Written by Sebastian Pole
We know that we are facing a catastrophic collapse in biodiversity whilst at the same time a large excess in pollution overshoot threatening our very livelihoods- and lives. An inflamed planet has led to an inflamed population. As a herbalist practising natural medicine the only analogy that comes to mind is a system whose digestion is completely disturbed, where the diversity in the microbiome is depleted causing a cascade of weakened immunity and excess inflammation leading to a raging fever from the systemic infection. But I am still hopeful. Mainly because we know what many of the solutions are but also because we know the capacity of plants to regenerate the health of the soil, water, forests – whole ecosystems – as well as bring potent health benefits.
We know that if we want to solve Biodiversity we need to solve food. If we want to solve the Climate crisis, Plastic epidemic, Deforestation, Social justice, Health justice and the Net positive goals we all need to urgently achieve, if we really want to solve them, we need fix food. With agriculture generating about 3.5% global GDP yet 30% carbon emissions it just isn’t an equitable transfer of value (15). Of course, food needs to be affordable. It also needs to be good for everybody in the long-run. As you may know the word ‘economy’ means looking after your household’. And that is what all business governments and the herbal industry as a whole need to be much better at.
And for the herbal industry as a whole, we face high levels of risk to supply from unsustainable wild harvesting, habitat loss, species loss as well as the impacts of the climate crisis on growing regions, environmental stability as well as herbal quality. As approximately 25% by volume and around 75% by species numbers are harvested from the wild (17,18), we have to progress our relationship with the sustainability and the socially equitable aspects of sourcing. This disturbing knowledge we have, concerning that it is, gives us the opportunity to act collaboratively to engage swift change.
Organic certification is one scientifically verified solution to many of the challenges we face. The Soil Association say that is different from other farm assurance schemes in the UK because:
- it is supported by longstanding, independent and robust scientific evidence demonstrating the delivery of environmental and public benefits from organic systems;
- they are of the requirement of a detailed, independent, government-approved auditing process – all organic farms and food companies are inspected at least once a year;
- organic standards for food and farming are set out in legislation – currently the EU Organic Regulation.
The word organic is derived from ‘organism’. It is one of those words that gives me optimism. Like wholeness, balance, harmony. An organism must operate in a state of wholeness, balance and harmony to flourish. If ‘organic’ is too controversial, you can call it could say Agro-ecological system, and when coupled with organic farming, Regenerative Agriculture. Third-party certification is an essential part of turning the Nature Crisis into a Nature Success.
- More wildlife: organic farms have 50% more abundant wildlife, with a third more species on average, including almost 50% more pollinator species and 75% more plant species (1,2).
- Healthier soils: organically farmed soils have on average 44% higher levels of humic acid (3) – the component of soil that stores carbon over the long term – and perform better against other soil health indicators too, such as abundance of soil microbes and resilience against flooding and drought (4).
- Climate mitigation: organic soils sequester up to 450kg more carbon per hectare than non-organic farms, and soil organic carbon stocks are up to 3.5 tonnes higher per hectare than non-organic farms (2). Organic farming prohibits the use of manufactured nitrogen fertiliser – a major contributor to agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
- Protection against flooding: healthy soil reduces the risk of floods and droughts by storing as much as 3,750 tonnes of water per hectare, the equivalent of one and a half Olympic swimming pools (6).
- Clean water: 35-65% less nitrogen and no persistent pesticides leached from organic arable fields (7).
- Lower pesticide use: organic farmers can only use (under strict conditions) a small number of pesticides, all of which are naturally occurring and carefully selected and approved (8). If all farming was organic, research suggests that pesticide use would drop by 98% (9,10).
- Low antibiotic use: the routine use of antibiotics is banned and measures aimed at optimising animal health and welfare mean that organic systems use far less antibiotics than non-organic indoor and extensive systems (11).
- More jobs: including for younger people, women and new entrants to the farming industry (12).
- Food security: modelling by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) concluded organic farming can play a major part in increasing global food security and feeding a global population of 9 billion sustainably by 2050 (13,14).
Organic farming literally feeds the soil, the digestive system of the earth, establishing a healthy Soil Biome. It builds Planetary Immunity through is regeneration of biodiversity, establishing a healthy Planetary Biome. Studies have shown that, coupled with a reduction in food wastage, all of Europe can be fed sustainably through a more ‘land-sharing’ rather than a ‘land-sparing’ approach. Read more about this topic in this fascinating article Ten Years for Agroecology in Europe by the Soil Association. What we eat matters and how it is grown matters.
FairWild certification is another progressive solution to ensuring that the wild supply of herbs is both sustainable for the ecosystem and equitable for the collecting communities.
We know that there is a positive inverse relationship between eating plants rich in phytochemicals and HBP, Cardiovascular problems and Diabetes. Our hyper-separation from nature has led to our shopping baskets being filled with over 50% Ultra Processed Foods. There is good reason to include more phytonutrients rich plants in people’s diet. Our beloved Camellia sinensis, otherwise known as Britain’s favourite cuppa, has potent effects on cardiovascular inflammation. But it is just one of the 30,000 plants that have been used for food and health. Current science shows eating 30 different plants a week is the best way to optimise your microbiome. Ginger, Turmeric, Milk Echinacea, Thistle, Ashwagandha are all examples of very well researched herbal health solutions. We see the benefit of such diversity in the diet reflected from every organic farm, as the organic principles feed a farm teeming with plant and insect life.
