Soil Association

For peat's sake

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2500 years ago Plato wrote about ancient Greece many years before: “... the earth has fallen away all round and sunk out of sight. The consequence is, that in comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left.”

At a remarkable mid-June gathering at Morvern in the West Highlands I read the above excerpt from Plato, who was describing Greece before farmers totally screwed it up.  The theme of the conference was ‘Soil Matters’ and it brought together leading soil scientists, artists, musicians, government and NFU officials, land managers and others with an interest in soil and sustainability. It was hosted by the Andrew Raven Trust, a trust established in memory of his profound influence on Scottish land management and environmental issues.  Because we were in the Highlands the role of peat in climate change and sustainability was a topic.  Peat has a deep resonance with the spirit of Scotland - I’m not talking about whisky here but about peat bogs. 

The Scottish landscape has seen some hard times - the Clearances led to populated areas seeing the longstanding human residents sent off to Glasgow or America or Australia, to be replaced by deer and sheep.  Now the Scots are recreating the marvellous environment that reflects the levels of rainfall that typify the region and rebuilding rural populations living in harmony with this unique environment.  A surprising number of the new migrants are from England.

Misguided post-war policy gave indiscriminate tax incentives to forestry. Trees were inappropriately planted on peatlands, the bogs dried out, the ecosystem collapsed.  Now there are active peat bog restoration projects all over Scotland and the benefits to environment and climate are inestimable.  A peat bog can compete with a woodland in the amount of carbon dioxide it takes out of the air and stores permanently in the depths of the earth.  Scotland’s peat bogs are making a huge contribution to mitigating climate change and we still don’t pay them a penny for doing it.  With carbon pricing on the horizon that could change.  If the carbon price is £50/tonne CO2 then an undisturbed peat bog could earn its owner £2-300 per hectare per year.  That’s more than you could make by cutting the peat for fuel or compost.

Peter Melchett, the late Policy Director of the Soil Association, dreamed of the day when peat use was phased out completely from organic farming.  A 2010 Government deadline for removing peat from horticulture was quietly extended to 2020 and now neither Defra nor the EU have any concrete plans to phase out peat use - the pressure from horticulture is too strong - tomato and vegetable growers are a powerful lobby.

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So, while the Scots are diligently restoring peat bogs the rest of the world is still digging it up to save microscopic amounts of money.  We deserve to die if we can’t do anything about this insanity.  Vast peat bog areas of Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania and Canada are being mined on an industrial scale to supply vegetable growers. There have been attempts to phase peat out of organic and conventional production. ‘Peatless peat’: compost blends of coir, composted shredded bark, biochar and green waste perform just as effectively but cost a tiny bit more. They have a vastly lower carbon footprint.  The organic movement sees itself as superior to other growers and farmers but the use of peat is one area where we must hang our heads in shame.  Every principle of sustainability is contradicted by the use of peat;: it takes tens of centuries to replace; it turns into carbon dioxide within a year or two of being used; and it destroys biodiverse habitats. Growers feel under tremendous pressure from supermarkets to cut costs in any way possible and peat is cheap.

Alternatives that don’t devastate the environment can do the job just as well, they just cost 1/2 a penny more than peat for a seedling plant.  A tomato plant can produce 50 tomatoes, so that’s 1/100 of a penny that is saved by using peat to grow tomatoes.  Screw the planet, let’s save a penny per 100 organic tomatoes.

It is time for the organic movement to revisit its founding principles, look to the Scottish example and drive a worldwide movement to restore peat wetlands and make peat use extinct before peat use makes us extinct.

Harmony in food and farming

The groundbreaking Harmony in Food and Farming Conference explained why a sustainable food culture sits naturally at the heart of an inspiring philosophy for harmonious living, says Craig Sams

In 2010 a book called ‘Harmony – A New Way of Looking at Our World’ was published. Written by HRH The Prince of Wales along with Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly, the book set out a coherent philosophy of harmonious living for communities and society, along with inspiring examples and a roadmap to a better future. It was inspired by the philosophy of the Stoics of Greece, while acknowledging Taoism, Zen and the Vedic texts. The book aims to re-engage the thinking that sought harmony with the order of the cosmos and a reconnection with Nature. It covered subjects like architecture, urban design, natural capital, deforestation and farming.

Inspired by the book, Patrick Holden, former director of the Soil Association and founder and Director of the Sustainable Food Trust, organised a conference in Llandovery Wales on July 10-11. The aim of the conference, entitled ‘Harmony in Food and Farming‘ was to put meat on the bones of the Prince’s book and to map out a way forward for agriculture and food production that resonated with the principles of harmony.

The conference kicked off with an inspirational keynote speech and then looked at a range of subjects, with key speakers from all around the world. Rupert Sheldrake led a session on ‘Science and Spirituality,’ Prof Harty Vogtmann moderated a session on ‘Farming in Harmony with Nature.’

A session on ‘The Farm as an Ecosystem’ saw Helen Browning, director of the Soil Association, describing her new agroforestry project that encourages happy chickens to range free in a productive orchard of apple trees.

A session entitled ‘Sacred Soil, Sacred Food, Sacred Silence’ highlighted the extent to which faith communities put harmony first in developing their food production systems.

A session on ‘Agriculture’s Role in Rebalancing the Carbon Cycle’ was my opportunity to shine with a presentation entitled ‘Capitalism Must Price Carbon – or Die’ in which I showed that if carbon emissions were priced into farming organic food would be cheaper than industrial food and we’d get the extra benefits of biodiversity, cleaner water and regenerating soils – all themes familiar to readers of my column in NPN. Then Richard Young set out the case for livestock farming that could operate harmoniously within our climate constraints and Peter Segger described his carbon-sequestering vegetable growing operation, which was a fascinating field trip that afternoon.

A session on animal welfare sought to see a way forward to keep animals happy during their short lives and to make that final moment of betrayal as pleasant as possible, with reference to examples and a deepening of the understanding of the sacred relationship between the animals we rear with care and then kill.

Patrick Holden learned his farming at Emerson College and is empathetic to biodynamic principles. A session on Harmony and Biodynamic Agriculture showed how the ideas of Rudolf Steiner resonate with the Harmony philosophy. At a reception the evening before the conference I mentioned to HRH that our original Zen Macrobiotic company was called Yin Yang Ltd and that our brand was Harmony Foods and that we had taken our philosophical guidance from Zen Buddhism and Taoism, unaware that the Stoic philosophy or Greece was on the same page. He commented that the Egyptians had laid the philosophical foundations for the Stoics. I wondered at how a way of thinking that had arisen simultaneously in China, India, Greece and Egypt was now guiding the effort to restore balance to our dysfunctional and unsustainable world.

The conference was attended by delegates from every continent and the closing plenary session included individual delegates describing how the conference had affected them. It was very moving stuff and helped us realise how much we all had been changed by two days in Wales. Patrick stood up to finalise the session and received a prolonged and much-deserved standing applause. The conference was a remarkable achievement. It is now the job of the Sustainable Food Trust to build on its relationships with the organisations that were represented at the conference, capture the momentum of the gathering and give impetus to the movement for harmony, regeneration and an end to the war on Nature that has brought us so dangerously close to disaster.

The proceedings of the conference, filmed and edited, can be seen on the Sustainable Food Trust website.

My Sugar Odyssey

Now that the Government is slapping a tax on soft drinks I am going to indulge in a reminiscence of my troubled relationship with sugar, health and food. My first job, as a 7 year old kid, was to scour the streets of a Pittsburgh suburb called Bridgeville, collecting discarded soda bottles and taking them to my aunt Gloria's store to collect the 2¢ deposit refund.  At that time a soft drink was 10¢, so the drink was 8¢ and the bottle deposit was 2¢ and people still threw the bottle away.  The deposit didn't make much change in behaviour.  When people wanted sugar, they paid what it cost.

I didn't really have much appetite for sugar for most of my childhood, our mother was pretty strict about it.  I remember the day in 1953 when confectionery came off the ration in the UK  and some schoolmates emerged from a sweet shop with a bag of humbugs they'd just bought  without having to cajole their mother to come along with her ration book.  The nation went mad for sugar and the Government had to put it back on rationing until supplies recovered.

It was in 1965, when I was in Afghanistan, recovering in Kabul from a serious case of hepatitis, enhanced with dysentery, that I understood sugar.   My liver was on strike and the doctors told me that I should eat lots of simple sugary food to keep my blood sugar levels up.   The dysentery told me otherwise: I knew from an early bout in Shiraz, that a diet of unleavened whole meal flat bread and unsweetened tea was the key to stopping the runs.   So I tried it again and the dysentery cleared up in 2 days.   Amazingly, so did the hepatitis.  My liver stopped throbbing with pain and the whites of my eyeballs went from greenish yellow to something close to white.

