Biophilic cities

My latest article on Biophilic Cities for The Sustainable Food Trust, is now the Editor’s pick! I worked really hard on it so if you are interested in what is beyond ‘green’ in the urban sustainability movement, please have a read here.

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Now that 80% of the global population live in cities, education and urban environments need to bring children in contact with nature on a daily basis, if future generations are to cherish, know and love the natural world which we survive off. Have a look at the benefits of growing up on a farm for young children in this new documentary called Free Range Child sneak preview. Or sign up to Project Wild Thing for new ideas of how to get your kids away from screens and back outdoors.

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Ubuntu – “I am because of you”

I found it hard to surmise the life of such an impressive man, whose actions bettered the lives of so many, so in reflection I ended up painting –

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A butterfly is a lovely symbol of the soul and transformation, like the ripple in the ocean, they may be small in the grand scheme of things but they are mighty insects that migrate tremendous distances in their short life spans.

As touched on in this brilliant TED talk I feel that one of Mandela’s greatest achievements was his own very personal transformation which took place while in jail. Holding steadfast to his values he underwent a long introspective process of the interior self, which enabled him to internalise the values he stood for externally, so they became the walking undeniable fabric of his being – unusually freed from the fears and tremors of the ego power play we see many leaders struggle with today. This gave him true resiliency in the worst of times, and profound widespread respect for his unfaltering lead by example. An example of how one person’s actions can make an enormous difference.

As my human rights professor told me once – “live by your dreams”
Don’t slave for them in some distant future on palm-tree lined shimmering shores but try to embody your values, all that you love and hold dear now, each and every moment.

Soil is so cool

Dirt, mud, the earth from where all life has sprung is miraculous stuff, and perhaps where a lot of the answers to the mysteries of the universe reside. It often takes repeated exposure to what sometimes appears very mundane information, until there is suddenly a light bulb moment which permanently alters your perspective. I had one of these moments today which has finally rammed home a deep, profound respect for plain and simple soil.

I had already heard that 5g/1tsp of healthy soil contains more living organisms than humans on this earth. But I hadn’t really considered the implication of this until I saw a 3D graphic image of 1g of soil spinning round on a big screen, illuminating all the porous spaces (said to contain up to 10,000,000 cells, 5km of fungi, 10,000 different species). It was a wake-up call to visually see how much life is simply taking place under our finger nails! (soil traceability being a very important part of forensic evidence in criminal investigations)

Helen Browning of the Soil Association introduced the speakers at the Soil Symposium this year, with some astonishing facts. No news to the organic farmers and growers present but perhaps of interest to people like myself who don’t come into daily contact with soil and aren’t conscious of its vital importance to our survival.

  • It takes 500 years or so to create an inch of fertile top soil and only a decade or so to deplete it
  • Worldwide we have damaged over 15% of our land, destroying soils 10 times faster than creating them
  • In the UK 2 million tonnes of soil is lost each year, which is £150-250 millions worth of soil damage

The talks that followed all upheld the importance of bio-dynamic farming, which use organic methods in soil cultivation to essentially feed the soil and maintain high levels of bio-diversity, creating more nutritionally dense, fertile and high yielding soils.

Professor Dr. Urs Niggli from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, advocated a new approach for farmers to prevent soil depletion called ‘eco-functional intensification’ rather than the over-used meaningless term ‘sustainable intensification’. In 2002 a report showed how this sort of farming, using reduced tillage and organic fertilisers, doubles the physical and microbial properties of soil – data which even the pro-GM Avery clan of this world couldn’t refute. The soil becomes more porous-retains more water, carbon and biomass which creates healthier, high yielding soils.

The underlying truth to highlight is that much like the universe, our brains, uncharted ocean depths, we understand very little about the life of soil at the microscopic level. It still remains to be discovered but one thing is clear that biodynamic farming is the way forward to ensure a thriving planet that can sustain us.

British village life at its best

I have just had one of those weekends that was so perfectly British it got border line ridiculous – so I felt I had to make a note of it. A village fete in the blazing heat, warm pimms, cream teas and a British tennis victory by a Scot.

Sitting at our village fete running my mothers stall I experienced village life in all its brilliant rivalry and gossip. There was that wonderful competitive eyeing up of each others stalls as we wandered around checking out each others wares and fares. A very firm farmers wife on the microphone, counted down the opening of the fete, to let the hordes flood in. It kicked off with the village school recorder ensemble conducted by the same teacher I had when I was there. There were Morris dancers, a whole village hall dedicated to a cake sale and a Pimms tent.

