Tag Archives: Emerson College

Food for thought

In March 2009, Professor John Beddington, who was at that time the chief scientific adviser to the UK government, forecast a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by the year 2030. Jonathon Porritt, the then chairman of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, was less optimistic than Beddington and predicted that 2020 was more likely. At the time of writing, we are now more than halfway through 2017 so the predicted crunch point is between three and thirteen years away.

Of course, these warnings are only useful if they are able to nudge governments and people into taking co-ordinated action prior to the crunch. Once the crunch point has arrived, no more preparation is possible – crisis prevention then has to give way to crisis management. So far, unless plans are being made in secret in Whitehall, there has been a deafening silence from government. I see no preparation and no awareness – but plenty of signs of crisis.

These signs include climate change and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events; a shrinking land area as the seas rise; and heat, drought and flooding affecting the land that remains. As the oceans acidify, they will less and less be able to provide food or remove carbon. Keystone species such as bees and plankton will continue to die off; and the depletion of the humus and mineral content of our farmland soils will go so far that we will no longer be able to rely on future harvests.

In the face of accelerating disasters such as these, we could begin to see events moving out of the grasp of governments; and if, as seems likely, we are unable to make enough changes to avert the worst environmental effects, this will be followed by economic and social fracture, the breakdown of law and order and large movements of refugees from those parts of the world devastated by climate change and war. Hand in hand with this, much of the infrastructure on which we rely to provide food, water and energy will start to fall apart. Professional skills, such as those needed to prevent disasters in the privatised nuclear industry, may no longer be available.

The ways in which the descent to chaos could develop are so varied that governments seem paralysed by the sheer scale of the problems. As the crisis bites, so will the scale of unemployment; and this in turn will mean that government tax revenues become so reduced that they can no longer support the unemployed, or pay for fundamentals such as education, health and law and order. In the UK, we are seeing early signs of this in the way the government is changing the rules about the state pension, meaning that people will now have to work until they are 68 before they can expect to receive it. As the crisis deepens, the rest of us will also be finding it harder and harder to pay our way, and necessities such as food and even water supplies could be hard to get. The social contract between government and people will eventually be broken.

In an uncomfortable kind of way, all of this may be good news. Communities will have to find out how to provide such things for themselves, or do without. All of us will need to re-discover our locality and local skills, and build a new culture of community to take us through. The power of unfettered capitalism, which now seems so inescapable, may become as irrelevant tomorrow as the divine right of kings seems to us today. The shock of this descent will leave nothing in our lives unchanged. It is probable that we cannot now avoid it, but with determination and courage it can be managed, its worst effects averted, and it can be made survivable. It will be our species’ most difficult challenge ever, but also our greatest opportunity.

Turning now to one aspect of this rapidly approaching crisis, how can we secure our food and farming systems for the future? Conventional industrial agriculture is the short-sighted and short-lived product of abundant cheap energy, which has made it possible for a small number of farmers and landowners and industrial food processors to operate on a very large scale, using industrially-produced fertilisers and pesticides, while also requiring the elimination of natural ecosystems which get in the way. It has brought the whole supply chain, from seed production to supermarket checkout, under the control of a few very large companies.

But glyphosate and genetically modified crops etc have led agri-biz into a technological trap: large-scale monoculture means that the crop is highly vulnerable to pests and diseases, since there is no local ecosystem to support predators or resistance. Agri-biz cannot now do without these chemicals, but continuing to use them brings many other problems, such as the steep decline in soil fertility, the absence of pollinating insects, or the introduction of neuro-toxins into our food. Could the bees be telling us something about the consequences for our own health?

What’s more, concentrating agriculture into just a few giant food production centres removes all our defences against the spread of catastrophic crop failures, as well as any security we may have against famine. The claim that centralised industrial agriculture is the only way of feeding large populations is about as scientific as a belief in the literal truth of the Bible, but rather more damaging. Nor will technological fixes help. Their only effect will be to put off for a time the inevitable consequences, so that the breaking point, when it comes, will be as devastating as possible.

So what options do we have? Where does true food security lie? My own sense is that we need to re-discover localism. Hundreds of small farms and CSA schemes, growing healthy and nutritious food for their local communities, is surely much more sustainable than relying on the toxic, glyphosate-drenched prairie monocultures of conventional industrial agri-business.

Patrick Holden, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, said at a recent international conference in the USA:

“… at a time when governments are beginning to take action on pollution in transport, with plans for a ban on new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, food producers remain largely financially unaccountable for the terrible damage that current systems are inflicting on the environment and public health.