That autumn, back in Philadelphia, I adopted the macrobiotic diet which forbids sugar.  My health rose to an even higher level and I haven't once needed to see a doctor since about my health.  After a few years I was able to reintroduce alcohol into my diet but tried to keep a lid on sugar.

In 1966 I was in London, aiming to open a macrobiotic restaurant and study centre. From December, I was a regular at the UFO Club, where proto-hippies would listen to the Pink Floyd and then buy macrobiotic food that my mother had helped me make.  My little band of macrobiotic missionaries would then explain to people trying this strange food that brown rice was good for you and sugar should be avoided.  I opened a little basement restaurant in Notting Hill in February 1967.  Yoko Ono was one of our first customers, as she knew about macrobiotics from Japan.

We made bread without yeast, macrobiotic-style and I imported books like Zen Macrobiotics by Georges Ohsawa (Nyoiti Sakurozawa) that were sold in Indica Books, the bookshop owned by Paul McCartney and Barry Miles.

Macrobiotics avoided yeast for the same reason they avoided sugar: too much could cause dysbiosis of the gut flora.  Meanwhile the American Medical Association called macrobiotics a diet that 'could lead to death'

Dr. Arnold Bender, Britain's top nutritionist, said white bread was the most easily digestible and nutritious bread you could eat, slapping down the wholemeal alternative as too slow to digest and with lower nutrients, because wheat bran fibre has no protein and carbohydrate.

In 1968 I had to leave Britain and my brother Gregory opened a larger restaurant in Bayswater called Seed.

None of the desserts were made with sugar - a touch of salt was enough to bring out the sweetness of the apples in the crumbles.  At festivals like Glastonbury and Phun City we would serve up porridge to the festival goers and got into trouble at one festival as our customers would head off to an adjoining catering tent to get sugar to sprinkle on their porridge and muesli.  We had a shop on the Portobello Road called Ceres Grain Shop that sold all the whole grains, beans, seeds and organic vegetables but the only sweet thing we sold was Aspall organic apple juice.

I wrote a book called About Macrobiotics in 1972 that was translated into 6 languages and sold half a million copies where I wrote: "If sugar was discovered yesterday it would be banned immediately and handed over to the Army for weapons research."

We were hard core.  My kids didn't dare even ask for sweets - they might sneak them with friends at school but would destroy the evidence before they got home.

We didn't believe in refined cereals either - no white flour or white rice touched our lips.  Our macrobiotic food wholesaling company Harmony Foods introduced the first organic wholegrain rice.   In 1973, with other pioneering natural food companies we wrote the manifesto of the Natural Foods Union.  We promised each other not to sell sugar or any products containing sugar or white flour or white rice.  We were committed to developing organic food sources which were then rare.  Signatories included Community Foods, our own Harmony Foods and Ceres Grain Shop, Haelan Centre, Infinity Foods, Harvest of Bath, Anjuna of Cambridge and On The Eighth Day in Manchester.

We published a magazine called 'Seed - The Journal of Organic Living' that had cover stories with headlines like "Garbage Grub - How The Poor Starve on Rich Foods" and a story on Britain's future which set out a dystopian vs Utopian vision where on one side people were clamouring for 24 Hour TV and More Sugar.  On the other they were tending goats and living in countryside communes eating whole natural foods.

Then in 1977 I worked out how to make jam using apple juice.  Being higher in fructose it was possible to make a jam with a lot less sweetening, so it tasted light and fruity.  They were 38% sugars from fruit when other jams were 65% sugars from sugar cane and fruit.  Whole Earth jams were an international success as they reached out to the increasing numbers of sugar avoiders in the UK, Europe and North America.

However our sales met stiff competition from much sweeter jams that used fruit juices like grape juice that were higher in glucose than white sugar and they used a lot of it, to match the sweetness of regular jam.  Our moral restraint cost us sales to these much more sugary jams.   However we also used apple juice to sweeten other products, marketing baked beans, soft drinks and salad dressings.  Even our best selling Whole Earth peanut butter contained a touch of concentrated apple juice to make it taste more mainstream.

Then, while searching for another source of organic peanuts I connected with Ewé tribal people in Togo, West Africa, who grew delicious peanuts as part of an organic crop rotation.  Unfortunately the peanuts failed our aflatoxin tests but the farmers also grew organic cocoa beans.  There was no organic chocolate on the market at that time so I got a sample made up of 70% solids chocolate made with organic cocoa beans.

We called it Green & Black's and launched it in September 1991. It was the first time I had sold a product containing real sugar from sugar cane.  It was the first organic and the first 70% and the first chocolate with a transparent supply chain.   So we put a sugar warning on the label – I think this is the only time that any company has done this. It read:  “Please Note:  This chocolate contains 29% brown sugar, processed without chemical refining agents. Ample evidence exists that consumption of sugar can increase the likelihood of tooth decay, obesity and obesity-related health problems.  If you enjoy good chocolate, make sure you keep your sugar intake as low as possible by always choosing Green & Black’s.”

How did I square this with my conscience?  Well, a French author called Michel Montignac had written a best-selling book called 'Dine Out and Lose Weight' that was one of the first places the idea of glycemic index had been in print.  In his book 70% dark chocolate had a ranking of 22 on a scale where sugar was 100.  Brown rice was at 50 and carrots at 70.  Fructose was at a mere 20.

Two of our best Whole Earth foods customers, Community Foods and Planet Organic, flat out refused to stock Green & Black’s because it contained sugar.  Tim Powell at Community said: "Craig, you were the one who got us all to not sell sugar back in the day - we can't stock this."  (they came around eventually)

I mentioned earlier that apple juice was higher in fructose.  The crystals of fructose and glucose, the two monosaccharides that make up a sugar molecule (sucrose), have exactly the same chemical formula: C6H12O6.  So what's the difference between glucose and fructose?

  1. If you beam a light into the glucose molecule it bends slightly to the right. If you beam a light into a fructose molecule it bends slightly to the left.
  2. If you put a given amount on your tongue the fructose will taste more than twice as sweet as the glucose
  3. If you eat the glucose it raises your blood sugar within 20 minutes. If you eat the fructose it has almost no impact on blood sugar.

If you eat a given amount of sugar the glucose half hits your bloodstream, the fructose half passes down your digestion and is eventually turned into glycogen or into fatty acids.  These provide an energy source that is managed by the body rather than just absorbed in the way that glucose is.  So Lucozade, a glucose drink, was marketed on the premise that ALL the sugar - because it was glucose - got through to you immediately and that this would 'speed recovery.'  It was a deluded proposition, but it captured the fact that you got twice as many sugar bangs for your bucks.

If you have apple juice, there is more fructose than glucose or sucrose, so you don't get the same 'hit' as a lot of the sugar takes a different metabolic pathway.  Corn syrup is about 80% glucose.  Because glucose isn't very sweet on the palate, you have to use a lot more of it to get to the same level of perceived sweetness.  This increases the load of glucose to satisfy the taste for sweetness, with a resulting harsh impact on the blood sugar level.    'High fructose corn syrup' has a higher level of fructose, between 45 and 55%, so it is used in industry because it has nearly the same glucose/fructose balance as white sugar.  It's healthier than ordinary corn syrup, as measured by blood glucose impact.

If you really want to get all the glucose right away then it's best to drink it on an empty stomach.  All sugars are not absorbed equally.  If you eat dessert before you eat a meal the sugar will get into your system very quickly.  If you eat dessert after a meal then it has to work its way through the previously ingested food and has a longer exposure time to your digestive bacteria. The higher the fibre content of your meal, the longer it takes for the sugar to be absorbed.   There are some fibres that are particularly good at delaying the impact of sugar.  One of these is psyllium seeds.  Not only do they delay sugar absorption by up to an hour or so, they also bulk up, by absorbing water, your intestinal contents, helping regular passage of food.  Glucomannan also has this property as does oat bran.  Wheat bran doesn't absorb water to the same degree, but it absorbs sugar and delays its release in digestion.  The longer it takes for sugar to be absorbed, the less impact it has on blood glucose level.

There are also foods that help with insulin production and that reduce insulin resistance, thanks to the presence of  chromium.  Chromium-rich foods include black pepper, broccoli, bran, brown rice, lettuce and green beans.  The leaves of the white mulberry are considered particularly effective at delaying sugar absorption,  containing a component called reductase.

There are also co-factors that accelerate the rate at which your body metabolises sugar or that challenge your natural regulatory mechanisms.  These can increase the likelihood of a blood sugar drop, known as hypoglycemia, the symptoms of which are fatigue, depression and a craving for more sugar.

These co-factors include:

Coffee and, to a lesser extent, other caffeine stimulants like tea,  maté, cola, guarana and cocoa.  They will increase the rate at which the brain burns sugar.   Small wonder then that when you purchase a cup of coffee there is always an extensive display of white flour and sugar sweetened products to tempt you.  Your body knows it's going to be short of sugar after you drink the caffeine, so you instinctively go for the antidote to have on hand as you consume the stimulant.

