The dirt on dirt: The importance of soil for having good healthy food

dirt

Image from milkwood.net

It’s something you don’t usually think about when you sit down to a nice meal. Dirt. For one thing it ain’t that appetising to imagine a mud pie instead of your meat pie or a bowl of dirt instead of a bowl of dessert. Let me just eat my food, thank you very much.

But the reality is that without dirt you wouldn’t have food! Without good, healthy, nutritious dirt you can’t have good, healthy and nutritious food. Because the nutrients in your food are directly correlated to the nutrients available in the soil in which it was grown.

So we are pretty much eating dirt.

Being such the life giving substance that it is, it deserves to be treated with a bit more respect and tender loving care. So let’s get down and dirty to learn more about the lovely substance that is soil. 

This will be a quick run down and really doesn’t cover the breadth or scope of the intricacies in soil. Heck, soil science is still discovering things itself! There’s chemistry, biology, geology, hydrology and mineralogy all mixed up and involved in the study of soil so to really get a good knowledge of it you may just have to dedicate your life to it!

But nobody got time for that.

Anyway, back to eating dirt, ahem, soil.

Soil is formed through a number of factors such as climate, topography, the parent rock material, biological factors, and time. 

All this influences the fertility of the soil, it’s nutrient content and pH, as well as various biological and chemical characteristics. 

Volcanic soils for example are rich and lush, chocolatey brown, envied by all for its fabulous properties allowing for great crop production. As you can gather, these soils are produced from…volcanoes! The leftover broken down remains of lava flows from an either extinct or active volcano.

Unfortunately for us here in Australia, most of our soils are old and weather beaten, with not much nutrients remaining in them. We do have pockets of really nice soil, such as the Liverpool Plains region in North-West NSW, but these soils only cover a small % of the total Australian landmass.

ASC_ALL.ai

As you can see, many soils, much confusion, but pretty colours. Source: ASRIS, CSIRO Australia

When plants are growing, they all require a certain amount of macro and micro nutrients to grow sufficiently. Just like us humans, the right diets keep them in their prime, in tip-top shape, but not enough leaves them deficient and impairs growth. Also like us too much of a good thing, like donuts or chocolate, can be bad. Though the plant equivalent would probably by phosphorus or nitrogen.

Mega appealing to plants, not so to us, phosphorus and nitrogen are two out of three essential macro-nutrients plants need. The third one is potassium. All these nutrients plants get through the soil.

If a soil is deficient in these nutrients (like a lot of Australian soils) then the plants won’t grow to their optimum level. Instead of the big-bulked up iceberg lettuce we are use to we’d instead get scrawny smaller, probably yellowed, lettuces instead.

Enter fertilisers. 

Fertilisers add nutrients to the soil for plants to utilise. Like a dose of medicine, fertilisers help aid the deficiencies of the soil. But again not all fertilisers are created equally, and depending on the fertiliser used, can in some cases further propagate problems rather then fixing them.

It depends on the speed of which a farmer desires results. If they want a quick-fix solution then modern fertilisers are the go, because these provide a big hit of readily available nutrients to the soil that the plants can rapidly access and utilise. Problem with a lot of modern fertilisers though is they disguise the problems of the soil, like a band-aid just aiding the wound for only a bit, but not actually allowing it to heal fully.

dirt2

Image from Matthias Ripp, CC BY

The long-term result fertiliser scenario aims to heal the soil. To treat it with a long-term outlook so that the soil can support itself, not requiring additions from quick-fix fertilisers. Things such as manures, blood and bone, cover-crops and nitrogen-fixing plants are management practises that target the microbes and life in the soil, as mentioned before, to make nutrients more available. Yes they provide nutrients, but they make the soil work for it.

Just as the personal trainer yells at the gym “The more you train the stronger you get!” 

These fertilisers provide ‘locked-up’ chemical forms of nutrients as well as the microbes to unlock it. So by developing the microbes the nutrients are slowly unlocked, all the whilst the microbial life community of the soil flourishes with the resources the fertilisers provide. Results in the plants will take longer to show compared to the other modern fertilisers, but it’s effects are longer lasting as the soil itself is more capable of providing nutrients.