One way to repay nature is to solve Nitrogen. Inspired by the historian Rutger Bregman, Being at a climate conference and not talking about Nitrogen is like being at Davos and not talking about taxes. With a 4x global overshoot it is the steroid drug modern agriculture is addicted to (16), leading to further widespread herbicide and pesticide use, driving volume up and costs down.
But why are businesses rewarded for growing unhealthy, unsustainable food? We have to find a way to reward business for making healthy sustainable food. For example, in the current climate isn’t it contradictory that you have to pay to be certified organic? Surely a way is to shift the value from subsidised fossil fuel inputs to subsidised healthy farming and food? There is no doubt pollution must be charged for, oil subsidies in the form of tax breaks need transferring to help Refund Nature with climate positive agriculture and healthy, affordable food.
The question that we all face in the world of herbalism is how can herbal organisations, suppliers and herbalists stand as genuine champions of Nature?
- Bengtsson, J., Ahnström, J., & Weibull, A. C. (2005) ‘The effects of organic agriculture on biodiversity and abundance: A meta-analysis’ Journal of Applied Ecology, 42(2), 261–269. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2005.01005.x
- Tuck, S. L., Winqvist, C., Mota, F., Ahnström, J., Turnbull, L. A., & Bengtsson, J. (2014) ‘Land-use intensity and the effects of organic farming on biodiversity: a hierarchical meta-analysis’, The Journal of Applied Ecology, 51(3), 746–755. http://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.12219
- Ghabbour, E. A., et al (2017) ‘National Comparison of the Total and Sequestered Organic Matter Contents of Conventional and Organic Farm Soils’, Advances in Agronomy, 146, 1-35 https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.agron.2017.07.003
- Müller, A. et al (2016) ‘Organic farming, climate change mitigation and beyond: reducing the environmental impacts of EU agriculture’ IFOAM EU and FiBL, available online at: http://www.ifoam-eu.org/sites/default/files/ifoameu_advocacy_climate_change_report_2016.pdf, pp 45-46
- Gattinger, A., Muller, A., Haeni, M., Skinner, C., Fliessbach, A., Buchmann, N., Niggli, U. (2012). Enhanced top soil carbon stocks under organic farming. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(44), 18226–31. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.120942910
- European Commission Joint Research Centre, ‘Key Facts About Soils’ available online: http://eusoils.jrc.ec.europa.eu/projects/Soil_Atlas/backup/Key_Factors.html [Accessed February 2017]
- Niggli, U. (2015) ‘Sustainability of organic food production: challenges and innovations’ Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 74:1 83-88, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0029665114001438
- 8) IFOAM States that the reason only natural pesticides are allowed is: The precautionary principle acknowledges that our understanding of the impact of synthetic pesticides on our agroecosystems, the wider environment and human health can never be exhaustive. In contrast to synthetic substances there is a longer experience of natural substance use within the natural environment. Therefore unpredictable risks coming from the release of molecules (e.g. “synthetic” pesticides) and organisms (from genetic engineering), not existing in nature, are rejected by the organic sector. As a result inputs in organic production are only limited to naturally occurring substances.
- Jones, P., Crane, R., & Centre for Agricultural Strategy University of Reading. (2009). England and Wales under organic agriculture: how much food could be produced? CAS Report 18. Retrieved from http://www.soilassociation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=5vDDWGCb84U%253D&tabid=313
- Over 300 different pesticides are permitted in non-organic farming and in 2015 over 17,800 tonnes of pesticides were applied on British farms (See: Fera Ltd (2016) Pesticide Usage Statistics (PUS STATS), available online at: https://secure.fera.defra.gov.uk/pusstats/mygraphresults.cfm). In contrast, organic farmers are only allowed to use a tiny proportion of the full array of pesticides available to farmers, and organic farmers are not permitted to use any herbicides. The small number of pesticides that organic farmers are permitted to use are naturally occurring and are carefully selected and approved by the EU.
- Sustain (2015) ‘At least 10 times less antibiotics used in organic pigs’ published online on 30 March 2015 at: https://www.sustainweb.org/news/20150330_132021/ or see:http://www.ft.dk/samling/20131/almdel/flf/spm/495/svar/1156714/1401964.pdf (Danish). See also Veterinary Laboratories Agency (2006) ‘Investigation of persistence of antimicrobial resistant organisms in livestock production’ Project OD2006, available online at: http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Default.aspx?Menu=Menu&Module=More&Location=None&C%20ompleted=0&ProjectID=9902
- Soil Association (2006) ‘Organic Works: Providing more jobs through organic farming and local food supply’ 6
- Scialabba, N. (2007) ‘Organic agriculture and food security’ Presented at FAO International Conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security, Rome, 3 – 5 May 2007
- Strategies for feeding the world more sustainably with organic agriculture, Nature Communications, 14 November 2017: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-017-01410-w
- Share of economic sectors in the global gross domestic product (GDP) from 2009 to 2019 | Statista. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/256563/share-of-economic-sectors-in-the-global-gross-domestic-product/. Published 2021. Accessed November 26, 2021.
- The nine planetary boundaries. Stockholmresilience.org. https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries/the-nine-planetary-boundaries.html. Published 2021. Accessed November 26, 2021.
- Schippmann, U. W. E., Leaman, D., & Cunningham, A. B. (2006). A comparison of cultivation and wild collection of medicinal and aromatic plants under sustainability aspects. Frontis, 75-95.
- Lange, D. and Schippmann, U., 1997. Trade survey of medicinal plants in Germany: a contribution to international plant species conservation. Bundesamt für Naturschutz, Bonn.