The liver is the main organ, along with the pancreas, that regulates your blood sugar level.  As blood flows through the liver its glucose level is measured and, if it needs topping up, the liver dips into its store of glycogen, converts it to sugar and drip feeds it into the blood.

Alcohol  When you drink alcohol the liver prioritises dealing with what it perceives as a poison and puts dealing with blood sugar on the back burner.   The pancreas also finds it harder to produce insulin and regulate insulin levels when it also has to deal with the presence of alcohol.

Dope is another culprit.  When you smoke marijuana it increases the blood level in the brain by an estimated 40 millilitres.  This increases the amount of sugar available for the brain to burn and this heightened mental activity is part of what is called being 'high.'   However this increased usage of sugar makes it harder for the liver to keep up and the resulting drop in blood sugar is the symptom known to dope smokers as 'the munchies' - an irresistible craving for sweet foods.

Glyphosate or ‘Roundup’  - research has shown that ultra low doses of Roundup consumed over time leads to fatty liver disease.  Fatty liver doesn’t function very well and therefore makes it harder for the blood to maintain the right glucose levels.  Farmers spray Roundup at the end of wheat harvest to kill off the wheat plants.  When the plants realise they are dying, they frantically make as many babies as possible, i.e. wheat grains.  This is reflected in an increased harvest quantity, but ensures that every loaf of non-organic bread or other flour product contains a low dose of Roundup residue.

Antibiotics also can lead to powerful cravings for sugar.   If antibiotics are ingested, they don't just target the disease bacteria they are taken to cure.  They wipe out the beneficial microbes that are our healthy population of gut flora.  That's why it's advisable to consume yogurt or sauerkraut or other foods rich in lactobacilli to replace these important microorganisms.  It's also a good idea to eat foods rich in fibre to help the equally important bifidobacteria which are a pivotal part of the immune system in the large intestine.  A small population of these and other beneficial bacteria are always present in your appendix.  The appendix is the body's equivalent of a survivalist's food store, a place, at the junction of the small and large intestine, where, once the antibiotics are finished, the intestines can be repopulated.  Antibiotics can not kill off the tiny population of yeasts that are a part of the wider bacterial community of the gut.  But once the dominant lactobacilli and bifidobacteria are out of the way, yeasts quickly mutate into a fungal form, candida, a sticky white slime that imbeds itself firmly in the walls of the intestines.

There is an established communication between the gut and the brain and this is a vital part of our food choices, what smells nice, how hungry we feel and also what antibodies the gut flora need to produce to combat pathogens - what we call our immune system.  When candida gets a grip, like a Russian hacker taking over the CIA,  it  takes over the communication channel and sends a message to the brain demanding more sugar.  The more of these foods it gets, the more powerful it becomes and the more successfully it outcompetes the beneficial microbes that are trying to repopulate the gut after the antibiotic A-bomb has exploded.  Getting rid of candida is not easy, but there are ways to do it:

  1. Saccharomyces - these little microbes compete effectively with candida for sugar, thereby holding back the growth of candida and starving them out. They come in capsule form
  2. L-glutamine - this also attacks candida. Also in capsules
  3. Fasting - I often say that 'breakfast is the most important meal of the day…to skip.' This is because by the time you wake up in the morning the liver's reserves of glycogen are low and it's time to convert fat into glucose to keep the blood sugar level up.  This keeps sugar away from the gut and the candida, which then die off.  If you eat a carbohydrate-rich breakfast, perhaps with a glass of fruit juice, the sugars keep the candida topped up and maintaining or expanding their population, perhaps even migrating to other parts of the body such as the vagina or skin.  Starve them out by fasting for 17 hours a day.
  4. Colonic irrigation - pumping water into the large intestine and then pulling it back out removes a lot of candida.
  5. Lactobacillli - probiotics. Eating foods rich in lactic acid and consuming spores of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria helps to create ideal conditions for repopulating your beneficial gut microbes that compete with candida
  6. Inulin - this is a molecule that is made of a long string of fructose molecules strung tightly together. It is indigestible and counts as fibre but when it gets to the large intestine the wonderfully beneficial bifidobacteria feast on it and increase their numbers by the billions.

Good food sources of inulin include whole grain wheat and rye, shallots, onions, leeks, chicory root and the white part of chicory leaves and Jerusalem artichokes.  These are all valuable nutrition for the gut microbes.  Inulin powder, extracted from chicory roots, is a concentrated source.

Candida puts pressure on you to consume the sugar it needs and urges your brain to crave refined flour products, dairy, wine, beer and sugar.  It's not just antibiotics that give candida its supremacy in the gut, it also benefits from hormone replacement therapy, the birth control pill, steroids and hydrogenated fat.

Vinegar also plays a role in sugar metabolism.  Nobody’s quite sure why, but if you take 2 tablespoons of vinegar before a meal the increase in blood glucose later is 34% lower than if you don’t take vinegar.  That’s a big difference as it keeps the level at a level less likely to be stressful.

Lactate

The brain consumes glucose as the energy source that enables neurons to fire.  It's the 'carb' or 'carbon' in 'carbohydrate' that is the energy source.  Oxygen feeds the fire of carbon in the body, which is why we breathe.  So we are like a coal fire, burning carbon to keep ourselves warm and to enable our brains and bodies to function well.  However,  lactate is another rich source of carbon for the brain.  If there is lactate in the blood then the neurons in the brain will preferentially coat themselves in it rather than with glucose.  It's as if lactate is like gas fuel for the brain, glucose more like coal or wood.  Where do we get lactate?

  1. When our digestive system has a healthy population of lactobacilli they will compete with candida and other microbes that are eating starch or sugar and a by-product is lactate
  2. When we walk, run, jump or dance or do any exercise our muscles burn glucose and give off lactate.

At some point in evolution our brains evolved to function best on the super fuel of lactate in preference to glucose.  Glucose for the body, lactate for the brain.

So exercise is really important as it provides a better quality of energy for the brain  - lactate also delays brain ageing and neurodegeneration.  The heart and liver use it, too. Insulin function works much better too if there has been exercise and lactate production.  This is why exercise is increasingly being used as a cure for pre-diabetic conditions and for curing Type 2 diabetes in many cases.

Plato wrote: 'I fast for greater physical and mental efficiency'.  Kellogg's say 'Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."  Who to trust on this?  Everyone has a different metabolism, but they all have the power to change bad habits.

Metabolic Syndrome is the name for the multi-symptom disease that is typical of modern sedentary people.

It's also known as 'Sitting Disease.'  If a person gets up in the morning, sits down for breakfast, then sits in a car or on a train or bus, then sits at a desk or an assembly line and then sits down to return home to sit down to eat a meal and then sits watching television or enjoying social media they lay the foundations for Metabolic Syndrome

Contributing factors are

  1. Inactivity/laziness (Both cause and effect but a natural human condition)
  2. Overeating - large food portions of food low in nutrients
  3. Stress
  4. Pesticides - these have a hormonal effect as well as being mildly toxic
  5. Processed denatured food that is low in fibre
  6. Hydrogenated fat - harms the circulatory system, reducing blood flow
  7. Sugar and refined cereal such as white bread and low fibre breakfast cereals
  8. Television, electronic games and sitting at computers.

So what's the answer?

Our Government has one solution for everything:  Tax it.

A tax on soft drinks will have little impact as the appetite for sugar is not responsive to pricing.  If your candida want sugar or you are on a cycle of high and low blood sugar you don't give a damn what the cost is of a soft drink.  It's the cheapest form of sugar already and a tax won't make a difference.  You get more sugar in a chocolate brownie than in a can of Coke and a brownie costs at least 3 times as much.   The best selling soft drink in Britain is Red Bull.  It costs double the cost of Coke and has just as much sugar.

A tax will help in one way though: The Government currently subsidises sugar beet farming and sugar production to the tune of £250 million per annum.  A sugar tax will raise an estimated £400 million.  So the soft drinks tax will neatly subsidise the taxpayers money that goes to sugar producers.  How smart is that?

There is a far more intelligent alternative.  Researchers studied a group of 46,000 people in a Japanese city who were over 48 years old.  They measured their blood sugar, blood pressure, lung function and other measures of health and then recommended actions to rectify any problems before they became serious diseases.  Not all of them complied, but enough did to make a difference.  They became ill less often and therefore cost the health system less.  The estimated average saving came to £200 per person per year.

In the UK, with 26 million people over the age of 48, that would be a saving to the NHS of  £5.2 billion every year.   Why don't doctors and pharmaceutical companies recommend it?  Why don't wine makers discourage wine drinking?  Why don't car makers urge walking instead of driving?  No business likes to lose its customers, even the caring professions.

In 2011 the Soil Association applied for and won a £17 million National Lottery grant to initiate its Food For Life project.  It was a huge success, with schools coming in at Bronze entry level and working up to Gold, where they offer a significant proportion of school meals that are organic, locally sourced and freshly prepared on the premises.  There are now 2 million school dinners a day served under the Food For Life Programme.  A lot of those schools have stopped serving desserts on some days a week.  These kids perform better and learn something really important: you are what you eat.

