LEARN FROM NATURE IF WE WANT TO SURVIVE From land to sea, we need regenerative action to restore our planet’s health, says Herbert Girardet
Recently I had a conversation with a wellknown nutritionist. “Of course, we are what we eat, aren’t we?” I asked. She looked at me rather disparagingly and said, “No, no – wrong: we are what we assimilate.”
She went on to talk about how the health of the internal flora of our digestive system determines how well we absorb the food we eat. Well-absorbed nutrients help the body to form the cells that constitute the immune system and to assure a healthy organism. Poor digestive function means poor assimilation, chronically low energy levels, poor immune responses and an ever-diminishing level of stamina and vitality.
In the 21st century, humanity is eating more food from larger areas of farmland than ever before in our history, and this is determined by our numbers, our meat-centric diet and our global food trading systems. Our collective food consumption patterns have become the main interface between ourselves and the world’s soils. If food is badly assimilated by us, the impacts of a relentlessly urbanising humanity on our home planet are likely to become ever more severe. While we individually are affected by what we assimilate from what we eat, the world’s soils and ecosystems are, above all else, affected by what we eliminate from our bodies, from our households, or from entire cities. We use resources without much concern about their origin or the destination of our wastes: inputs and outputs are considered to be largely unconnected. Nutrients are removed from farmland and not returned to it. Forests are logged but often not replanted. Fossil fuels are prised from the ground, refined and burned, causing air pollution and climate change. Raw materials are extracted and made into consumer goods and end up polluting living Nature.
Apart from the food we eat, we also need to reflect on how it is sold to us, almost invariably wrapped in plastic. The careless use and irresponsible disposal of plastics has recently been widely reported. Every day there is more news about plastic waste littering the world’s beaches and oceans, and more harrowing pictures of marine wildlife starved or entangled by plastic detritus. Back in the early 1960s one could find few bits of plastic on American and European beaches. But that was then. Today over 12 million tonnes of plastic bottles, bags, food wrappers, microbeads, fishing nets and the rest pollute the oceans each year, a truckload every minute. Many people have responded, no longer willing to turn a blind eye. All over the world you can now see beach-cleaning parties. Inventors have come up with devices to collect plastic debris with booms, or to gobble them up with suction devices. But as the consumer revolution hits Asia and Africa, the plastics tide is swelling to unprecedented proportions, drifting in ocean currents and even clogging the beaches of uninhabited islands and accumulating in Arctic ice. Our response so far has been woefully inadequate.
This vividly illustrates probably a profound, systemic problem with modern civilisation: it is an essentially linear system. Much of what we eliminate cannot be assimilated by the world’s ecosystems. Yet we should ask Nature to be our teacher: the natural world is an essentially circular system and invariably turns its waste products into nutrients for new growth: every output by an organism renews the living environment. This is demonstrated most visibly and vividly as leaves fall onto the forest floor in the autumn and become leaf mould and soil by the complex interactions of many forms of life in the earth.
The organic movement, of course, understands this. It has set itself the task of protecting and enhancing soil life, as well as human wellbeing. It is also increasingly concerned with trying to counter climate change via soil carbon storage and reforestation. This is very timely, as droughts, storms and extreme floods have been increasing across the world in both frequency and severity. We urgently need to accelerate safe, healthy food systems that enhance life in the earth as well as life on Earth. Agro-ecological practices such as permaculture and agroforestry are showing the way. And of course we must make sure to eat betterquality food, to minimise food wastage and to move towards eliminating plastic food packaging.
Resurgence & Ecologist