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Wednesday Wisdom with Michelle & KC : Week 4 : Some questions to ponder....soil, organic cultivation & pests

Welcome tea lovers to our next episode of Wednesday Wisdom.  What's it all about?  You can read more on the background to this blog in our first post but in short every week I come together for an hour of discussion with KC from Ambootia and then distill the points that interest me into a blog for you to read & enjoy.  I always start this blog by saying that in the tea world and indeed the wider world we are all students.  My aim in sharing these interests is not to be 'right' indeed in many cases I expect to return to these topics and add more details - it is merely to ignite thought, conversation and interest in these fascinating topics that sit behind the cup of tea we all enjoy.  Feel feel free to add, comment and get involved!  I hope you enjoy the journey! 

This week :-

Perhaps it is the times we are living in that have led KC & I down a thoughtful path this week - one in which we didn't seek to find the answers but instead let our minds explore.  This discussion left me pondering a few important topics which are at the heart of our business so I thought I would just highlight them to share with you.  No answers, just some food for thought this Autumn Wednesday at a time where I feel it is more important to take time over tea & ponder the world [whilst keeping in mind (when looking at big questions) that it is all of our individual small actions that can make a collective difference]


Pondering 1 : Should the way soil is managed be more transparent to consumers? What impact would that have on our purchasing decisions?

'It's very simple' shares KC 'RESPECT & LOVE SOIL and be PART OF NATURE' I'm sure no-one reading this would disagree but the question I would like to ponder is how could we better link soil health and efforts to improve soil health to the products we purchase.  It's something that we have been thinking about at Comins for some years now - a key question we ask when purchasing tea and something we plan to do more work on - as a first step we would like to bring our growers information and perspectives [such as those below] on approaches to soil management to the forefront on our website.  


Mr Toshiro : Fukuoka : Japan

‘Soil feels elastic and smells sweet if it is supported by many kinds of microbes living together in optimal balance. Microbes increase minerals and other useful ingredients in soil, strengthen its resistance against pests and keep it in good health. Delicious vegetables grow in good soil. That is eventually good for your health too. This is why we dwell on soil cultivation [<...>]1 gram of soil contains 1 billion bacteria, and that the fertilizer he makes is for these bacteria, not the tea plants. Feeding the bacteria maintains the life cycle and balance of the soil, resulting in better tea plants'


Sonia Jabbar : The Dooars : India

‘Soil is fascinating. We know this as children, but lose our love for it as we grow older. Healthy soil is very important. When we pluck leaves every week, the tea bushes are continually producing leaves in the top hamper (layer). This requires tremendous energy, and if you have hundreds of thousands of bushes extracting from the soil and all you are doing is adding chemical fertilizer, sooner or later your soil will become exhausted'


Of course there is already much excellent work done around soil with organisations such as the soil association and movements such as save our soils but I wonder how much we are invited to think critically about about this important topic in everyday life.....and if we were what impact it may have on our behaviours if we were....and what positive impact this, in turn could have on the planet.  

We have discussed the topic of soil in the first of our Wednesday Wisdom blogs and if you are reading this then I am sure we have already discussed how healthy soils are at the roots of healthy food.  KC explains 'approximately 50% of soil is solids/inorganic materials, 25% is air, 20% is water & 5% is organic matter [micro-organisms and dead plants/animals in various stages of decay] which is critically important as it provides the plants with the water and minerals it needs'  Variations in these proportions will depend on a number of factors such as the amount of water, vegetation and how compact the soil is [air] but to sustain plant life, the proper mix of organic material, air, water and minerals is necessary.

Soil is made up of 4 layers but the top layer of soil, known as topsoil, is the most fertile soil with humus at its surface and decomposing vegetation at its base.  There are many articles you can read about topsoil depletion but perhaps this title is one of the most striking 


'The world needs topsoil to grow 95% of its food – but it's rapidly disappearing : Without efforts to rebuild soil health, we could lose our ability to grow enough nutritious food to feed the planet’s population'


When you read this you start to wonder why soil is not a topic more commonly explored in depth in our education systems, politics and day to day life.  Maybe the reason we don't is because this sort of talk has, in recent times, become linked to premium products [see below] - something I believe we must challenge.  We talked in the first blog about resilience in soils and how in organic farming you find much more humus in soil something that is further highlighted on the Save Our Soils page that I came across a few years ago through its association with Ambootia - if you are have the time the TEDX video on here is well worth the watch with much food for thought to end this pondering....surely a topic we will return to again and again.