Those kids will fare better in life, but we have a couple of generations who got the worst of crap food, hydrogenated fat (recommended by doctors), exposure to lead and pesticides and other environmental toxins. They are the ones who need help.  Diabetes levels are already dropping in the Western world as more people eat more wholesome food and exercise a lot more, but there is still work to be done.  A soft drinks tax is pathetic when you consider what the government could be doing to support healthier lifestyles

Change begins with the individual and it's about education.  If people are junk food junkies they will always find junk food. Trying to reform the food industry, which is responding to demand that arises from a multiplicity of causes, is to fight the wrong battle.  If we change demand then supply will follow.

The new science of epigenetics informs us that acquired characteristics can be inherited.  The unhealthy acquired characteristics of previous generations has been one factor in the increase in autism, birth defects, hereditary diabetes and other diseases, food allergies and other developmental problems.  But we need not despair, this is already being turned around and future generations can look forward to even better food produced in a cleaner environment to make healthier happier people, whose babies will be even healthier and happier.  We know more now about these factors than we ever did before, so we have the power to evolve positively.

To create real change in the world sometimes you have to compromise

Last week four Soil Association trustees resigned from the charity accusing it of lacking conviction on organic. But to create real change you sometimes just have to compromise, says Craig Sams

In 1946 two pioneering women, Eve Balfour and Dr. Innes Pearce, founded the Soil Association. Eve was a farmer who developed organic principles by creating healthy soil on her farm in Essex. Dr. Innes Pearce ran the Peckham Project in one of London’s most deprived neighbourhoods and showed that good nutrition led to healthier families, better academic achievement by kids and fewer men deserting their wives. The Soil Association’s founding principle was that a healthy diet, supported by nutrient-rich organic food, would change the world for the better.

In 1966, the doctors, dentists, nutritionists and veterinarians who were members felt the Soil Association had become too farmer-oriented and resigned to set up the McCarrison Society, named after Sir Robert McCarrison, whose 1926 book on nutrition and health inspired both Balfour and Innes Pearce. This was a sad moment as it marked the divorce between the advocates of healthy soil and the advocates of healthy eating. A year later we founded our macrobiotic business Yin Yang Ltd (to become Harmony Foods and later Whole Earth) which brought together, at a commercial level, organic food and healthy eating.

Happily the Soil Association has rediscovered its roots. At a conference in 2002 titled ‘Education, Education, Education’ I gave the keynote speech that highlighted the few examples at the time of how better school food could improve kids’ behaviour and academic performance. Then the Soil Association, with Garden Organic, Focus on Food and the Health Education Trust got a £17 million Lottery grant to make it happen.

The grant money was well spent. Not only have over 4500 Schools enrolled with the project, and started to teach children to cook and grow and also taken them to visit farms, but the Soil Association Catering Mark has been developed too.This starts with the Bronze standard (75% freshly prepared, no GMOs, no hydrogenated fat, free range produce). Then they graduate to the Silver standard (a proportion of organic, a larger proportion of locally sourced, Fairtrade, MSC, LEAF). Then they go for Gold which takes it to even higher levels. The migration is only ever one way, from Bronze to Gold and the impact on organic suppliers is spectacular. The Gold holders are now asking the Soil Association for a Platinum category. More important is that schoolkids become aware of organic food, go home and challenge their parents. 950,000 school meals a day  are served with the Catering Mark and it’s now also improving food served in nurseries, hospitals, care homes, offices and industrial canteens. By this time next year there will be 2 million school meals a day served to the Catering Mark standard – half of all schoolkids in the UK. This all sounds pretty good to me and if Dr Innes Pearce were alive she would be punching the air with triumphant joy that her dream back in the 1930s and 1940s was finally being realised. And this is just the beginning. The Catering Mark is the fastest-growing activity of Soil Association Certification and is sucking in more and more organic food as the biggest national foodservice companies get behind it.

“We compromised on organic, we compromised on sugar-like sweeteners, we compromised on restaurant food (where organic regulations don’t apply). We never compromised on GMOs. We are winning because we were pragmatic. And how we’re winning!”

But concern about the Catering Mark is the main reason why four trustees resigned from the Soil Association Council at the beginning of December. They felt it was an ethical sell-out to allow non-organic food in meals that bore Soil Association approval. They were unhappy that the standards permitted organic food that was frozen or canned, as this was not ‘fresh’ even if it was ‘freshly prepared’

I got into the world of organic food from the standpoint of the macrobiotic diet. We ate natural and wholegrain and organic whenever possible, which wasn’t often in 1967. But we mapped out a route that helped us get to where we are today. The reason the marvellous macrobiotic diet that has been the mainstay of my health and happiness for five decades never went mainstream was because it got hijacked by people who were rigid and restrictive. The macrobiotic guru and author of Zen Macrobiotics, Georges Ohsawa, was horrified to see this and just before he died he tried to correct this by writing that, thanks to macrobiotics he could enjoy whisky, chocolate and other taboo foods, as long as he did it in moderation. We compromised on organic, we compromised on sugar-like sweeteners, we compromised on restaurant food (where organic regulations don’t apply). We never compromised on GMOs. We are winning because we were pragmatic. And how we’re winning! The tide is turning. Finally clinicians are recognising that food is medicine and the Hospital Food Standards Committee have recommended Catering Mark as a scheme that can improve hospital food.

You might have missed it, but School Meals Week was in early November. The Minister of State for Education, David Laws MP, praised the Soil Association’s Food for Life Catering Mark, commending it as a scheme that allows school leaders to choose caterers who are committed to providing school children with high quality, nutritious food. He said: “My message is: ‘Quality really matters’. This is our challenge for 2015. I would like to see all schools and their caterers holding – or working hard towards – a quality award like the excellent Catering Mark.” The evidence is compelling – kids at Catering Mark schools have better attendance rates, better academic performance and better understanding of food and nutrition, the key to avoiding obesity.

The three journalists and a baker who resigned from the Soil Association cited the Catering Mark as the main example of how the Soil Association has lost its way. If that’s what losing its way looks like then perhaps the Soil Association should ‘lose its way’ more often.

Let's Have a Nation of Shopkeepers

The other day I was thumbing through Pigot’s 1839 Directory of Sussex (as one does) when I found that in Hastings Old Town there were once 5 operating bakeries on High Street and 8 on neighbouring All Saints Street. Now only Judges Bakery our new enterprise, survives. The rest of the bread comes from factories and supermarkets. While I don’t lament the absence of competition it does seem sad that where there were once a baker’s dozen of jolly bakers, there is now just one. Those bakers were jolly because they were part of what Adam Smith and later Napoleon described as a ‘nation of shopkeepers.’ Why England in particular? Is it something to do with the individualistic and freedom-loving temperament of this culture? Or is it a natural human instinct to favour things local, fresh, privately-owned and directly answerable? Shumacher argued eloquently in ‘Small is Beautiful’ that this was so.

In early February I went to Syria to accompany a Soil Association inspector on a visit to an olive oil supplier. On the way back I did a bit of tourism and wandered for a day through the vast labyrinthine souks of Damascus. I found a bakery every few hundred yards, bakers and ovens in full view, churning out freshly-baked large flat breads seemingly endlessly. There were no supermarkets to be seen, anywhere. Thanks to the fertile oasis in which it sits and the mild climate, most of the produce is local and fresh. Specialist shops selling pickled vegetables, fish, meat, wooden utensils, household utensils, hardware, clothes, spices, sweets, pastries, preserved fruit, carpets, and all your other needs thrived amidst a total absence of department stores.

How did this small shopkeepers’ paradise survive in Syria when it the once-proud high street has suffered so much in Britain from centralised production, distribution and retailing? What difference does it make, anyway?

Jeffersonian democracy asserts that government should be small, military spending and taxes low and that small landowner or tradesperson should rule supreme. “40 acres and a mule” was given to liberated slaves in South Carolina to ensure they had the economic basis for a truly free future; Margaret Thatcher sought to create a ‘property-owning democracy’ by privatising state-owned industries and encouraging home ownership; the US Homestead Act of 1862 tempted people like my great grandparents with the offer of land ownership free to those who would work the land.

People with an economic stake in society such as the owners of a business are empowered, they can think what they like and say what they like and do what they like without fear of losing their income. They are answerable to nobody except their customers and as long as they provide what their customers want they can prosper. They are, in a word, free.

As corporations merge and acquire, as giant retailers systematically destroy the independent retail sector and as government’s share of the economy relentlessly increases, what are the implications for our freedom? A lot of people blame Tony Blair for being arrogant, taking a reluctant nation to war on false pretexts and running this country like a private fiefdom. But why not? If you could get away with it, you’d do it, too, if you were Prime Minister. The weakness of Parliament reflects the disempowerment of the people that is the result of the loss of individual freedom that comes from losing ownership and control of one’s own life.

