“We cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it”

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Albert Einstein – quoted by Vandana Shiva in her book “Soil not Oil”

I had a faintly disturbing conversation with a retired farm worker at the wassail on Friday evening. There were two things he said that made me prick up my ears – firstly something to the effect “we are going to lose all our subsidies and get paid to plant trees” – I’ll come back to that one – but secondly he said that the farm he still helps out on has changed the approach to foot rot in sheep (very successfully apparently) and so they no longer trim the feet – there’s sound evidence that this increases lameness – but now spray infected feet and then inject the sheep with long acting antibiotic such as oxytetracycline which is apparently very successful.  I came away with the impression that this treatment was being administered prophylactically in the flock which is probably nice for the sheep but possibly not quite so nice for us humans if it helps create more resistant strains of bacteria.

It’s just another example of the mindset that’s got us into the environmental mess we’re in. The land on which the flock is kept is very wet and is drained by a network of rhynes, (ditches) that feed larger ditches and  and pumping stations.  The prolonged wet weather these last few months has left farmers unable to sow spring cereals and even moving flocks of sheep has been problematic. The solution, as is so depressingly frequent, has been to reach for a new technology.

The question of farm subsidies is crying out to be examined, but as my friend spoke I had a premonition that even in the entirely sensible ambition to plant more trees, big business will sweep into the field with new and even more expensive technology offering a one-stop solution to farmers that’s almost inevitably going to be indiscriminately applied and propped up with even more chemicals. Which is where the moss comes in.

Ever since the mid 20th century agribusiness has been treating the earth as a simple industrial input. Land is graded from the very best through to the marginal, and farmers, hill farmers for instance, have been heavily subsidised to keep sheep on land that’s not really suitable. During the past centuries peat bogs have been exploited for fuel and horticulture to the extent that 95% of them have simply disappeared. It’s now becoming clear that peatlands are performing an indispensable service to the earth by soaking up half a trillion of tonnes of carbon – the data is here – twice as much as is stored in all the forests combined. Yet peatlands only cover 3% of the land areas of the earth. It almost makes you want to weep that only fifty years ago Scottish peatland was being ploughed and drained and planted up with imported trees. I’m quoting here from Dave Gouson’s book “The Garden Jungle” –

Over the past 10,000 years, UK peatlands have quietly sequestered 5.5 billion tones of carbon – nearly forty times the 150 million tonnes of carbon stored in our woodlands.

– and we’re still digging them up to spread peat on our daffodils!

It also happens to be the case that peatlands grow proportionally faster during periods when the global temperature is rising. So here’s just one part of the puzzle that we need to solve, and we can solve not by buying into impressive new technological fixes but by doing almost nothing. We need to ban the extraction of peat altogether and we need to halt and then reverse the draining of peatland for agricultural use.  We need to allow them to flood again which will not only increase the amount of carbon being sequestered far more efficiently then tree planting can but will also hold vast quantities of water that would otherwise run off moors, mountainsides and hills filling rivers and flooding good land and towns downstream. Peatland holds the carbon in storage for as long as the bog exists.  Trees only sequester carbon while they’re actually growing and when they die and rot they release it back into the atmosphere again.  So tree planting can only be a temporary solution while we make all the other changes, the ones we haven’t made during the fifty years we’ve known about the problem! Inevitably this will impact farmers’ livelihoods, but the subsidies can be reapplied to the maintenance of peatlands and their vital impact on wildlife and biodiversity. So my friend was right in outline, but not – I sincerely hope – in detail. Yes of course we should massively increase tree planting as well, but in the right places, not just anywhere farmers can shove a couple of thousand saplings in and book their summer holidays on the subsidy.

So if my newly found interest in bryophytes – mosses, liverworts and the rest – seems a bit perverse or leftfield, it’s because these poorly understood branches of creation just might be in a position to help solve what no amount of cash, science, technology and PR has managed. George Monbiot is right in many of his diagnoses but some of his prescriptions are terrible, especially when he seems to have bought into the fantasy that technology can solve our problems. More nuclear power stations fuelling factories that produce gigatonnes of industrial seaweed and fungus gloop really aren’t the solution.  I’m not even sure if they’re part of the solution.

There’s no reason why you should know that our word martyr derives from the Greek verb ‘martureo’ – to bear witness; it used to be my job to know stuff like that! Each age has its own witnesses and it so happens that in our own time of turmoil, the environmental scientists, the botanists, mycologists, bryologists, ecologists, meteorologists, climatologists, organic gardeners and farmers, the young activists and all the others are the witnesses to what’s going on. It’s about the earth, the soil – and it’s no accident that organic allotments are between four and eleven times more productive than intensive farms. Is anybody listening?

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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