Pondering 2 : Why is Organic seen as 'niche' & 'premium'? : Perhaps we need to remember that it is simply 'the way we used to farm'....

Firstly let us turn to KC to open this short pondering.  'When we hear the word 'organic' we seem, in recent years to have been educated that this is a product that comes with a premium.  We have been led to believe that organic is a 'niche' product and those that undertake it are somehow 'saintly'.  I hate the fact that it is viewed this way.  Agriculture is supposed to be a humble mans product - organic farming is really just normal farming' 

This links to the place that KC finds most inspiration : 

'Organic agriculture comes with a tag of responsibility' shares KC.  As an agriculturist interested in organic cultivation I often go back to the marginal farmers - here communities with little money and no access to pesticides or chemicals which can supersize their crop [in the short term] deliver successful small scale agricultural outputs year after year.  In my opinion the roots of all innovations in farming can be traced to the small farm.  Much of what we have to contend with in conventional agriculture today is a result of human greed'

There is much to unpack here around our agricultural systems and how they have shaped our views on organic farming and the price of food.   This includes questions around 'certification' - after all many small farmers around the world such as the ones referenced here by KC cannot afford to certify their crops but have, for many years, followed traditional agricultural practices.  This is something we explore in Tales of the Tea Trade : 

'A natural approach to growing is not always shown by organic certification, which makes it even more important for us to visit in person and build relationships with tea farmers. There are various reasons why certification may not be beneficial in the local market, including cost and the lengthy conversion process, which may not be something a farmer wants to go through. This means that farmers may grow in a completely organic way, but if certification does not add monetary value or any other benefit it simply becomes an expensive paper-pushing exercise'

It seems that the current narrative around organic is one we must continue to discuss, educate on and challenge....of course that naturally leads us back to the previous soil discussion...and onto the next about insects which are of course are an essential part of an healthy ecosystem.  


Pondering 3 : Rather than demonising insects we see as 'Pests' we could instead consider them the result of an unbalanced ecosystem

In our first Wednesday wisdom we touched on the word 'pest' as it relates to weeds.  This week we turn to insects : KC starts us off 'an insect becomes a pest when it outnumbers others - so when you see a pest in a tea field the ecological balance is broken'
Let us begin this pondering with a quote from this article : 'Not all bugs are bad. Insects get labeled as "pests" when they start causing harm to people or the things we care about, like plants, animals, and buildings. Out of nearly one million known insect species, only about one to three percent are ever considered pests. What about the rest of them? Some insects actually help us by keeping the pests in check'

So it comes back to understanding and working as one with nature.  It is unreasonable to think that a crop will undergo ZERO pest damage  - as stated 'pests are necessary to feed the beneficial insects and some plant damage is natural for any ecosystem'.  Working with and understanding the ecosystem [an approach central to organic and biodynamic agriculture] means you can introduce plants and other features that cater to beneficial insects and other creatures who can provide a positive 'service' to your ecosystem.  Healthy ecosystems are less likely to have pest outbreaks 

A short summation of This world economic forum report shows us the importance of understanding insects, how human behaviour and our changing world is impacting them and why this should alarm us :-

'Insects provide important ecosystem services to food and fibre production, through actions such as pollination, nutrient cycling and control of pest insects <....> their fate is entwined with that of people and of many other vertebrates but their populations are declining in abundance in many parts of the world.  Known root causes are habitat loss [arising from the carving up of the landscape and planting extensive fields of single crops] uncontrolled use of polluting compounds [especially nitrogen-based fertilisers], overuse of pesticides, the spread of invasive alien species and loss because other species on which they depend are also being lost.  Overarching all of these is climate change'

If you were to read this report in full [& the assoc links] you would see it reference detailed strategies which, if implemented, offer real hope for the future.  As you will often see referenced in discussions with our partners around the tea world [many of which are documented in our book Tales of the Tea Trade] these require a long term vision 'rather than a focus on destructive short-term economic gains'  You only have to read the stories of many of the people we work with to know that this requires vision and dedication - but with the stakes so unbelievably high it is this approach that needs to become, and be rewarded, as the norm.`  Our small actions in purchasing from those who care and are working hard to develop and deliver sustainable agriculture - one with BALANCE - can make a difference - but that requires transparency - something we continue to work hard to bring you at Comins.  


That seems an appropriate statement to finish on.  I'm off to make a cup of tea an turn my ponderings into some positive actions.  Thank you for reading!

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