But the appetite for freedom is there. Private equity capital encourages more and more managers to borrow and buy their businesses and there is a trend towards breaking up unwieldy corporations that is far more sophisticated than the ‘asset-stripping’ of yesteryear. The natural foods retail sector shows that it is possible for a small retailer of food to enjoy vibrant growth. The big stores face a challenge as rising oil prices make their whole business model look increasingly shaky, dependent as they are on car travel and long distance distribution. Big farmers are terminally dependent on subsidies already - with agrichemical prices and distribution costs soaring, fragmentation of big holdings is inevitable. Cheap oil enabled the pendulum to swing too far to the remote, unanswerable and huge. The pendulum is swinging back and gathering momentum. Can we anticipate that the erosion of human rights and democratic freedoms will also start to go the other way?

Subsidised Theft

In 2005, the US government paid $180 billion in direct and indirect subsidies to American farmers.

MY GREAT-GREAT-grandfather Lars Dugstad emigrated to America from Norway in 1842. He lived in a dug-out cave for fifteen years while he cleared eighty acres of virgin Koshkonong Prairie land in Wisconsin. His was the typical pioneer experience.

His son Ole, my great-grandfather, went to Nebraska in 1887 and broke the prairie sod on 160 acres of land in Dakota County. Ole’s son Lewis, my grandfather, farmed it until I was born there in 1944. Lewis’ only son, my Uncle Floyd, sold it and went on to become one of the first beef feedlot operators on the farm he bought across the Missouri River in Iowa.

Floyd offered me 625 acres in 1966, but I didn’t like the idea of sticking diethylstilbestrol hormones behind the ears of cattle, and I made the fateful decision to come to London instead and open a macrobiotic restaurant. That led on to a career in the retail, manufacturing and marketing of organic foods that included Whole Earth Foods and Green & Black’s chocolate, and also my work with the Soil Association.

Uncle Floyd’s son now farms those 625 acres as part of an expanded total of 1,600 acres – all farmed with just one assistant. Last year he lost $40,000 on sales of $300,000 but ended up with a net farm income of $110,000, thanks to a hefty $150,000 subsidy from the US government.

So from Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a rural democracy, where every self- sufficient and prosperous family had a small farm or business, we have reached – in three generations – a corporate state where a viable family farmer needs 1,600 acres, a lot of machinery and GM crops and still operates at a huge annual loss that has to be made up by subsidies.

In 1944 Charles Erwin Wilson, President of General Motors and Director of the War Production Board, called for a Permanent War Economy to prevent a post-war return to the Great Depression. The Permanent War Economy, in giving birth to the military-industrial complex, also gave birth to the military-agricultural complex. Both operated on the same principle – if the free market wouldn’t take everything that was produced, the government would take up the slack, keeping the economy humming. The same companies that made tanks for the war could make tractors and pick-up trucks; the same companies that made nitroglycerine explosives could make nitrogen fertilisers.

The problem was that farmers weren’t up for it. Either a command economy or false economic signals were needed to force them to industrialise and adopt chemical inputs.

In the UK, the Soil Association was lobbying hard for a sustainable post-war agriculture based around rural communities and the avoidance of chemical fertilisers. ICI lobbied hard for increased nitrate use and eventually, with the Agriculture Act of 1947, ICI won the argument and the British government fell in line with the policy of its European and US counterparts by introducing a direct cash subsidy of ten shillings on every bag of nitrate fertiliser.

This subsidy made all the difference to farm economics: once nitrates were in use weeds thrived on the extra nutrients and created a market for herbicides, fungal infections proliferated on the densely packed plants and created a market for fungicides, and the elimination of fertility-building rotations created a market for insecticides to deal with the inevitable build-up of pest populations. CO2 emissions from the soil escalated, as soil structure and carbon-rich humus collapsed under the onslaught of chemical fertilisers.

Subsidies set land prices and farm incomes from then on. Agriculture had, in effect, been nationalised and was part of the Permanent War Economy that has been the economic model of the West and of Russia ever since. From the start, US farmers saw what was coming and formed leagues in which they all faithfully promised each other never to accept subsidies. But once some farmers took the subsidy, they could sell their crops more cheaply; the rest had to follow suit if they were to be competitive. The inherent bias of government policy towards larger producers led to the steady extinction of small farms.

The same thing happened in industry. The US Government pays out $167 billion a year to support the US’s largest corporations. In 1950, 25% of US tax income came from corporations. That figure is now 10%.

In 2005 the US government paid out more than $30 billion in direct payments to US farmers and an estimated further $150 billion in indirect subsidies including tax breaks on fuel and equipment, tariffs, protective pricing, drought loss payments and purchasing surpluses.

The biggest recipients of this support are the largest corporate farmers and commodity giants like Cargill and ADM (Archer Daniels Midland), agrichemical and seed suppliers like Monsanto and Dupont, and huge corporations such as the Fanjul family’s Florida Crystals sugar empire and meat producers Tyson and Smithfield.

The real damage from this subsidy policy is not just the financial cost to the US economy, though the numbers are significant. The real cost is to the health of the global economy, to the stability of our climate and to human health.

THE COST TO THE health of the American people has been spelt out by such authorities as the Harvard School of Public Health. The fast-food industry has contributed directly to the epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis. These degenerative diseases threaten the future capacity of Western economies to finance health care. If subsidies on corn and soybeans alone were removed, the cost of a cheap hamburger would be forced up from $1 to $3. This would directly affect rates of junk food consumption. If the subsidised rangeland that supports the production of cheap calves were charged at a market price and if the externalised costs of the beef industry such as unsustainable levels of water pollution, environmental degradation and greenhouse-gas production were taken into account, the same hamburger would cost closer to $5 or $6. At this level hamburger consumption would be reduced to the healthier levels that public health authorities urgently recommend. The cost of obesity to the US is estimated at $117 billion just in lost work days and in additional health-care costs, a high price to pay for unfeasibly cheap burgers.

But the real harm of the subsidy system is to the global economy. So, the question is: How do US subsidies cause world poverty?

US farmers grow maize at a cost of 6¢ per pound. A Mexican farmer can grow maize at a cost of 4¢ per pound. So you would think that Mexico would export corn to the US – and at the very least would dominate the US domestic market. But the world market price is set at 3¢ per pound on the Chicago Board of Trade on the basis of subsidised US farmers. If the Mexican farmers seek to make a profit over their cost of 4¢ per pound, grain traders around the world will import or, more importantly, threaten to import US corn in order to continue to purchase at a price of 3¢ per pound. In the cruel world of subsidised agriculture, the so-called inefficient Mexican farmers go out of business trying to compete with truly inefficient US farmers whose cost of production is really 6¢ per pound, but who have the mighty US taxpayer prepared to subsidise their farm-gate price down to 3¢ per pound. In recent years 100,000 Mexican farmers have been driven off the land, denied access to their domestic market by US imports. Real trade justice would be to either abolish the subsidies or allow farmers all around the world to get the same subsidies from Uncle Sam.

Subsidies in the US determine the commodity prices quoted on the Chicago Board of Trade, which are the benchmark for commodity prices worldwide. It is not the actual exports as much as the fact that a phoney price is the global standard that causes the damage.

Majority world farmers, if they were allowed to benefit from their greater efficiency, would prosper from both increased income and land values, their countries would prosper, and problems of disease, overpopulation and poverty would be greatly alleviated by the increased domestic and foreign income. We also know that, as family income increases, family size decreases: it’s the paradox of wealth but another good reason to liberate food prices in order to non-coercively stabilise global population growth.

So can we quantify the actual cost of subsidies to the world economy?

A simple calculation can be made on the basis of the US and EU current subsidy levels. James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, sets the total annual subsidy spend at $350 billion – nearly $1 billion a day. Subsidies now represent 50% of net farm income in the US and the EU.

This means that, if subsidies were not in place, US farmers would need to double their prices to make a living.

On the basis that the US and the EU represent one-sixth of the world’s food production, we can assume that, if commodity prices doubled worldwide, the increased income for the majority world would be $2.4 trillion per annum. Total foreign aid amounts to $50 billion, or just 2%, which is paid back to the victims of what amounts to global theft from farmers outside the industrial countries that benefit from the rigging of market prices.

However, because the producers of the majority world operate on lower cost bases, are more efficient and have a higher real productivity level, the price of agricultural commodities would probably not double, as market forces would come into play at this stage. US and EU production of cereals and oilseeds would fall dramatically if faced with global competition and a level playing field.

THERE IS ANOTHER factor. The price of oil is going up. It was $12 a barrel in 1998, George Bush came to power in 2000, and it has now touched $70 a barrel and shows little sign of falling. The increase in the price of natural gas has already led to the closure of half of North America’s fertiliser manufacturing capacity in the past four years.