But by nourishing the soil in this way you can propagate all the good things. Those aforementioned microbes? They are the good things. The more life in the soil the better. Bacteria, fungi, bugs, grubs and all that microscopic stuff. They are our friends breaking down compounds and releasing nutrients, creating breathing spaces for more microbial life, and allowing passages for water to pass through. Proverbial soil superheroes they are.

Tend to the soil and you tend to the health of not only plants, but yourself too.

Life begets Life.

It’s sad to think a lot of our microbe buddies are often overlooked in a lot of modern day industrial agricultural practises. But things are slowly changing which is a good thing, as researchers and farmers realise and work together to start implementing long term soil nourishing practises. Timely too, because as a resource nitrogen and phosphorus (those two yummy essential plan macro-nutrients) are just about at their limits. 

Research has already shown that we’ve surpassed the nitrogen limit and subsequently outbalanced and impaired the natural nitrogen cycle. For phosphorus, a finite resource which can’t be substituted synthetically, it’s getting harder and harder to find as mines and deposits run out. Soon there won’t be much left.

But we all still gotta eat right?

So now more than ever soil-loving practises are needed, as well as soil-loving people.

IMG_0063.JPG

The best way in which you can help support our microbe friends is by ensuring the produce you buy and eat is produced using these practises. Go to the farmers market and talk with the farmers about the methods they use, or better yet, ask if you can visit the farm to see it all in action! 

If you grow some of your own produce, then invest in a compost bin or worm farm. Not only are you saving food scraps from landfill, but you are then adding nutrients and microbes into your soil. Hurrah!

So next time your outside, in the wild or in your backyard, take a moment to get down close to the ground and thank the millions of microbes and nutrients and fungi and bugs in the soil for all the good work that they do. 

Advertisements

2016: A year of sustainability

So I set myself a new years resolution. I’ve never done one before for the precise reasons that they are so cringey. Because most of the time you know they will never be seen fully through. So instead i have labelled this a challenge, to hopefully avoid said cringiness, that just happens to run over the course of this year, because, well, a year is a nice set period that suites my A-type organising mind. 

And this is the challenge:

  1. Avoid disposable plastics and plastics in general
  2. Buy nothing new (so everything second-hand)
  3. Vegetarian*
  4. Maintain my veggie garden

You see these points are things I had always talked about doing after I had moved out, when I had my own place, because I thought them too hard to implement whilst still living at home with my family. So it was always “once I move out i’ll do all these things.” And I loved to plan it all too, how I would use reusable bags for everything, furnish my house with op-shop goods etc etc 

But then I had one of those lovely brain wave ‘Aha!’ moment that made me realise WHY DON’T I JUST START NOW?!

What’s holding me back? 

And so I have ventured on this challenge to start being more sustainable.

Now sustainability has a very convoluted and oft contested meaning. It can mean different things to different people, depending on what angle you are coming at it from. Typically the most referenced meaning is that from the UN:

“Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

I agree with this as an overarching principle of sustainability, and will now delve into each point and explain the why of each, as they actually all address different aspects of sustainability.

1- Avoid disposable plastics and plastics in general
plasticfree

I’m collecting any incidental plastic I do end up with in a jar, just like this one from trashisfortossers.com

Many people inherently know that plastic really isn’t that great for a number of reasons. It can be harmful to not only animals and the environment, but also to people too. For starters plastic is made out of crude oil, a finite and unsustainable resource, with production of plastics damaging, pollutive and resource intensive. Plastic is then used in a multitude of products, from packaging to toys, bags, homewares, toothbrushes and medical equipment. A large majority of these plastic items will also be single-use items, disposables, intended to be used only once as it is more convenient for us the consumer. Plastic bags for example are a proliferate disposable item used by many. They are also collected by many on Clean up Australia day, with an average half a million plastic bags being collected on the ONE DAY every year! Plastic bags in our oceans are also being mistakenly eaten by sea creatures, along with other small bits of plastic, often fatal to the poor unsuspecting creature. Plastics are also toxic for us too, with BPA-free everything now pretty common after the revelation it could cause brain and reproductive development problems amongst a range of other ill-health effects. Many other plastic compounds are currently being investigated into their effects on human health as the leach and exude a range of possibly toxic substances.

