, and will be blended into bagged growing media and sold through garden centres. Waste to Food recently won a SEED Award for being “an exceptional social and environmental start-up enterprise”