The earth is breathing
You have probably seen a couple of photos trending on social media with the tag “The earth is breathing”. These photos, most of them showing a view of Mount Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro, Kenya’s and Africa’s tallest mountains respectively being seen from places one would not have imagined have been remarkable. Thanks to staying at home, people are hardly using their vehicles now, and the smog, an amalgam of dirt and smoke from exhaust pipes that once covered the views of these beautiful natural sites, is gone. Elsewhere in the world people are awed at how the environment is getting cleaner, and in some cities, rare animals are now being seen for the first time in decades! A look into our farms tells a sad tale, so maybe we should also allow our soils to breathe!
Modern agricultural systems are mainly designed to serve commercial interests from beginning to end. It is not surprising, therefore, that principles of industrial agriculture are about the exploitation of natural resources in order to get as much profit as possible, without considering the damage it causes to the environment. That is an unsustainable way of life indeed, since there are generations in the future, and the quality of life they will have will depend on how well we take care of the earth.
Permaculture, a design system that takes regenerative aspects into account, to live in harmony with the earth, has three ethics that are a yardstick as to how sustainable agriculture ought to be. Earth care, people care, and fair share are the three ethics. Ethics are mechanisms that help to regulate self-interest, which if unchecked would cause overexploitation as we are now seeing in industrial agriculture. Permaculture acknowledges that if we take care of the earth, the earth will take care of us as well as future generations. Earth care is simply taking care of the soil, since soil is the farmer’s closest ally. The quality of soil is a good and accurate indicator of the state of the wellbeing of society. To be able to take care of the soil, we have to see it not merely as a medium through which money is minted, but as a living entity. Soil is alive and is full of life, and therefore the best way to identify soil that is healthy is to check the existent of living organisms.
Soil health in Kenya
Kenya’s media has written and aired numerous headlines talking about the state of soils in Kenya. While the headlines are different and cover different issues, one common theme is that Kenya’s soils are not healthy, and are in fact deteriorating. There has also been a reported shortage of crops in most parts of the country, with an acre now producing significantly less yield than it did in the 1970s. The solution to improving crop yield does not lie in government-subsidized fertilizers since these do more harm than good anyway. Due to poor farming methods, ground cover is low, which leaves soils exposed to agents of erosion. Taking a look at many of Kenya’s rivers, especially now during the rainy season, shows this effect in full, where the river water is brown due to topsoil being washed away.
What do Pesticides and fertilizers do?
Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers do a lot of damage to the soil. As earlier indicated, the soil has life, it is a living entity. Those that farm for commercial purposes do not pay much attention to this fact and hence pump as much chemical inputs as possible in order to get high yields. What they do not know is that especially pesticides harm and kill the living organisms in the soils. Insecticides harm the earthworms, fungicides harm microfungi and herbicides harm bacteria in the soil, all very important for nutrient release, soil enrichment, and soil fertility. The chances of getting a good harvest diminish, as the probability of having pests and diseases in your farm increases.
Regeneration vs. sustainable: which one is it?
As various stakeholders in government draft strategies and policies on how to improve food security in Kenya, one of the most recurrent themes is “sustainable agriculture.” It is about time we asked ourselves what that really means! We want a system to be sustainable when it is still healthy and we want to sustain this system. The biggest question therefore is, are the present agricultural systems so good that we want them to stay the same? The answer is NO! We do not want our soils to keep getting eroded, yields to keep diminishing, pests becoming more stubborn to pesticide applications, or our precious pollinators to keep dying!
The new buzz word is regeneration. This is the strategy the government should give great attention and budgetary allocations to since it is what’s going to fix the soil problem in the country, and promote food security. Regeneration seeks to rebuild what has been destroyed. This approach to farming sees everyone as a custodian, a steward to this resource called soil, who should take precious care of it, and restore it to its former glory. It can be done, it has been done by many brave farmers already around the world, but the government needs to promote this if we are to hand over a livable earth to the next generation! Have a happy earth day, will you?