2- Buy nothing new (so everything second-hand)
Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 2.13.12 pm

One of my favourite instagram accounts about sustainable living @rocket_science

We are a materialistic and consumer-based society. Every where we look we are being encouraged to have more ‘stuff’, not only because it makes us feel nice or in-fashion, but also because products aren’t just built to last (termed planned obsolescence) so we are forced to keep updating. Initially this goal was mainly focused on clothes, but after having read ‘The Story of Stuff’ by Annie Leonard (highly recommend you go read it pronto!) I was compelled to extend it further to…everything. Of course though excluding things which you simply do not want to get second-hand, as in medical/health related items. To make stuff takes resources, and for some items in particular, a whole lot of toxic and pollutive resources, not to mention a labour force which more often or not nowadays is probably underpaid impoverished workers in a developing nation. These often unethical practises though pale in comparison, at least in my opinion anyway, to the extent in which we- consumers in industrialised nations- wallow in and waste mountains of stuff that accumulates in our wardrobes, our houses and in our garbage dumps. And all to often most of these items are still in perfect usable and working order. We’ve just grown tired of them that’s all, and they are so easy to replace anyway, what with shops offering thousands of items to appease our materialist appetite. I could write on and on about this, but actually Annie Leonard does it better than I in ‘The Story of Stuff’ (it really is that good) so if you do want to read more, read that. ‘To die for: Is fashion wearing out the world?’ by Lucy Siegle is another great read, more focused on the story behind fast-fashion.

3- Vegetarian*

veggielove

That asterisk is there for a very important reason because i’m still figuring out where i stand in terms of vegetarianism. There are pro’s and con’s to it, but here is my stance currently. So far i have been totally vegetarian, that is no meat products, since the beginning of the year. So 2016 so far has been meat-free. But the thing is for quite some time before that, actually probably most of last year, i had been hardly eating any meat anyway. On average I would probably have had meat around 3 times a week, and often in quite small portions. I had begun transitioning this way for a couple of reasons, with my main reason being because i love vegetables so much (true story) and then because i was still debating the sustainability of meat. First and foremost we Australians eat way to much meat. Period. This is a fact backed up by health research, because in fact too much meat can cause health issues, particularly processed meat. I think most Aussies had a possibly meat-induced heart attack when the World Health Organisation last year proclaimed processed meats, such as the beloved snag, a carcinogen to be avoided. Also its hard to avoid the other research backed facts that meat production is also not the healthiest for the environment either. Resource intensive to produce, livestock also emit a large amount of greenhouse gases and if not properly farmed can also cause environmental damage. But this is not to say all meat production is bad, because it is just not that black and white. Many farmers utilise agricultural land for livestock production that cannot be used to produce crops. A number of farmers, in fact quite a few, farm using many sustainable practises to ensure their impact on the environment is minimal, employing a range of techniques such as poly-farm integrated system as an example. Meat is also an undeniable source of protein and other macro and micro nutrients, so from a health point of view it has significant nutritional value to be included in a balanced diet. A major point that i have purposely skirted is animal welfare, not because i don’t care about it, but rather because it is so fraught with emotions. conflict and very strong opinions. I just don’t want to get into that. But what i will say is that the majority of meat production currently is not what i would deem ethical. So for the time being, considering all these points, i will continue being vegetarian. But watch this space.

4- Maintaining my veggie garden
IMG_0217.jpg

The large veggie patch as it is currently.

This is kind of an add on, and more a new-years resolution than any of the others, because it’s an area where i got lazy and ‘let go’ that I am now determined to turn around. We have a fairly large veggie garden, after i enthusiastically convinced my parents to allow a part backyard take-over of our humble patch. It has extended even beyond that now, with an extra raised veggie bed and possibly another on the way too! But our large one had got a bit neglected towards the end of last year and as a result unproductive. So i’m trying to dedicate 2 hours every Sunday to maintaining the garden, because according to many it’s the consistent work that makes all the difference. Plus there are so many rewarding benefits to growing your own food! Fresh and tasty food for one thing, organic too in my case, but also just getting out in nature, being beneficial to both mental and physical health. Love it. 