We didn’t sell anything, which the man in charge of co-ordinating pitches seemed to enjoy ” Oh well you didn’t sell anything last year either” – Cheers! Rather than spending money on our pricey aloe vera health products, villagers sensibly preferred to spend money on the usual tombola, silent auction ( feat. a lift to heathrow and back and some compost bins) , splat the rat and trying to balance a coin on lemon floating in a bowl of water. This year the fete seemed to have raised to new heights of ingenuity with a game called ‘Donkey Plop’, where you had to guess which square the two donkeys might poo in – and for an extra 50p you could give them a carrot or apple to help them on their way. Incidentally the donkeys won the hat competition and a grown-up was so adamant on winning the dog sitting competition she wouldn’t let one of the children win. Tug of war was an easy victory by the pub team with a giant of a man who just sat on his end of the rope. And I had to hide from people I used to play kiss chase with in that very field or talk politely to their mothers.

And to put the icing on a quintessentially British weekend, the following day we had one eye on the hay bales being made in the field in front of home and one eye on the historical Wimbledon victory while enjoying cream teas, with strawberries picked fresh from the garden. Beaut 🙂 Smugbrit

Independence Day!

I am very lucky to live just off the vibrant Gloucester Road in Bristol, full of independent shops that appear to be thriving rather than gradually shutting up shop. If I follow this street right out of Bristol I’d be on route to the antithesis of independent business – Cribbs Causeway shopping mall that is of galactic proportions – a terrifying glimpse of the future – Walle style mass consumer convenience where even a robot has more character. Follow the road the other way into the heart of Bristol and I’d end up at Cabots Circus where the usual household brand names assault the senses. 

I haven’t come across a cobbler or a blacksmith mind but nearly everything else you’d need exists along this street.

Fitting in with an Independence Day overseas I want to tip my figurative hat to any and all  individual artisans and small businesses who continue to work by their independent values and refuse to capitalise on the gross mentality that permeates big business.

It was along this street that I stopped outside a small exhibit by a local artist called Robbie Sparks who has shared these facts with me that may have put just a little too much perspective on things. And in appreciation of those daring to challenge the status quo, make their mark, unafraid of independent thought, I thought I’d share. Also these might be of interest and encouraging to the hesitant people like myself that feel stuck between doing work simply to get by or doing more meaningful work and what that might actually entail if you really listen to your heart 

  • You can see less than 1% of the electromagnetic spectrum and hear less than 1% of the acoustic spectrum
  • We are travelling at 220km/second across the galaxy
  • 90% of the cells in your body carry their own microbial DNA and are not “you”
  • The atoms in your body are 99.999999% empty space and none of them are the ones you are born with
  •  According to Quantum physics one thing can be in two places at the same time

So nothing is quite as it seems – tiddlypom! Making your own authentic way as gracefully as possible through life is probably the best way forward from here – refrain from intellectualising and keep it simple –  if you can’t do what you love for a living at the very least make time for it – honour it.

 

Bristol to be the sustainable food city of the UK by 2020

Mayor of Bristol George Ferguson, along with a number of other inspirational speakers set the tone “that food really matters” for the second Eat Drink Bristol Fashion two week food fiesta in Queens Square, which opened with the Sustainable Food Summit.

It was an overwhelming day full of foodie activists and do-gooders in the organic, local, seasonal, sustainable Bristol food network. Delicious good food recipes (ticking all the boxes above) were demo’d and provided by Pony & Trap who in River Cottage style appear to be making everything they churn out of their restaurant from scratch.

The Bristol Food Policy Council stated some staggering facts, which highlighted even more, the absurdity of our current food system:

  • 90% of UK fruit is imported
  • Wholesale markets are in decline, Bristol is the last outpost portal for trade in the whole of the South West, if this goes small growers nearest centralised trade point will be London!
  • 82% of seeds are now patented (prohibiting the right to save seed) by 10 agri-giants

And a break out, brain storm session to come up with solutions resulted in the call for shrinking the supply chain and making local, seasonable the affordable, convenient option.

One network called Foodtrade, which is still in its infancy, is proposing a Link’d In professional networking space where the local option is made the convenient one, simply through a mapping and easy to share information tool between SME’s, whether they be small-scale local growers or independent restaurants or catering businesses.

