Feed your eyes on healthy soil

WHAT do the late Kenneth Williams, California’s great central valley and your eyesight have in common? It is not a trick question – and the answer lies in the soil.

One of the all-time greats of radio was Kenneth Horne, who led the comedy teams on Beyond Our Ken and the later and even more popular Round The Horne. And one of the best-loved characters on the show was Kenneth Williams’ countryman Arthur Fallowfield, who had a rich Dorset accent, and a catch-phrase: “The answer lies in the soil.” Fallowfield was based on the farming journalist and broadcaster Ralph Wightman, who was a regular contributor to Any Questions? Dropping his familiar camp voice, Williams/Fallowfield replied to every question with the deeply thought “well, I think, the answer … “

He was right of course. Buried in most great humour are seeds of truth and 60 or so years on, the catch-phrase is still often quoted and is truer than it ever was. If we don’t look after this planet’s soil, we won’t have land left to grow our food. And if that sounds apocalyptic, you should try driving down I-5, the interstate that runs from north to south of California, along the great central valley.

The fruit-basket of the USA, California’s vast fertile valley with its endless orchards of almonds and peaches, its vineyards and its vast garlic, artichoke, salad and vegetable fields, is slowly turning into a dust bowl.

And all the way along the interstate from Los Angeles north to Sacramento are the signs, some hand-written, some on big hoardings, with farmers and growers blaming the government for creating the dust bowl. “Farm water cut = higher food cost,” “No water = higher food cost : No jobs = higher food cost,” “Congress-created dust bowl,” and “Stop the Congress-created dust bowl.” All around are dying trees, barren fields with the soil blown away. If you have read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, or seen the Oscar-winning 1940 film of this tragic story of the Oklahoma dust bowl and the fate of the Okies who trekked to the “Golden State” for a better life, you may have some idea of the grim reality of a parched and dying landscape.

What we saw, as interested visitors who care passionately about food and farming, were the results of climate change (lack of rainfall, lack of snow feeding the rivers), the failure of monoculture on a grand scale (this is Rachel Carson’s “silent spring” writ large – there are no birds on the wire or in the trees), the results of a water supply system which allows unfettered abstraction rights to the owners of the land above the watercourses and natural subterranean reservoirs, short-sighted federal government too susceptible to lobbyists for big business and a conservative farming community that has closed its mind to genuine alternative ways of working.

On a previous visit, to South Dakota, we met a farming family, one of whom is a bee-keeper on a big scale, and who takes his hives over to California for several months of the year to pollenate the orchards, particularly the almonds. This year, we saw his and other bee-keepers’ hives dotted around those orchards that still looked healthy, albeit on bare soil. The only birds we saw were on the few rare orchards or fields where organic farming is practised and where the soil has a level of protection from the depredations of rain-less wind and fierce sun.

Within the last month a report has flagged up warnings of the worst drought in 1,000 years in the American South West – comparable to the drought that killed off the native American tribes around the time of our Norman Conquest. There is a commission in California looking at this vast problem, but it is bogged down in the conflicting and irreconcilable demands and needs of the various parties and vested interests – farmers and fishermen, industry, the leisure and entertainment sector (theme parks, golf courses and the like), domestic use, etc.

The inexorable depletion of the soil – by monoculture and drought – is not only happening in California. It is just that it is on a larger and more dramatic scale in the state which feeds most of America. If the Californian fruit, nut and vegetable crops fail, the prices of food everywhere will rise steeply.

And it’s not just an economic crisis – it affects our lives and our health, including our eyesight. Eating a diet rich in many vitamins and minerals can help to reduce the risk of the incurable condition known as Macular Degeneration. A highly trained opthalmologist in Somerset told me recently that our diets increasingly lack these nutrients because they are no longer present in many fruits and vegetables grown in vast monocultures where the soil is exhausted by repeated applications of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Our health is inextricably linked to the health of the planet. And the answer …

Fanny Charles

For further reading: Graham Harvey, The Carbon Fields (published by GrassRoots 2009), Dr Vandana Shiva, The Violence of the Green Revolution (Zed Books).