So there you have it, my four goals/challenges/not-new-years-resolutions resolutions. I’m challenging myself by also having this blog as a way to keep me accountable to these points, so i’ll try and keep you updated on my progress- the successes and failures. Any tips in regards to the goals would be very much appreciated!

First steps to combatting food waste in your own home

 

 

So you’ve become aware of just how big a problem food waste is and want to take steps to tackle it? Hurrah! Considering how significant the issue is, which you can read up on here, plus all the shocking stats that go with it, it’s little wonder that there is a growing movement to combat food waste.

It’s a tough road to navigate particularly when food wasting habits are pretty much ingrained into our society. But to help you on your way i’ve compiled some first steps to take plus some other sites and resources to check out, to use as tools along your waste-free journey.

So first off:

Go through your bin

Have you done it yet? The best way to figure out what you are wasting and your target areas is to see…What you are wasting! And a bin audit is the best way to do that. Yes, it may be smelly and a bit dirty, you may also feel a bit like a street cat as you paw through it looking for food, but hey this is something you really should do! (Just make sure to wear gloves and then take a shower after, ok, if you are really that concerned) Once you know what things are being thrown out you can start tracing back to the reasons it ended up a stinky mess in your bin.

 

Become a detective

Why was the food thrown out in the first place? Did it go off? Develop mould or go rotten? Was it past the use-by date? Or did you simply forget about it or never really intended to eat it anyway? Again, make an inventory of WHY you chucked the food away, and how it got to that stage. So for example, the tomatoes were thrown out because they had gone squishy. Why did they go squishy? Aha, because they were shoved to the back of the fridge, hiding behind other food, so you kinda forgot about them. Steps to take from here is then making sure you don’t lose them in the fridge!

 

PREPARE PREPARE PREPARE!

I cannot stress this enough, as this is really the most crucial and important point in combatting food waste. Preparation. You ain’t going to win a fight without a battle plan, and this yes siree, this will become your battle plan. These are your weapons in your arsenal (ok, enough with the battle talk!)

  • Check the supplies before you go get more! A.K.A before you go and buy more food, check out your fridge and pantry first to see what you have already got!
  • Make a shopping list! Based upon what you have already got at home, because we don’t need doubling up. Make sure you stick to your shopping list at the shops too, don’t impulse buy, as this is more likely to result in food waste.
  • Plan out your meals! This is harder said then done, something even I am still yet to perfect, but it is very helpful in allowing you to make sure you use the food you have, even integrating leftovers from one night into lunch the following day! Meal planning is also a time-saver if you are time-poor.

 

Doggy bags, all the way home…

When eating out and you can’t quite finish off the very last bite of your pad-see-ew, what do you do? Doggy bag it! Ask the waiter to bag it up for you so you can take it home and then eat it for lunch the next day (winning!). Or better yet, bring along your own container to use, avoiding the disposable plastics.

 

Collect yo’ compost

Organic matter such as fruit and vegetables can be composted, recycling the nutrients they contain back into a fertile material that renews soil and in turn allows more fruit and veg to be grown. Of course not everyone can fit a compost bin into their backyard, but you can get bokashi bins, which are small (odourless!) benchtop composters that you can use. Or in some council areas there are composting programs or community gardens that will gladly take your fruit and veggie scraps. Do a google search to see if there is one near you.

 

Make friends with your freezer.

This is actually one I stole from Sarah Wilson. Basically it’s all about utilising your freezer to extend the life of your food. Got veggies going limp? Throw them into a bag in the freezer, collecting enough until you can make your own veggie stock. Made too much bolognese? Freeze it in meal sized portions. Aunty Myrtle gave you a bushel of lemons from her lemon tree? Apart from making lemonade, juice them and freeze the juice into portions using an ice-cube tray for later uses in various recipes where it only calls for that 1 or 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. Be careful to note though how to properly store different foods in the freezer, no one wants freezer burn!

