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Jerios Wachira, 24, weeds her one-acre farm in Mangu, Nakuru County on May 12, 2020. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Happy belated Earth Day! You have probably seen a couple of photos trending on social media with the tag, “The earth is breathing”. These photos, most of them showing a view of Mount Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro, Kenya’s and Africa’s tallest mountains, respectively, from places one would not have imagined, have been remarkable.

Thanks to staying at home, people are hardly using their vehicles now, and the smog, an amalgam of dirt and smoke from exhaust pipes, that once covered the views of these beautiful natural sites is gone.

Elsewhere in the world, people are awed at how the environment is getting cleaner, and in some cities rare animals are being seen for the first time in decades! But our farms tell a sad tale, so maybe we should also allow our soils to breathe!

Modern agricultural systems are mainly designed to serve commercial interests from beginning to end. It is not surprising, therefore, that principles of industrial agriculture are about exploitation of natural resources to get as much profit as possible without considering the damage it causes to the environment.

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That is an unsustainable way of life since there are generations in the future, and the quality of life they will have will depend on how well we take care of the earth.

Three ethics

Permaculture, a design system that takes regenerative aspects into account to live in harmony with the earth, has three ethics that are a yardstick as to how sustainable agriculture ought to be.

Earth care, people care and fair share are the three ethics. Ethics are mechanisms that help to regulate self-interest, which if unchecked would cause over-exploitation as we are now seeing in industrial agriculture.

Permaculture acknowledges that if we take care of the earth, the earth will take care of us as well as the future generations. Earth care is simply taking care of the soil, since soil is the farmer’s closest ally.

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The quality of soil is a good and accurate indicator of the state of the wellbeing of a society.

To be able to take care of the soil, we have to see it not merely as a medium through which money is minted, but as a living entity. Soil is alive, and is full of life, and therefore the best way to identify soil which is healthy is to check the existence of living organisms.

Kenya’s media has written and aired numerous headlines talking about the state of soils in the country. While the headlines are different and cover different issues, one common theme is that Kenya’s soils are not healthy, and are in fact deteriorating.

There has also been a reported shortage of crop in most parts of the country, with an acre now producing significantly less than it did in the 1970s.

The solution to improving crop yield does not lie in government-subsidised fertilisers, since these do more harm than good anyway. Due to poor farming methods, ground cover is low, which leaves soils exposed to agents of erosion.

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A look at many of Kenya’s rivers, especially now during the rainy season, shows this effect in full, where the river water is brown due to top soil being washed away.

Living entity

What do pesticides and fertilisers do? Synthetic pesticides and fertilisers do a lot of damage to the soil. As earlier indicated, soil has life, it is a living entity. Those that farm for commercial purposes do not pay much attention to this fact and hence pump as much chemical inputs as possible to get high yields.

What they do not know is that pesticides harm and kill the living organisms in the soils - insecticides harm the earthworms, fungicides harm microfungi and herbicides harm bacteria in the soil, all very important for nutrient release, soil enrichment and soil fertility.The chances of getting a good harvest diminish as the probability of having pests and diseases in your farm increase.

As various stakeholders in government draft strategies and policies on how to improve food security in Kenya, one of the most recurrent themes is 'sustainable agriculture'. It is about time we asked ourselves what that really means! We want a system to be sustainable when it is still healthy and we want to sustain this system.

The biggest question, therefore, is are the present agricultural systems so good that we want them to stay the same? The answer is NO! We do not want our soils to keep getting eroded, yields to keep diminishing, pests to continue becoming more stubborn to pesticide applications, or our precious pollinators to keep dying!

The new buzzword is regeneration. This is the strategy the government should give great attention and budgetary allocations to since it is what’s going to fix the soil problem in the country and promote food security.

Regeneration seeks to rebuild what has been destroyed. This approach to farming sees everyone as a custodian, a steward to this resource called soil, who should take precious care of it and restore it to its former glory.

It can be done; many brave farmers already around the world have done it, but the government needs to promote this if we are to hand over a liveable earth to the next generation! Have a happy earth day, won't you?

Dr Bollmohr is a member of the Route to Food Alliance. silke.bollmohr@gmail.com

Soil Food security
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