THE BLOG

SOS : Save Our Soils

19/09/2017 11:00

I used to be a soldier, a journey through the European wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, then Africa and the Middle East, spanning three continents over 12 years. As a soldier, I have seen the worst humanity has to offer. I have witnessed first-hand the abhorrent violence and destruction than man liberally doles out on societies and mother earth. My service has been my university and my church and allowed me to learn a simple truth: Soils can HEAL the planet.

In Sierra Leone during and after the war, a war that killed tens of thousands of people who were desperately poor and hungry, I saw the devastation brought about by human hopelessness. One of the world's poorest countries where nearly half the population is food insecure, and live on small, scattered farms, following a scheme of bush-fallow rotation, slash-and-burn field preparation, and limited use agricultural techniques. A country with a high population growth but very limited resources. In the middle of the hopelessness of war I saw enormous potential, and a desire for better days for the local people. I knew I was going to be back one day.

There is an important lesson that the British Agriculture Revolution left to us, which allowed us to escape from the Malthusian trap, bringing food security to Europe. Somewhere in the late eighteenth in Britain one important change in farming methods was the move in crop rotation to turnips and clover in place of fallow. Turnips can be grown in winter and are deep rooted, allowing them to gather minerals unavailable to shallow rooted crops. Clover fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form of natural fertiliser. This permitted the cultivation of light soils on farms and provided fodder to support increased yield and better nutrition in the soils.

So I asked myself, how do we connect the experiences of our ancestors, who had no access to chemicals to kill weeds and falsify soil chemical composition, who were organic in the purest meaning of the word, who built a cycle of resources and who by default promoted ecological balance and conserved biodiversity, and the lessons that the British Agriculture Revolution left to us; and I saw the answer was to have healthy soils.

Sierra Leone is a country which struggles to overcome the economic and development challenges left by high population growth and a decade of civil war, but with a lot of potential. Their nature of farming reminds me the first recorded agricultural revolution, which occurred 10,000 years ago, where small farms with many different crops and multi crops were a human breakthrough in nutrition and sustenance year-round for small communities. A country where the oil palm tree comes from.

It occurred to me that not only could the oil palm tree be farmed to feed, but it could be farmed to surplus, and generate an income for the people; and by default, it would enable them to be sustainable and empowered, such that they may stop fighting for the spoils of war, for the diamonds and the gold, but instead could farm the natural bounty that lays in their soils. And that's what I did. I started a project to produce oil palm trees with local people while preserving healthy soils. Initially, I used aid from the British and American Governments until the project moved into private hands, and it has metamorphosed into its current form.

In 2014, I merged my African company with the well-established and dynamic Natural Habitats Group, under the helm of Dutchman: Alfons van der Aa and later his business partner, Jan Hein de Vroe. These guys inspired me to take my efforts to the next level.

The Natural Habitats Group (NHG) is the most sustainable palm oil company in the world. We now have 3,000 farmers organic, fair for life and rainforest alliance certified, which means that we do not damage ecosystems, cut rainforest, displace indigenous peoples or habitats, but instead we organically farm without chemicals, teaching local small farmers how to grow high yielding crops naturally and make a fair for life income and an increased profit. We call this movement for change, "Palm Done Right".

But, this is only one part of NHG's story, NHG works in Sierra Leone and Ecuador promoting organic, practices and healthy soils. We now have a big team of highly dedicated people in the company, with offices in six countries and operations in South America and Africa. We supply nearly 20% of the worlds use of organic palm oil, and we are growing 60% per year and intend to bring our sustainable GOOD palm oil to as many brands and consumers as possible through our movement for change.

From Mohamed in Sierra Leone, our General Manager who joined me 10 years ago, to Osman our newly graduated orphan who came from the streets and who I funded through university and school, to Jess our tirelessly dedicated Director of Sustainability located in Holland, and her large team who go through the challenging task of certifying organically 3,000 Sierra Leonean and Ecuadorian farmers and maintain the high standards necessary to keep this enormous machine turning, an international group of people with a common purpose make our operations possible.

Soils don't just provide us with food to feed our families, our existence depends on health soils. When I hear all the cynicism and skepticism about organic food and its merits, some of which are occasionally justified, I think about what organic means to me, and the one standout reason to buy organic food and to encourage everyone to do so, it's because of our soils. We are killing them with chemicals and pesticides!

When the carbon in the atmosphere wants a place to sit and get soaked up, it heads for the soils! But the soils are dying, they can't process the carbon, so what happens? The oceans absorb it! And in doing so the oceans temperature rises, its PH. is changed, plankton dies, the food chain and cycle broken and in turmoil. We need our soils healthy! They are so important to the natural cleansing the planet repeatedly needs.

Organic farming replaces chemicals that kills and castrate our soils for natural inputs, and this is a good enough reason to try and buy organic whenever and where you can. Soils are our soul, they are as important as the air we breathe. Science suggests (and I mean facts not political spin, REAL facts) the depleted soil organic matter reserve, is still three times the level of increased atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. Good news! Just... but not if we keep killing the soils.

Before cultivation our virgin soils contained over 5% soil organic matter in the top soils and presently the levels have shrunk to under 2%. 3% loss is utterly devastating. The depleted soils on our globe are a pool which needs filling. Terra preta soils can have over 300,000 kg/ha carbon while the oxisols they were built in have less than 10,000 kg/ha carbon, x30, as such the ability to remediate global greenhouse gases can be envisioned in filling of the more than half empty soil carbon pool. Hence, absorption into the oceans.

This ability to either recharge, maintain or deplete our soils is under our potential control but has not been fully understood nor utilised in terms of our climate nor our environment. Instead we argue over the difference between metrological events and what climate change means. Whilst we argue, the soils continue to die. Estimating the global soil organic matter resource is a moving target which has from the last ice age been dwindling based on the agricultural and then industrial revolution, if we are able to change the dwindling to a swelling, we have the capacity in the more than half-empty-carbon-tub, to reverse this, which will address both the enrichment of greenhouse gases and provide mitigation to unavoidable climate change in the interim. 

Let's work together, lets save our soils and our souls. Follow our movement for change "Palm Done Right" on our website.

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