Sunday, October 11, 2009

The turn of the worm?

Have you a moment to give a little thought to potatoes?
In your opinion, do potatoes taste the same as they did, say, twenty years ago?
I was talking to a friend the other day and he was bemoaning the fact that Jersey potatoes - the early potatoes that he'd enjoyed all his life - had lost their flavour.

Thinking about what he'd said, I remembered discussions I'd heard on the 'Today' programme recently about impoverished soil and the importance of worms.
It's ridiculous, isn't it, how you can fail to see the obvious. Stupid as it may sound, I had never before taken into account how human life on this planet is totally dependent on the health of the soil. We think in terms of the products of the soil, we say that we need bread, and meat, and milk. But, when it comes down to it, what are cattle and sheep other than soil on four legs? Without healthy soil to produce grass there would be no cattle or sheep. Without healthy soil there would be no fruit, no vegetables . . . no us.

Which was what the discussion was all about. It was sobering to learn that our intensive farming of the past decades has had a near-catastrophic outcome. The soil is losing its fertility. It is turning to dust. Over-laden with chemicals, ravaged by heavy machinery, deprived of the shelter of trees and hedges, it has finally become exhausted. Not only that, the vital importance of the earthworm, the co-creator of the soil, has been largely ignored.

Is it so surprising that the natural world has had enough? Look at the way weighty machinery has first compounded, and then sucked the life out of the soil. Look at our short-term attitude to use and disposal. Look at the vast quantity of non-biodegradable waste that we have asked the earth to swallow up on our behalf.

The question must be: is it too late? In seriously damaged areas, it seems we are substituting heavy machinery, and deep tilling, for the less invasive activity of spades. On some farms the earth is being fed with manure, rather than chemicals. Whilst other farmers are allowing their fields to lie fallow on a rotation basis, and thus recover from our greedy manipulation. They're even carrying out a soil survey and a worm count in 'The Archers'!

But let's look at the bigger picture. What is the reason for this exploitation of the soil? Short-sighted policies, world-wide, have governed that modern crops are high-yield varieties of vegetables, fruit and grain. However, in concentrating on high-yield we have unintentionally bred out a large percentage of the minerals and trace elements that are vital to our health. In giving priority to the commercially viable, we have neglected the nutritious. In craving the perfect, we have killed off other life-forms that are a vital part of the eco-system.
And have we ended up with perfection? Far from it! Not only do many of these new varieties lacks flavour, more importantly they also lack magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron. So much for our blinkered criteria that they crop abundantly, look visually perfect, and attract the buyers to the supermarket shelves.

Does this sound like an up-dated version of the story of Adam and Eve? Seduced by the sight and size of the apple, are we ignoring the possibly catastrophic consequences? Do we really want a second, unscheduled exit from The Garden of Eden?

So, what can we do? Speaking personally, I'm going to do my best to cherish the knobbly carrot, choose the bruised tomato, and opt for the bent banana. More than that, I'm going to take a common sense attitude to 'sell by' dates and be grateful . . . oh, so grateful . . . for every mouthful.

The programme-makers of 'Today' had a nice sense of irony. Shortly after one of these discussion, they broke the news of possible water on the moon.
Could this, they debated, mean more 'giant steps for Mankind'? We have the knowledge, we have the resources. Now that we know that there is water awaiting us . . . ? Who knows.

But, when it comes down to basics, even astronauts are made of flesh and blood - like the rest of us, they need to eat.
It's a salutary and reassuring thought, isn't it . . . despite our incredible technical abilities, not to mention impressive scientific know-how, we haven't a hope of putting another man on the moon without the co-operation of the humble earthworm!

Let's raise a glass of apple-juice to the turn of the worm!