All-in-all lots of food for thought… Sign the Bristol Good Food charter to pledge support for creating a good food system in Bristol and for more information on what this might look like and how we can achieve this read the Who feeds Bristol? report  by the Bristol Food Policy Council.

Ours was the Fen Country – Flat, Flat, Flat!

A dance-theatre documentary-style performance of the few Fen Country folk living and working off the lowest lying area of England – 4 metres below sea-level in some parts – offered an unexpected deeply personal insight to life there. Using a mixture of audio-tapes from interviews with the personalities that colour a notoriously flat area, the Director Dan Canham artfully wove together a nostalgic portrayal of a community in decline.

The haunting presence of the various character’s voices being played back and mimed on stage shifting to a complete impersonation mid-sentence was a new technique to get used too, but the subtle mimicking of their imagined gestures and mannerisms along with the music gently eased the audience in. Intricately layering the key slices of the recordings he’d made through repetition and extension, Dan gradually built up the atmosphere of the Fen country, along side images of the engulfing skies and “wild” track, perhaps to reflect his own personal experience as he continued to re-visit areas and build up relationships.

The hardy, determined attitude of people who remain in what appears to be a desolate place often conveyed a sense of hopelessness, especially when one older man mentions how it has all gone quiet now… silent – and you could hear the silence, no birds, just the wind keeping the status-quo. But there are moments of relief as essentially a very private group of people who generally keep themselves-to-themselves gradually open to share their rare perspectives and deep knowing insights from their connection to the land. A young man of about twenty talks about his love for the simple work he describes, as “shovelling shit”. This gives way to elation by the end and a celebration of the abundance of life, the vibrancy of the soil and a life deeply connected to the land.

I left feeling Dan had successfully made the views of a people, whose way of life is so separate, perhaps considered insignificant to dominant UK culture – terrifyingly accentuate, by contrast, the majority of the population’s extreme dislocation from the land off of which we survive.

As one of the last eel-catchers who still weaves his own nets while remembering the many who have done so before him, said in his gruff, matter-of-fact way, “Nature always wins, yes… and we’ve lost respect for nature we have.. so we’ll lose out.. and you know what.. i hope we do.. i hope we do.”

Touring now – find performances here

Are we really ‘The Age of Stupid’?

I went to a talk yesterday by an Agroecologist Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virginia and was surprisingly entertained for a full couple of hours, when I assumed it would be a long dry lecture on how high input industrial agriculture is going to be the ruin of the human species future.

Rather than tell us things most people there well knew – the imbalance of the food system when 1 billion people go hungry and another billion eat unhealthy foods (when one third of food produced is wasted and soil fertility is in global decline). He showed us the many farcical truths we live by and by the end of the performance had successfully ridiculed the status quo – to the point where I personally felt stupid, as well as on behalf of all the people working hard to do the right thing but heading in completely the wrong direction.

Things we accept as a given –

* Life is mechanical / sterile / safe / hygienic / soil is inert / a commodity to be used not sustained

BUT THERE ARE MORE LIVING THINGS IN A HANDFUL OF SOIL THAN THERE ARE HUMAN BEINGS ON THE PLANET, AND WE ARE FUNDAMENTALLY DEPENDENT ON THE INVISIBLE WORLD OF SOIL.

* Monoculture = Efficiency / Single use capital intensive infrastructure = freedom

BIODIVERSITY and CROP ROTATION combined with modern PORTABLE INFRASTRUCTURE TO FARM THE NOOKS AND CRANNIES = fertile soil

* I teach nature, I’m smarter than nature = GM / protective cell walls /human genome project

BUT WE DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW TO GET RID OF PLASTIC? THERE ARE ENOUGH LAWNS AND PASTURES USED FOR HORSE GRAZING IN THE U.S. TO FEED ITS ENTIRE POPULATION. WE CANNOT SEGREGATE THE GOOD FROM THE BAD, THE WISDOM OF DNA IS SMARTER AND INTEGRAL TO THE WHOLE.