Demand for our diminishing reserves of natural gas for domestic heating and cooking or as motor fuel will ensure that natural gas, which generates tax income, will always be, as a priority, used in those applications where it can bear the extra cost of being taxed. This does not include fertiliser manufacture, where it is already too expensive. People are prepared to pay a 300% tax on petrol and diesel for their cars, because consumers put a high value on personal transportation. When similar taxes are imposed on bunker oil, aviation fuel, heating oil, natural gas and power generation, people’s subsequent choices will reflect the real cost of fossil fuels.

Growing food needs energy. To produce a calorie of food using fossil-fuel-dependent industrial farming takes fifteen calories of energy input. To produce a calorie of food organically still uses five calories of energy input. A gardener with a hoe uses one calorie to produce twenty calories of food. Organic farmers are closest to optimising energy use with productivity, and since their only fossil-fuel use is in running tractors and equipment, they will have the economic advantage as energy prices increase. When the oil price reaches $100 per barrel farmers will no longer be able to justify the use of inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides. On a global scale, the farmer who is ‘carbon-frugal’ is due for big rewards.

Carbon isn’t the only greenhouse gas we get from agriculture. Intensive cattle-rearing also leads to increased methane emissions. Feeding a cow on corn and soybeans leads to an acid rumen, incomplete digestion, and methane emissions several times more than from a cow fed on grass and hay. When you consider that the combined weight of cattle on this planet exceeds that of human beings, that’s a lot of gas. The widespread use of nitrogen fertilisers is the main source of atmospheric nitrous oxide, a gas that is nearly 300 times more warming in its effects than CO2.

As the price of oil-based inputs rises, farming on a small scale will become more attractive. Hobby farming, where farmers have other sources of income but use their farmland to augment that income, will expand. We will see more diversity in the countryside, and more vibrant local economies.

This article is based on the Martin

Radcliffe Lecture 2006. www.brookes.ac.uk/public_lectures

PREVENTION vs CURE - IN FARMING AS IN FOOD for BANT

Untitled
Untitled

The story of my beginnings goes back to 1965 when I first got into the macrobiotic diet.   I had been travelling in Afghanistan and India and amoebic dysentery led to hepatitis. I discovered that a diet of unleavened wholemeal bread and unsweetened tea cured the dysentery and the hepatitis symptoms subsided. This was the beginning of my understanding of the importance of gut health to overall health. Back at university some friends introduced me to the macrobiotic diet and I adopted it enthusiastically

At the time it was radical and Reader's Digest ran a cover story calling it the 'Diet That's Killing our Kids' while the American Medical Association said it could lead to death. Which is pretty much true about any diet, the question is more about when than whether. Nowadays eating wholegrains, organic seasonal and local food, avoiding sugar and hydrogenated fat and artificial additives doesn't seem so weird but at the time it was revolutionary. So revolutionary that the FBI closed down the macrobiotic bookshop in NY and burned its books because they suggested that healthy diet could prevent cancer.

Seed
Seed

So, in 1967, my brother and I started Seed Restaurant, the legendary hip -and hippie - macrobiotic watering hole of the late 60s, where brown rice and organic vegetables formed the backbone of the menu.   We figured if the AMA and the FBI didn’t like it then it had to make sense.

lennon cartoon
lennon cartoon

John Lennon gave my brother Gregory a little cartoon in appreciation of our food and of Harmony, the magazine Gregory published.

Books
Books

I wrote a guide to macrobiotics called, imaginatively, About Macrobiotics, which was translated into 6 languages and sold nearly half a million copies.

More recently I wrote a guide to all issues surrounding food called The Little Food Book

When I wrote About Macrobiotics I just tried to simplify the complexities of Yin and Yang that made some earlier books on macrobiotics daunting and even impenetrable. It was well received for that reason.

We soon had Ceres - Britain's first natural foods store - on the Portobello Road. Then other budding retailers came to us for supplies, forming the customer base for Harmony Foods, which evolved into Whole Earth Foods.

Ceres interior
Ceres interior

Our business thrived on innovation. We were the first with organic brown rice and were known as The Brown Rice Barons because if you bought brown rice in the 70s it came from us.   We bought and milled or flaked all of the organic grains grown in this country and usually exhausted available stocks before the new crop came in. In our retail and wholesale business we only sold food, only wholefood, no sugar and not even honey and no vitamins or supplements. We were macrobiotic then and I continue to follow the diet, not religiously but almost passively. In other words I eat whatever I feel like, but mostly I feel like eating wholegrains and vegetables.   Occasionally I take zinc or Vitamin C when I feel a cold coming on, but otherwise don’t take supplements.

Whole Earth Peanut Butter label
Whole Earth Peanut Butter label

Eventually we pandered to market demand, with a successful brand of peanut butter that rose to take the number 2 position after Sun Pat in the UK market. I created the first range of fruit juice sweetened jams, using apple juice instead of sugar as a sweetener. We had created a market for sugar avoidance - and apple juice - if only for semantic reasons, satisfied it.

In my quest for organic peanuts for our peanut butter I came across a group of farmers in West Africa who also grew organic cacao and from that encounter Green & Black’s, the first ever organic chocolate, was born.

Green & Black's 1st bar
Green & Black's 1st bar

Needless to say, my kids, who had been brought up in a committed macrobiotic household, were somewhat dismayed to see their Dad going into the sugar business, but I consoled myself with the fact that 70% chocolate had a glycaemic index of only 22, less than half the GI of brown rice, and carried on developing the brand.

So what are the key aspects of macrobiotics?

You should eat wholegrains and vegetables as the basis of your diet.

ZEN MACROBIOTICS

You should always choose organic, seasonal and local

You should avoid yeast and sugar

You should avoid preservatives and other chemical food additives.

You should minimise meat and dairy

There are good nutritional reasons for all of the above, seasonal food is fresher, organic food doesn’t contain pesticide residues, wholegrains have more B vitamins than refined cereals and preservatives can give you cancer. But is there more to all of this? A nutritional therapist might feel that there is insufficient emphasis on maintaining a high intake of necessary nutrients and it’s true that in the early days a lot of macrobiotic followers looked rather wan and pasty-faced. They blamed it on expelling toxins but it was more like nutritional deficiency. Was it the fault of macrobiotics or was this part of a transition to better health?

One of the key facets of macrobiotics is that you don’t get sick. Prevention is everything and cures are fairly perfunctory.

One of the key facets of organic farming is that your plants and animals never get sick. Prevention is everything and cures are fairly perfunctory. In fact if you cure a problem with chemicals or drugs on an organic farm, whether with plants or livestock, you lose your organic status.

The Soil Association regularly has a debate about its name. Should we change it to The Organic Society or something similar?   We always decide to keep our rather unappealing name because we firmly believe that ‘The answer lies in the soil.” But we never ask the question: The answer to what?

I submit that it is the answer to the question: “What is the Meaning of Life?”

So how can the soil contain such a revelation?

A gramme of healthy soil contains over 10,000 different species of microbial life, you could say that it is a microbiotic jungle. Except that it is remarkably ordered, with bacteria, viruses, algae and protozoa living in a web of complex fungal growth. Worms play an important role as well.

We are always impressed at how well organised and efficient bees and ants are. But bees only have three variants – the queen, the worker and the drone. Ants are similar.

Yet the most efficiently organised system we know comprises 1o thousand life forms, all working in close tandem. They communicate with enzymes, chemicals and odors and probably electric charges. Research into this is in its infancy. At the heart of the system is the fungal mycelial network that feeds the other life forms, regulates their growth and variety.   In plant growth the most important are the mycorrhizal fungi, which are, to organic farmers the foundation of soil health and fertility.

These organisms predate plants by 100s of millions of years. If your parents predate you then you consider yourself their offspring. We trace our ancestry back to early primates, respecting and recognising their importance in creating what we are today, a recognition confirmed by genetics and DNA research. We respect and honour our ancestors, but soil is seen as something dirty and underfoot, barely worth of recognition. Are we missing the point of our existence?

Long ago, when the atmosphere contained a lot of carbon dioxide, life forms were anaerobic, they didn’t use oxygen in their life cycle.

CYANOBACTERIA

When the earliest microorganisms dwelt on this planet one group, the cyanobacteria developed the ability to convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, using sunlight, thereby opening up a new food source, thin air.

Once this ability emerged, it was harnessed by the existing network. The cyanobacterial ability to make carbohydrates out of carbon dioxide was captured and enclosed in cells called chloroplasts and we had the first green plants.

Plants are the means whereby a very well organised team of soil microorganisms can extract food from the air.   The mycelial network brings together the rest of the life in soil to support this food gathering mechanism and to extract its main benefit to them, which is sugar. These fungal webs can have eight miles of thin mycelium in a single cubic inch, stretching over miles underground, communicating with each other.