Mechanisms that could exist to allow future food pricing to be more honest include the introduction of ‘polluter pays’ taxes on chemical fertilisers and pesticides and the redirection of farm subsidies in such a way that producers whose systems of production sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide and improve public health are rewarded for these benefits.”

At the same conference, Tyler Norris of the Institute for Mental Health and Wellness, highlighted how the declining nutritional quality of food has an economic cost. In the US, nearly 18 cents of every dollar is spent on health care services.

Other hidden costs exposed by scientists and economists in the proceedings included:

  • the cost of nitrate and pesticide pollution of ground and river water from agro-chemicals, which in some areas of the US is so high that the water industry is struggling to provide drinking water within legal limits;
  • air pollution from CAFOs are shown to be increasing respiratory infections and other diseases in people living nearby; (a CAFO is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, as an animal feeding operation —a farm in which animals are raised in confinement—that has over 1000 “animal units” confined for over 45 days a year)
  • the loss of biodiversity, including the decline of farmland birds and pollinating insects,
  • soil degradation and erosion from continuous monoculture crop production,
  • the human health costs to employees working in stressful conditions in food processing plants.

All these and other costs are ultimately paid for by taxpayers and society in hidden ways, which include general taxation, insurance, water charges and reduced quality of life. Cheap food comes at a high cost to all of us.

As it happens, Patrick Holden is a graduate of Emerson College at Forest Row in the UK, where I currently work. It was Emerson College which, in an astonishing act of public altruism, donated the land now farmed by Tablehurst Farm to St Anthony’s Trust, a local charity whose charitable objectives include the training of biodynamic farmers and growers. This has had the radical effect of removing the Tablehurst farm land from being a tradeable commodity, and allows the farmers to do their work without having huge amounts of mortgage debt around their necks. I also work at Tablehurst, and to my mind it is an inspiring example of a farming model which offers great hope for a sustainable and much happier future.

On behalf of John Swain, a film-maker in the States who is putting together a project around issues of farm ownership, community farms and access to land for young farmers, I recently interviewed several people who were involved with the early days of Tablehurst Farm and the transfer of the land from Emerson College to St Anthony’s Trust. You can hear these interviews, and/or read the transcripts, here. I hope you will enjoy listening to them, as well as finding some food for thought about the future of farming.



Filed under Agriculture, Biodynamic farming, Climate change, Community, Farming, Localism

First Harvest of the Light Root at Emerson College

Those of you who have read my blog post, “Rudolf Steiner and the Chinese Yam”, will already be familiar with the story of this extraordinary root and its ability to incorporate within its physical substance large quantities of the light ether, of which most of our foods are nearly or completely lacking (you can read more about the ethers in the post linked to above). This is the vegetable that Rudolf Steiner said should eventually come to replace the potato as a mass staple food crop.

In April 2015, Ralf Roessner, the German author of the book The Light Root mentioned in that post, came to give a talk to a large and enthusiastic audience at Emerson College in Forest Row, East Sussex (UK). Not only did Ralf talk about the light root but he also brought some samples of the root for planting in the newly refurbished biodynamic garden at the college. There is an account and a short video about this event on the Emerson College website here.

It has to be said that growing the light root is not quite as straightforward as planting potatoes. Nik Marten and his colleagues in the BD garden at Emerson took out a deep trench surrounded with wooden boards which they filled with river sand, chosen for its fine, rounded crystals (ie not sharp sand, which can damage the roots). They then added a layer of good loamy soil and compost. The rootlets brought by Ralf were then gently pressed into the surface and biodynamic preparations applied to the soil. A wooden construction about 8’ high was then put up just to one side of the trench to hold a series of vertical strings, up which the leafy stems of the light root plants could entwine themselves. As the top growth climbs the strings, the root surges downwards into the depths of the river sand. Paradoxically, it needs the darkness and depth in order to develop and preserve the light ether qualities.

The light root stems growing up the strings of the wooden framework.

The light root stems growing up the strings of the wooden framework.

Six months later and Ralf returned to Emerson College to show us how to harvest and store the resulting crop. It was a damp and cold autumn day, with occasional showers – a typical October day in England! A group of about 15 people gathered in the BD garden and Ralf described some of the features that make the light root such an interesting plant. The roots with the light ether qualities grow only on male plants and if female plants grow with them, they will rapidly hybridise and produce all sorts of other yams, which may be perfectly good vegetables but do not hold the light ether. Ralf described how he had gone around the world seeking out samples of the yam, but only in the original growing area in China had he been able to source the right kind of plant.

