Elevated carbon in the atmosphere is the nightmare that keeps on giving as we head into a summer of fire and fury. This column and its predecessor outlined the changes we can make to try to stop carbon emissions. Choose renewable energy for your home. Change your diet. Consume less stuff. And maybe face the fact that a keep cup in your brand new diesel SUV is a misread of the situation.
Hopefully we will transition out of fossil fuel dependence. But we will be living with elevated carbon for the foreseeable future. One of the lesser known consequences is known as the junk food effect.
Carbon dioxide is fuel for plants. They combine it with energy from the sun to photosynthesise sugar and produce oxygen. It’s worth remembering as humans continue to make the planet uninhabitable that plants are what made it habitable in the first place.
Elevated carbon makes plants grow more quickly. That’s the good news. Souped up carbon levels provide a junk food diet for plants so they grow with lower mineral levels making the fruits and vegetables we produce less nutritious. Combine this with industrial agriculture that obliterates the soil life that creates those nutrients, and we have a problem.
Trees can be the answer.
Ireland has a pioneering study of livestock agroforestry led by Professor Jim McAdam who was part of a panel of experts at the National Organic Training Skillnet agroforestry conference this year. Journalist Ella McSweeney hosted online contributions from experts like Sligo livestock farmer Clive Bright and Andy Dibben, head grower of the Abbey Home Farm in Gloucestershire, an organic farm feeding 800 families year-round.
Dibben explained how he incorporated rows of trees into his vegetable fields, some for their fruit but others for multiple resources. He coppiced hazels and alders every five years. They fed the soil through their roots, made for better water retention, shelter from wind, habitat for birds that ate his crop pests and ramial chipped wood, the horticulture product growers are embracing for its huge benefits.
In Wicklow, Davi Leon and Hazel Nairn produce food for 30 families on less than half an acre on Wicklow Farm. They studied syntropic forestry in Davi’s native Brazil. Syntropy is the opposite of entropy, meaning life cycling through a system rather than leaving it and having to be replaced.
They are trialling trees to nourish fruits and vegetables, reducing the need for compost to be brought in from outside and producing food packed with nutrients, leaving soil enhanced rather than spent. They want to farm without depending on the resources of other places. Their produce is as far from junk food as food gets.
Catherine Cleary is co-founder of Pocket Forests