When you look at a tree or a blade of grass or a fern, you are looking at the food gathering and early stage digestion mechanism of a very clever bunch of invisible organisms. The plant works hard up there, busily converting carbon dioxide and sunlight and water into carbohydrates that it then feeds to its underground masters. It even knows who’s boss. It will only feed those mycorryzzal fungi that have the correct identity papers. They are good servants and only take orders from their master. When this happens the fungal lord inserts a tentacle or hypha into a subcutaneous layer of the plant root so that it can drink its sugar solution direct from the source. It needs to keep the plant going so it gathers phosphorus, nitrates and other minerals to ensure that the plant thrives and competes successfully with other plants. The mycorrhizal fungus lives for about 32 days, then as it decomposes it provides food for a network of other soil organisms that support it and that benefit from its demise. It generates a carbon-rich substance called glomalin, both proteins and carbohydrates, that is sticky and helps bind soil together in aggregates that give the soil structure and keep other soil carbon from escaping.

As the world’s atmosphere became filled with the excreta of these plants the level of oxygen increased.

It was now possible for new complex teams of soil biota to organise themselves to move about and capture plants. Animal life was discovered. In effect they invented airplanes and cars to increase their range and were able to capture from above the food of their underground brethren. With flying creatures and worms and eventually mammals, one thing was shared by all: a set of controlling microorganisms that guided every stage of the animal’s development, ensuring that it could gather food and reproduce.

These mobile plants used smell and vision to identify likely food sources and arms, legs, mandibles, and claws to gather it up.

So if we accept that the soil biota created and control plants, why is it so hard for our egos to accept that perhaps the reason for our existence is to perpetuate the dominion of a very clever collection of soil biota who created an internalised soil environment in the gut of living animals? Is it really that humbling? Consider Genesis 3:19

"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."

This dated from an era before the sky gods took over and mother earth took a back seat

Let’s take a closer look:

There are 200-600 million nerve cells in the gut - more than in spinal cord, what does this tell us about the importance of the gut to intelligence and consciousness? It appears to be linked to information storage, decision-making and joy and sadness.   The question is, who’s holding the reins? Is the control originating in the gut and determining our conscious decisions or do we make conscious decisions in our brains and then, for some reason, pass this information to the gut? A nerve is a 2 way street. No other part of the so called peripheral nervous system acts autonomously and locally. The Enteric Nervous System is called our ‘second brain.’ I submit that it could well be the Primary brain. After all, why does our gut need to tell our brain that it is regulating intestinal contractions, the release of digestive fluids and all the other activity in the gut? Our gut talks to itself and only bothers to communicate with our brain when it considers a message from the eyes, nose or palate about what food is out there. All the gut needs to tell our cerebral consciousness is if it feels pain, hunger or satiety. You don’t need half a billion nerve cells to do that.

There are 500 to 1000 bacterial species alone in the gut with 2 to 4 million genes, if you look at them as one microbiome they contain 100 times more genes than the human genome and represent 10 times the total number of human body cells.   They are overwhelmingly anaerobic, in other words they evolved in the absence of oxygen and like to keep it that way.

The gut biota make a huge difference to the development of capillaries in the intestinal villi, promoting host nutrition. When they are absent a breach in the gut wall can be fatal, when they are abundant a breach in the gut wall is harmless and doesn’t trigger inflammation.

So if soil biota and gut biota are related and our relationship to plants is derived from that ancient relationship what similarities are there between the way we produce our food, in soil and the way we prepare and digest our food, in our gut soil. Which the Chinese call ‘night soil.

So let’s look at a few examples and compare

In the 1840s, when Baron Justus von Liebig discovered that nitrates and phosphates were essential soil nutrients it engendered a revolution in agriculture. No longer did farmers have to faff around with fallow periods, fertility building cycles or any of the traditional ways of extracting a crop from the earth. Instead they could add chemicals. What happened?

First: The nitrates and phosphates short circuited the cycle whereby mycorrhizal fungi fed these minerals to plants in exchange for sugars.

Second: The mycorrhizal fungi died off, unable to compete with free food. As they died and decomposed, the soil structure collapsed and vast amounts of carbon were emitted. Even Justus von Liebig realised what a terrible mistake he’d made and 20 years after he started the chemical farming revolution he wrote: SLIDE LIEBIG

I have sinned against the Creator and, justly, I have been punished.

I wanted to improve His work because, in my blindness, I believed that a link in the astonishing chain of laws that govern and constantly renew life on the surface of the Earth had been forgotten.

It seemed to me that weak and insignificant man had to redress this oversight.

But it was too late, human greed was in full spate and the farmer who didn’t use chemicals had trouble competing on price as part of his yields were sacrificed to keep the soil biota happy, reducing overall yields and income. Nobody got paid for maintaining topsoil depth and quality.

Nearly one half of all the increase in carbon dioxide in today’s atmosphere since 1850 is the result of this folly. Global warming’s roots stretch back to his one big mistake that still haunts us.

Liebig spent his later years on a project to recycle London’s sewage for agricultural use but lost the argument to the great Victorian sewer builder Joseph Bazalgette, who made sure all London’s waste was carried out to the Thames Estuary.

If we are seeking parallels, what is the human equivalent of nitrates? Plants feed the soil biota with carbohydrates in the form of sugars in order to get minerals.   Animals feed on plants in order to get carbohydrates. Around the same time that nitrates were introduced into agriculture, sugar became a major factor in our diet, with equally deleterious effects.

Just as cheap nitrates killed off the web of soil life, so cheap sugar quickly pushed aside slower digestive and gut biota-based mechanisms to deliver glucose straight to the organism. Just like the poor old mycorrhizal fungi in the soil, the carbohydrate - producing digestive flora were outflanked and rendered redundant. Even more humiliating, the consumption of sugar led to rampant overgrowth of aggressive yeasts that caused all manner of upsets and the destruction of whole swathes of formerly stable gut biota. It also led to heart disease, diabetes, tooth decay, cancer and obesity. We don’t know what other quick fixes bypass the gut flora, but we should consider the impact on them when we consume vitamins or supplements that may displace some gut function and render it redundant, creating an ongoing dependency on supplementation.

Bread suffered as well. Roller mills made white flour as cheap as wholemeal and white bread replaced wholegrain breads, with resulting diverticulosis and, thanks to industrial yeast, candida.

Let’s compare 2 ways of making mankind’s principal food, wholemeal bread, the modern and the old fashioned .

Modern – Chorleywood Process – take wholemeal flour and ascorbic acid and sugar and 24 times as much yeast as you would use in a traditional bakery and whizz it in a high speed mixer for 20 minutes until the yeasts are agitated and in a feeding frenzy. Shape into loaves, dump into tins and as they bread goes into the travelling oven it is rising. Oh, add a little hydrogenated fat to give it structure so it doesn’t collapse when it comes out – just one hour after you’ve started. It was introduced in the 1960s, around the time that irritable bowel syndrome, gluten allergy, Crohn’s disease really began to become widespread issues. You could say that we just hadn’t realised those diseases existed before then, but for anyone who’s experienced IBS or had a reaction to gluten you know that’s pretty unlikely

Old Fashioned – Judges Bakery process. Germinate wheat and liquidise. Add to organic wholemeal flour, add kelp powder, sesame seeds, hemp nuts and flax seeds. Make up a dough and let stand overnight in linen lined baskets for 18 hours. The enzymes from the germinated wheat snip the long chain proteins of gluten into shorter, less clingy and tastier proteins and make maltodextrins slowly available for fermentation. The bran softens throughout the process with phytic acid breakdown of up to 90%. Lactic acid bacteria increase magnesium and phosphorus solubitility.

If you were a colony of gut flora, which bread would you prefer?

ROUNDWORMS EARTHWORMS

What about worms? Not only are worms common flatmates with gut flora and soil flora, many species can live freely in soil and also survive quite happily in the digestive system.

In the soil worms are the great grinders of all vegetable matter into fine particles. Charles Darwin wrote admiringly of their ability to pile up vast amounts of soil and raise its height.

The soil doesn’t have teeth, but we do. Chewing your food 50 times does much of the work that worms do in the soil. This is recommended by all macrobiotic dietitians from Christophe Hufeland (Goethe’s doctor) through to George Ohsawa, creator of the Japanese version known as Zen Macrobiotics. So what if we just puree our food? Doesn’t that do the same thing? What about if you puree food and then spit in it and leave it for a while, won’t the salivary enzymes do the job for us?

Research published in the Archives of Surgery showed that patients who had part of their colon removed passed gas and solids up to a day sooner if they chewed gum. The process of chewing stimulates nerves in the gut and hastens recovery. Now we have to ask what is stimulating those gut nerves, is it the chewing, or does chewing activate the gut flora, which then stimulate the gut nerves? When you chew the gut biota are getting a signal that food is on the way, so they become active in anticipation. This activity stimulates the nerves in the gut.

GUT WORMS

In the gut worms are seen as parasites, but they fulfil similar functions in the case of roundworms, of helping with the digestion of food, particularly when it has been poorly chewed. They also provide exudates that prevent auto immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and they are food for many fungi.

