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The Earth only endures

By Jules Pretty
Published by Earthscan
Website: www.earthscan.co.uk
Email: earthinfo@earthscan.co.uk
2007, 287pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 432 7(Hb), £18.99

Happiness and connectedness are at the heart of Jules Pretty's vision of sustainable agriculture. But for many of us, he believes, the vital connections between ourselves and the natural world have been severed. His observation does not only apply to the urban populations that now comprise half of humanity. Rural life has also lost its connection to nature, with large scale monoculture just another example of how as a species we are threatening the resources that sustain us.

But in a world of expanding population and massive over-consumption, where does hope lie? Inspired by his extensive work among rural and urban communities from Brazil to Ukraine, Pretty is optimistic that the answers are not beyond reach. Food and farming are at the centre of the solution, with small, family farms playing a key role.

Afonso Klöppel, for example, farms on ten hectares in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina. In the 1990s he farmed onions and tobacco but was unable to compete with larger operators, with his land becoming increasingly degraded. He converted to organic polyculture, and now grows over 50 different crops. "Yours is not a farm; how are you making money?" asks his monocropping neighbour. The answer lies in Afonso's connections - with nature, other farmers and consumers. Mucuna and crotolaria cover crops have restored his land to health; membership of a farmers' association gives him access to information and shared machinery; and he sells much of his produce direct to consumers.

Afonso's other secret is that he adds value to his farming produce, with a range of on-farm processing activities producing cheese, honey, pickles, tomato sauce and others. He now feels in control of what he is growing, how he is growing and selling it, rather than fighting to meet the demands of agro-industry. His improved happiness and self-esteem, repeated among thousands of farmers across the region, is also giving hope for a better future. Young people are returning to farms where the workload has become varied and interesting, and where their contacts with consumers give them a connection to the outside world. Feeling in control of their destinies, they are ready to invest in the land.

Citing similar stories from other parts of the developing world, Pretty asks whether the small, mixed farm model offers anything to the industrialised countries. It appears to have much in common with what a growing number of farmers are attempting in his home country, the UK. Adding value, earning a good proportion of the sales price and giving food a story - so people know what they are eating and where it comes from - are increasingly seen as vital to the financial viability of many UK farming businesses.

The final chapter offers some thoughts on what next. "Should we wait for wide-scale policy, institutional and market change to solve these problems? If so, the prospects are probably not good. Or shall we instead try to live our own lives differently... engage with the land as a dance, where endless places may encourage new revelations." In his keen observation of 'endless places' Pretty has found answers that will interest us all.

Date published: September 2007

 

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