Should we all turn vegan? Do cabbages grow better with biochar? Can we feed the world without destroying our planet? We have answers!

25 February 2019

Ffion Thomas explains biochar 

On Sunday 24 February we packed out a small barn in Horam, East Sussex to hear two experts speak about sustainable food production and nutrition. Our question: can we feed the world well, without destroying the environment? Dr Pamela Mason and Ffion Thomas's answers were fascinating and challenging. But yes, we can - and we need to get moving.

Ffion Thomas took us through her recent research into biochar - often promoted as THE answer to soil infertility problems the world over. Following the discovery in the Amazon of super-fertile soils that had been treated over millenia with biochar - organic matter that has been heated at very high temperatures without oxygen - scientists and growers have wondered if biochar can work everywhere and with all plants. Ffion's experiment showed that while some biochars can promote rapid growth of new seedlings, others can promote strong plant health. The mechanism is unclear, but probably revolves around microbes. The challenge now is establishing whether biochar's positive effects can be safely harnessed - what are the risks of biochar encouraging harmful bacteria to thrive, for example? There's more research to be done, and we hope we will see answers before long.

Dr Pamela Mason spoke to us from Monmouthshire by Skype, sharing recent research into how we can produce enough nutritious food for everyone in the world. She took us through the EAT-Lancet Commission framework, looking at the different foodgroups we need to eat to achieve a healthy diet; the effects of producing different foodgroups on our environment (for example, producing a beefburger uses a huge amount of water not only because of the livestock's need to drink but also because of the requirements of the factory for water); and the changes we need to make globally and locally for our planet's ecosystems to be safe. This is a complex area, but Pamela's message was straightforward: in the UK we need to eat less meat (but we don't need to be vegan unless we want to). We need to eat more pulses and grains. Pamela, for example, cooks with UK-grown barley rather than rice, whenever she can. And we all need to eat more plants. And whenever possible, we need to source our food locally. Pamela explained that it is possible for the UK to produce a great deal more of its own food, and that it should be aiming to do this without expanding the area of land used for production and without intensive means. She is a strong advocate for a return to mixed, small-scale farming, which she explained is both more productive and promotes far better soil health.

We ended the evening with a lively discussion with Ffion, Pamela and the audience, and went home determined to find out more and to make changes in our own growing, eating and shopping.

biochar    Sustainable food event - Patricia Patterson-Vanegas

More about the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health

Read Sustainable Diets: How Ecological Nutrition Can Transform Consumption and the Food System, Pamela Mason and Tim Lang, Routledge, 2017

Ffion researched biochar at the Centre for Alternative Technology.