The group gathers around Ralf Roessner (in hat) to hear more about the light root.

The group gathers around Ralf Roessner (in hat) to hear more about the light root.

Ralf then began to cut the leafy stems about six inches from the ground and as he began, several little mice began to scurry up and down the trench where they had obviously been living underground. This was a worrying sign – Ralf said that he had just come back from the Czech Republic, where the light root crop at a Camphill centre had been entirely eaten by mice. Despite this, the rest of the stems were cut and group members then began to lever up the wooden boards surrounding the trench so as to make it easier to harvest the roots.

Ralf Roessner begins to cut the top growth stems away from the roots prior to harvesting.

Ralf Roessner begins to cut the top growth stems away from the roots prior to harvesting.

Ralf and group members then began to remove carefully the soil from around each of the tufts left after the cutting-down of the top growth. After a while, we got down to the layer of river sand. Careful work with trowels and hands to remove the sand and keep it separate from the soil then began – the sand can be used year-after-year but should not be mixed with the soil. Gradually we could see the form of the roots emerging as the sand was cleared but this was delicate work – the roots can easily be broken if roughly harvested. Strangely, the roots begin to harden up, rather than soften further, in the days after the harvest.

Group members carefully scraping soil and sand away to reveal the light roots.

Group members carefully scraping soil and sand away to reveal the light roots.

It was a thrill to see the first root emerge and to see that it was of good size – Ralf said that it was of very good quality. Thus encouraged, work proceeded to bring up the rest of the roots. Some of the roots had indeed been eaten by mice but only a very few – and those that had not been eaten were all of a good size and quality. Even to the eyes of a non-clairvoyant like myself, there is a radiance about the roots that is quite noticeable. The roots were laid in trays and, at Ralf’s suggestion, some of the cut leaves and stems were laid on top of the trays, which helps the roots to adjust to their new situation and to remain in good condition.

Ralf Roessner holding the first light root to be harvested at Emerson College.

Ralf Roessner holding the first light root to be harvested at Emerson College.

The roots should be stored either in a clamp (ie straw is laid on the ground, the roots are put onto the straw, another layer of straw is added on top, and then the whole structure is covered with earth), although Ralf said that this method was vulnerable to attacks by mice; or in an earth cellar; or kept in the dark between 5-15 degrees Centigrade in river sand that is drier than that used in the trench. The roots should then last in good condition through until the next summer.

The light root requires special treatment after harvesting, too. It should not be washed, as water washes away the light ether very quickly. The roots come very clean out of the sand and a rub with a cloth is sufficient to bring them to sparkling condition. Nor should the roots be processed or cooked in machines using alternating current electricity, as this also destroys the light ether. It is best to have the light root raw in salads; or cooked in soups and sauces, where the liquid in which they are cooked is consumed by the eaters; or sliced with a knife and fried in a pan. Not all treatments are deleterious to the light ether, though – Ralf has observed that light root pounded in a mortar and pestle absorbs more and more of the light ether and this process can continue for hours. In an experiment he set up, the increase of light ether went on for up to 36 hours!

Radiant roots - some of Emerson College's first harvest of the light root.

Radiant roots – some of Emerson College’s first harvest of the light root.

At lunch that day, Ralf came round with some slices of raw light root for us to try with our meals. There is a mucilaginous quality to the cut root, which is crisp like a water chestnut and it has quite a bland taste, which of course is an advantage for a crop that may one day become a staple food like the potato. I have also sampled some sautéed light root and it was delicious – I would be quite happy to eat it instead of chips!

In a question and answer session after lunch, I asked Ralf whether, given the fairly demanding cultivation requirements and the need for great care in processing the roots after harvest, if he had any indications of when it might be possible for the light root to begin to assume the role of a staple food crop. He said that his sense of it was that it would be about three hundred years into the future and that his role, and the role of a few others in various countries, was to keep alive the knowledge of the plant and how to cultivate it until the world was ready to take it up. He also said that in future times the light root would be cultivated in a different way – in water – and that he was already experimenting with ways of doing this.

This was a fascinating and inspiring day, which provided (literally) much food for thought. Thanks are due to Nik Marten and his colleagues in Emerson’s biodynamic garden, to Michael Williams and Heidi Herrman for their excellent translating skills and of course to Ralf Roessner for bringing his knowledge, light root samples and huge enthusiasm to Emerson College.


Filed under Anthroposophy, Biodynamics, Chinese yam, Emerson College, Light Root, Ralf Roessner, Rudolf Steiner