* Government knows best

BUT THEY PRESERVE WHAT IS / WHAT FALLS IN LINE WITH REGULATION WORKING AGAINST INNOVATION – EMBRACE THE WEIRDOS

* Farmers are idiots, we want people pushing buttons

WE NEED FARMERS, THERE IS A HUGE DISCONNECT, KIDS CAN’T TOUCH COWS ON SCHOOL FARM VISITS

* Food should not spoil / rot / = stabilise food, extend shelf-life

WORMS WOULDN’T EAT HALF THE FOOD WE EAT – HOW CAN WE FEED THE WORLD IF WE CAN’T EVEN FEED OURSELVES PROPERLY

* Cheap food policy is because we care

ABOUT THE VESTED INTERESTS OF AGRI-GIANTS  – decline in nutrient density, and increase in externalised costs (when it should be fair prices and internalised costs)

* Freedom must be feared

WE ARE MOVING FROM THE AGE OF INFORMATION TO THE AGE OF REGENERATION – healthy and vibrant culture honouring life and death of all things

He did not preach about organics – his farm is not certified organic as he does not buy into complying with regulation. He did not deride eating meat, he simply thinks that vegetarianism is not the right response. The issue is the disconnect from what we are eating.

If anyone has the chance to go and see him talk, you definitely won’t be bored but enthralled. I always listen to someone speaking about their values more, when they look healthy and energetic themselves. He is a mesmerising speaker and knows what he is talking about from hands-on soil and dirt experience.

Who hasn’t bought something from Zara?

I nearly walked out of Zara the other day looking like one of the mannequins in the window, with a full matching outfit. And a few days later nearly everything I happened to chuck on in the morning was a Zara piece. Yet somehow we don’t walk down the street past someone wearing the same jacket from Zara very often, and they are good at jackets! Most of my friends own a Zara jacket. The trick is they change their stock almost fortnightly, feeding your compulsion to buy in case it is not there the next time, and also making you feel reassured that not too many people will have made the same buy. And it is cheap… not cheap and stinking of sweat shops like Primemark but still cheap enough to raise a few eyebrows. Someone along the line is definitely not being paid their due. (The Bangladesh factory collapse is a prime example of this – sign a petition to demand safer working conditions in the garment industry with avaaz here)

I have a friend who has opened up an ethical clothes boutique called The Keep Boutique in Brixton Village. Rather than cluttering the shelves she has one size of everything on display and all her pieces have been treated with great precision and care from the initial design to the finished product. This is how shopping should be, carefully selected pieces, chosen by a retailer you trust and whose style you personally share.

My fear is that we are becoming less artful in our purchases and Zara’s increasing monopoly on women’s day-to-day dress sense is just a small example. With not enough time or money to care for the origin of the stuff we buy and its individual story, perhaps considered to be a luxury of the privileged,  we undermine our own personal identity. I guess one way to overcome this, is to regard “Less as more” – a simple quality over quantity – and not fall into the safe-buy Zara trap but dare to rock clothes that truly reflect your own mesh of style, colours and attitude. And then learn how to use a sewing machine when they begin to fall apart!

Don’t we all want to be in the position to hide away a few well-weathered, treasured pieces one day, to then dig out again for our children and remember the good old days by?

Live Below the Line week..

I wanted to pledge support for the Live Below the Line week and attempt to live off £1 a day to show solidarity with the 1.4 billion globally living in extreme poverty, but I haven’t done it. Being in between work it seemed like the perfect time to pledge support since I am counting the pennies, however moving around a lot without a routene makes it impossible, with travel etc. excuses, excuses it sounds like… and you are right..

Looking at the campaign website today I thought that one thing Live Below the Line could have done would be to have some engagement with people struggling to live off this little and what it is like essentially. I can imagine there are lots of politics around this. However there is something slightly uncomfortable about imitating a struggle which is profoundly so removed from anyone who would ever pledge to do this. Obviously this is the point of the whole campaign but is it patronising? Do people living off the equivalent of £1 a day think it is a ridiculous way of showing solidarity? I think it would add weight to this campaign which aspires to ultimately live in another’s shoes for a week, and really shift peoples attitudes, to perhaps get some of the people who are living like this to say how they feel about the campaign. I see none of this on their website, which I find a little off-putting and makes me feel like it is another very western-centric cosy comfortable campaign, where we are simply just challenging ourselves not to give into the temptation of our morning coffee from pret.. and having to remember a packed lunch every day.

I guess I should try doing it first and then have a rant. The idea certainly can’t do any harm – watch The Global Poverty Project’s vid or the IF campaign vid (see below) in the run up to the G8 summit to take place in June. It is upsetting to think that 1 in 7 go to bed hungry and we produce enough food to feed the world one and a half times over ( suggesting the food system does not need GM to create more food but simply a more effective market and distribution reforms). Also I just read in The Week that according to a new study by Oxford University poverty is in decline from 43% in the 1990’s to as low as 16% in the next two years, so we must be doing something right as global society.