 

These are just some simple first steps to take and to use during your battle against food waste. There is actually so many nifty hacks and tips out there on the interwebs and in books offering a plethora of information on saving and being resourceful with food. These are some of my favourites:

 

 

Anyone else got some nifty and handy food waste preventing tips that they’d love to share?

Food Waste 101

IMG_0690

Second-grade capsicums from a local grocer. These quickly became roast capsicum soup!

So, pushing aside the awkward first-post opening curtain, I thought i’d dive right into the nitty-gritty. Food waste.

Now let’s clarify from the get-go that there is a two distinctive types and reasons why food that is intended for consumption is never consumed. FOOD LOSS is where food never reaches us due to things such as pests and disease on farm, or perhaps the food spoiled on the way to us consumers. FOOD WASTE is more superficial, based often upon appearance or lack of proper storage and organisation, food that is or once was perfectly edible is not utilised.

Collectively, food loss and waste is responsible for a third of all food we produce never being eaten! That effectively means that a third of all farms and farmers across the world, plus the resources such as water, nutrients and energy that they use, are for nothing. Harsh words, but they are the facts.

And guess who are the biggest food wasters? Surprise surprise, it’s industrialised nations with an on average 95-115 kg/year of food being wasted per capita.

You might be screwing your face up in indignation at that figure right now, thinking something along the lines of ‘Oh I surely can’t waste that much!’. I challenge you to go right now and rummage through your bin (yes!). It’s actually quite interesting/surprising/stinky/shocking at the amount of food that we throw into our bins everyday. In my own bin, which I gingerly pawed through, I found mostly food packaging, along with the remaining quarter can of baked beans, a small amount of fetta, and some oily-tuna dregs. To be fair though, we compost a lot of our food scraps, i’ve been a food waste nazi for some time, and I have a teenage brother. So not much is wasted in this household.

foodwastefact

The reality of food waste/loss- it could have fed someone. Source: OzHarvest

So why do we waste food? Studies have shown that often because of the abundance and availability of food, coupled with decreasing prices and a general lack of knowledge, food waste has become ‘normalised’. In the household setting, food comprises 40% of the average Australian household’s bin. Often food is wasted because we just don’t know what to do with it. Bought on a whim (‘it was on special!’) or we only used part of it, so it sits in our fridge/pantry, waiting for us to eat it, as it slowly wilts or succumbs to the hairy scourge of mould.

So in the case of the baked beans, my dad used it for his lunch one day. He and mum used up a bit more of it the day after. But then the last little bit got shoved back into the fridge and forgotten about, before it was ‘found’ a week later and with a whiff from mum was swiftly thrown into the bin. Fair enough, it probably wasn’t safe anymore to eat. But it could have been, if it was saved earlier.

Other reasons why we waste food at an individual level according to Foodwise is because we cooked too much, didn’t check the fridge/pantry before going shopping, misreading of the use-by date, and simply buying too much.

Of course though, there is also larger institutional food waste that occurs here in Australia and in other industrialised nations. Produce is often rejected due to it’s looks, whether that be a slight blemish on the skin, or perhaps it’s not quite the right shape. Conformity is key, so anything that doesn’t meet market standards is rejected, often not even getting onto shelves, usually ending up as landfill. Looks has nothing to do with flavour or nutritional value, and in fact some of the ugliest fruit can be in fact the tastiest!

Food waste such as this is easily avoidable, and slowly supermarkets have begun changing their approach to ‘wonky fruit and veg’. Spearheaded by campaigns in France and by groups such as Youth Food Movement here in Australia, wonky produce has made it’s way onto our shelves and into the spotlight. From Harris Farm Markets ‘Imperfect picks’ range to Woolworths ‘Odd bunch’ range, tracks are being made to reduce institutional food waste. In fact Woolworths recently partnered with the food rescue group OzHarvest in it’s aim to eliminate food sent to landfill by 2020.

Feeling impassioned to combat food waste in your house? Keep an eye out for my next post where i’ll detail some steps you can take plus a collection of books and websites to check out to help you on your way.