You are what your foods eat

The difference between organic sourdough bread and a commercial white loaf is vast.  Organic sourdough is made from a small list of ingredients that are farmed in a sustainable way. Commercial white bread is the product of industrial agriculture and relies on petrochemicals to grow, process and transport every aspect of its manufacture. On a small scale, this affects the human body. But on a large scale, it affects the entire planet as the farming and manufacturing processes involved are governed by those with more interest in profit than nutrition or the health and sustainability of the environment.

Traditional farming practices combined with the latest science on biological systems are the basis of modern organic farming. The key objective is to manage the land in a sustainable way that preserves and improves the quality of the soil rather than depletes and destroys it. These holistic methods are based on the philosophy of a closed cycle, in which the farmer’s greatest asset is the soil. Organic farms generally work with a variety of systems like crop and livestock rotation, companion planting, producing a number of different products on the same farm, and farming according to local conditions. 

In contrast, ‘conventional’/ industrial farming practices appear to beat the ground into submission and often leave the land infertile and unusable after a short period of time. Fertilisers, fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, growth inhibitors and ripening conditioners – these are all needed to grow plants that have been bred and genetically modified specifically to withstand them.  Animals are treated as commodities – their sole purpose is to yield maximum profit in the minimum time period. Huge, heavy machinery and destructive methods that leach nutrients into waterways and result in loss of topsoil are further characteristics of this type of farming. 

Since we literally are made of the food we eat, the methods in which this food has been produced have a direct effect on our physical health, and as it turns out, our mental health as well.   Small amounts of chemical residue from farming processes, combined with further processing aids and methods that pay no respect to the integrity of the food itself, produce food that no longer nourishes us but instead makes us sick. In the case of bread, the ‘white fluff’ that makes up the majority of bread consumed in this country is a product far-removed from the crusty sourdough that sustained our ancestors. The effects of modern bread aren’t restricted to our individual health – they are seen on a much larger scale when you look at the effect on the planet of the food systems that produce it.

The green revolution, while sounding benevolent, was quite the opposite. The yield from newly-developed crops was higher than traditional crops, but the energy required to grow, harvest and process them soon outweighed any increased productivity. The reliance on chemicals and the control of food supplies by large corporations, often referred to as ‘Big Food’, has had a huge impact on both climate change and the global food system, but sustainable farming practices can help change this for the better.

Farming in a sustainable way has a double benefit. Firstly, the food produced is of higher nutritional quality and has the potential to improve food security and our health. Secondly, organic farmers first and foremost farm the soil, by building it up and enhancing its fertility and sequestering carbon dioxide, thus reducing our reliance on petrochemicals for fertilisers and pesticides.  

I grew up in Germany, a country better known for its car and heavy machinery industry than for its agricultural economy. And it’s true – Germany, like much of the world, is largely farmed using ‘conventional’ farming practices, but the idea of organic farming was born in Germany, coming from the holistic philosopher Rudolf Steiner, better known for his advances in early childhood education. Organic farms have therefore existed throughout Germany for many decades, but despite the European Union ambitious goal of 20% of agricultural land to be farmed organically, in Germany the number is still less than 10%. There is EU support for organic farming, federal government further supplements this and in Lower Saxony, where my sister Inga and her husband Ernst farm, they are lucky enough to have a Minister for the Environment who values sustainable practice, so there’s really good financial support to help people move to organic farming. Yet the road ahead is still long.

Hof Michael is a biodynamic farm, situated near Hannover in Northern Germany.

Inga and Ernst manage Hof Michael Farm, near the small hamlet of Endeholz in the Lüneburger Heide. The flat plains of the area were sculpted by glaciers, leaving behind light, sandy soils with little ability to hold valuable moisture. Dry summers are common, but last year was the driest in 40 years. In a dry area like this, one of the more obvious benefits of organic farming is the improvement of soil, allowing it to retain moisture. While their neighbours were suffering a drought, Inga and Ernst were able to keep farming through the summer and despite the lack of rain and temperatures in the 30C range for weeks on end, they didn’t even need to use their full water allocation. Hof Michael has been an organic farm for the last 20 years and has Demeter certification . This is a really stringent process, awarded only to biodynamic farms – based on the somewhat esoteric teachings of the above-mentioned scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Germany accounts for 45% of the world’s biodynamic farms, which is similar to organic farming but treats soil, crops and stock as one system. 

Hof Michael has about 150 hectares of land for agricultural purposes. 80 hectares are used for crops, 50 hectares are green paddocks for animals, and the rest is regenerative areas and wildlife refuges like wetlands and wild meadows. The farm produces lamb, pork and beef, along with five cash crops throughout the year. Potatoes supply the local chip maker, linseed is pressed for oil, and oats, rye, and spelt are grown on contract. The crops are rotated and interplanted with lupins, clover, triticale, and barley, which serve as food for both the stock and the soil. Inga also has a herd of milking sheep, and from this she makes ice cream: it’s a real hit at organic festivals that are regular events around the region. The farm also has 240 hectares of sustainably-managed commercial forest in which trees are felled selectively, rather than clear-felling the whole forest as it is common in New Zealand. The forest is a mix of young and old trees of different varieties and provides a refuge for wildlife and recreational areas for people. In summer, wild blueberries grow in abundance and folk from all around can been seen picking the fragrant berries. 

While Inga and Ernst live near a small town and sell much of their produce wholesale, organic farm shops are springing up around many large cities, with people happy to travel to shop for organic produce and to talk to the person who grew it. Hof Michael is owned by a trust and also has a large farm-stay facility with a commercial kitchen and bakery. Groups can come and stay, learning about the biodynamic principles that guide the farming practice. Biodynamics may not be possible for every farmer, but there are lots of steps that farmers can take to move towards more sustainable farming that’s good for their animals and soil, good for their profit margin, good for the planet, and good for people. We live in a consumer society so ultimately it’s shopping behaviour that will drive the demand for more sustainably-produced foods. Check out your food suppliers, ask how and where the food you buy has been produced, go to your local farmer’s market, be inquisitive, and support those who are doing the right thing. You’ll be getting better and fresher products and you will be doing both your body and the world a big favour. (small steps and the power of consumer choices can have a ripple effect- highlighting how with some simple changes you can make a big difference to your health and the health of the planet)

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