EARTHWORMS

In modern sterile soils worms are infrequent. I remember visiting Paul McCartney at his farm in Sussex, which is certified organic. He commented – ‘the Soil Association may say my land is organic but I don’t believe it really is until the soil is teeming with worms when the plough goes through.’   Could we consider the absence of worms as the pathology? When 80% of the world’s population are host to worms, can that be abnormal?

What about Gooey stuff – mucus and humus.

In the soil Glomalin is the product of the mycorrhizal fungi. It is sticky like glue and it binds together bits of sand and clay and organic matter into joined up granules called aggregates. These help to keep carbon in the soil instead of escaping into the atmosphere and they also help retain moisture. This creates ideal conditions for soil biota and a soil that is rich in glomalin has a high and stable population of bacteria, fungi and protozoan life.

What is the digestive equivalent of gooey stuff? It’s the mucus membrane, but how do we support it?

In macrobiotic medicine the cure for all tummy troubles is ume-kuzu. That’s a blend of kuzu arrowroot and pickled underripe plums that are rich in sodium sorbate, a natural yeast inhibitor. The yeasts get controlled and the kuzu provides a rich sticky matrix in which gut biota can flourish and rebuild their populations. Other sources of mucilaginous material are traditional remedies such as comfrey and aloe vera, both of which contain allantoin, which encourages cell proliferation. Chicken soup is a natural gel that also helps in this way.

If our gut biota came from the soil itself, then is soil good for you?

There are lots of examples of what is known as geophagia and not all of them relate to desperate hunger or psychological disturbance.

When we don’t have food, we can still feed our gut flora and they can still feed us. We don’t just eat clay to fill our bellies, it may not have nutritive value by analysis, but if it provides a medium where gut biota can proliferate. We can then get nutrition from them.

KWAN YIN

Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth describes how Chinese peasants would eat what they called ‘Goddess of Mercy earth’ named after Kwan Yin, the goddess of Mercy of Taoist tradition. In Taoism Yin is the earth and Yang is the sky.   In Haiti mud cakes are a traditional food, particularly sought after by pregnant women, a compound of clay, fat, salt and pepper.

MUD CAKES FACTORY IN HAITI

Hippocrates described Geophagia 2500 years ago, saying “If a woman feels the desire to eat earth or charcoal and then eats them, the child will show signs of these things.’

Pliny recommended red clay as a remedy for mouth ulcers. In the Levant it was called Terra Sigillata and used to help childbirth and alleviate menstrual problems.   In France they call it argillophagy and a popular hangover cure is to take argile verte, or green clay, in a creamy solution on the morning after. A three week course begins with a twice daily glass of white clay and then a transition to green clay mixed with liquorice powder, with separate doses of charcoal.

CARBON GOLD

And what about charcoal? I must confess a commercial interest here as the founder of Carbon Gold, an enterprise that seeks to restore the soil’s carbon content by the expedient of turning biomass into charcoal and ploughing it in.   Charcoal encourages high populations of soil biota which are extremely stable, very water retentive and antagonistic to pathogenic fungi and bacteria, helping to prevent soil-borne plant diseases. Charcoal stays in the soil for hundreds of years so it effectively is the only way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and keep it out.   It also reduces the acidity in soil that causes methane, turning this toxic greenhouse gas into the 60 times less toxic carbon dioxide.

CHARCOAL BISCUITS

Charcoal biscuits and charcoal tablets are a common treatment for wind and other digestive upsets. They adsorb gases like methane and create a healthy environment for the gut biota to thrive, providing niches and structure in which a shattered gut population can rebuild itself. Just as it suffocates toxic bacteria in the soil, in the gut it cracks down on aerobic bacteria such as salmonella and shigella.

Charcoal in soil encourages microbiological density, reduced activity but higher population.

In the soil charcoal maintains an ideal slightly acid pH but even adding wood vinegar to a char- enriched soil doesn’t make it more acid, the bacteria maintain stability at an optimum pH level that is unfriendly to pathogens

What about Fallowing?

Let’s compare organic farming’s fallow periods with our own dietary resting times.

One of my least popular sayings is: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day - to skip.” I always try to skip breakfast and also to fast at least one day a month. Why?   If your digestive transit time is somewhere between 12 and 18 hours then skipping breakfast means that for a few hours each day your gut is empty.   This allows the gut flora to rebalance their population. Every time you excrete, one third of the weight of the faecal matter is gut flora who get flushed away, the remainder need time to recover from the loss of their gutmates. There are of course, also other factors – the blood glucose and the liver’s stored glycogen are used up by the time you wake up in the morning and so the body has to turn to its fat reserves for carbohydrates. It’s like the Atkins Diet, but without all the meat and fat. But it’s a good idea to let the gut flora have a rest in between bouts of food digestion.

Organic and traditional farmers have fallow periods, the farming equivalent of fasting, where nothing is added to the soil, it is just left alone. The soil flora need a period when nothing is happening so that they can sort themselves out, deal with imbalances, before the next crop is planted. Fallow is not just about rebuilding fertility, it’s about recreating a healthy balance of food gathering biota. Eating food is like ploughing manure into a field. There is nutrient being introduced but there is also disturbance as a new set of nutrients is introduced, along with the oxidising effect of air on stored carbon, along with the disruption of the mycelial networks.

I’ve just been in Belize. The farmers there don’t even plough the soil. The grow on quite steep hillsides with no erosion problems. Every year they let an area of ground become overgrown, sometimes for several years, then they cut the resulting vegetation and let it rot or, in some cases burn it off. They plant their corn direct into the ground, where the crop takes off, surrounded by beans and squash as ground cover, so that other plants are crowded out. The soil has no fertilisers, not even compost or manure, added to it and it generates healthy crops of corn with plants 12 feet high.   The farmers abhor the idea of tearing up the soil and have resolutely avoided offers of rotovators and other mechanical ploughing aids.

NEZ PERCE CHIEF JOSEPH

"The earth is our mother. She should not be disturbed by hoe or plough. We want only to subsist on what she freely gives us." --Chief Joseph, Nez Perce

We can’t go back to that level of respect for the soil in today’s crowded world, but it is worth noting that in the long term agriculture has to address its problems of unsustainability and treat the soil as a living organism, not as a hydroponic system with dirt added.

I was there in Belize because they supply cacao to Green & Black’s. They provide us with fully fermented cacao beans in which all the simple cyanins have been oxidised and have lost their astringent taste. The reason our chocolate tastes so good is because the farmers are so good at fermenting the beans.

Every few months Mars publish more research saying that chocolate is good for the heart and have even launched a chocolate range in the US called Cocoa Via based on research that shows that anthyocyanins from unfermented cacao lowers blood pressure. So I took at look at the research to see why they’d launch a chocolate with a mildly unpleasant taste as a nutraceutical. What I came across was the European Polybind Project. They were looking at polyphenolic substances and trying to assess how they could help prevent cancer. They studied onions, apples, broccoli and chocolate. What did they find?

Chocolate contains procyanidins and other simple phenolic compounds. When it is fermented these become oxidised polymers and lose their astringent taste. They also don’t have a noticeable effect on blood pressure, unlike unfermented chocolate where the phenols trigger a measurable pressure drop soon after ingestion.   Hence Mars’ excitement about using unfermented chocolate in their products.   But the Polybind Project found something else: the complex phenolic compounds stayed in the gut wall. When the host was stressed the gut flora would snip them up with enzymes and pass them into the host in the exact amount needed to modify blood pressure.   Instead of outwitting and bypassing the gut flora, it makes more sense to work with them.   The same arguments apply to inulin-rich foods such as chicory and Jerusalem artichokes.

A ‘gut feeling’ is more than a feeling, it’s knowledge, indeed wisdom.

The gut flora control intelligence. They can memorise and learn and encode much faster than multicelled organisms such as us.   They don’t forget as their memories go straight to their DNA, which is constantly in flux.

By maintaining a healthy balance and large population of gut flora the nutritional therapist also offers psychotherapy in a genuine way - this may be described as a ‘placebo effect’ by some, particularly doctors whose summation of nutrition is ‘eat your greens.’   By eating organic food we are mirroring the natural process by which healthy food is grown and we are avoiding the chemical residues that are just as toxic to the health of our gut biota as they are to the health of soil biota.

To me the importance of nutrition has been a guiding light. I have not had to see a doctor since 1965.   Nutritional therapy is ultimately about treating the originators of plant and animal life on this planet with the respect they deserve. More than that, with the respect they demand. They can get quite angry if they are ignored, as sufferers from IBS and colitis, to name a few examples, can attest.

To go even further, if the gut biota are really the All-Knowing, All-Seeing masters of our universe, our original and true Creator, with a capital C, then the nutritional therapists are the high priests of human society and are our true link with the infinite and unknowable!

Thanks