Over tens of thousands of years, human beings developed sustainable ways to feed themselves. These included preservation of topsoil, crop rotation, natural fertilisers, locally grown and seasonal fruit and vegetables, fresh, free range meat, eggs and milk, and freshly cooked nutritious meals.
It was no different in the Africa of my youth, where people grew millet, sorghum and maize, which was pounded at home by the women. They also grew cassava, ground nuts, sweet potato, pumpkin and cabbage. Pumpkin is a wonderful vegetable because it is possible to eat the fruit, the leaves and the seeds. Land preparation was mostly done by hand, which precluded deep ploughing. The women used to forage for herbs, roots, shoots, fruits and wild spinach. Intake of protein was modest and consisted of chicken, eggs, dried kapenta (a lake sardine), caterpillars and flying ants (termites), when these were in season. The important point is that the people were consuming a balanced diet, and they were healthy.
Enter the agricultural experts. Africans were told that they had no clue. They were taught to grow one crop – maize. This is what we mean by monoculture. They were taught to deep plough and to use NPK fertilisers to maximise yield. Over time, this ensured soil depletion and a steady decline in the nutrient content of the maize. They were discouraged from pounding the maize at home and eating it whole grain. Instead, they were introduced to the perfection of refined white maize meal, from which most of the nutrients have been removed. Today, this is the staple food of Southern Africa. The other staples are bread, which is mostly refined, white sugar and trans fat (margarine and cooking oil). Most people in urban areas cannot afford much protein, but sweets and sugary soft drinks are popular. Consumption of fruits and vegetables is minimal. And – surprise, surprise – all manner of chronic degenerative diseases are on the increase. They share this calamity with most of us in the Western world.
In nature, mixed farming is the rule. Plants are always found with animals, and there is never any attempt at monoculture. Soil is protected from the direct action of sun, rain and wind. Leaves break up the rainfall into a fine spray. Trees and shrubs reduce the power of the strongest wind to a gentle breeze. A large portion of the rainfall is retained in the topsoil; the surplus being gently transferred to the subsoil and, in due course, to streams and rivers. The soil is made porous by a network of drainage and aeration channels made by earthworms and other burrowing animals. There is ample humus for the absorption and retention of moisture, and there is remarkably little run-off. The streams and rivers in woodland areas are perennial because of the vast quantity of water in slow transit between the rain storms and the sea. There is little or no drought because so much of the rainfall is retained where it is needed
In 1840, Baron Justus von Liebig proclaimed that only three soil nutrients were required for plant growth. These were nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). The reductionist NPK mentality was born and survives to this day. No longer was it necessary to rotate crops. Mixed farming could die and be replaced with monoculture. And no longer was it important to preserve topsoil. The results have been devastating.
In 1905, Sir Albert Howard was sent to India to train local farmers in Western agricultural techniques. He became aware of the connection between healthy soil and healthy people, livestock and crops, and he was soon supporting traditional Indian farming practices over modern agricultural science. But no one was listening. The commercial farmers of today still listen to the Baron.
Geoff Douglas, CEO HETN