Seeds for Life

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Food should be vibrant, look enticing, have a distinctive texture, taste great, smell delicious and provide you with all of the energy and nutrition that your body needs.  It should make you healthy and support your body’s ability to grow, and maintain and heal itself throughout your life.  Our bodies process food through natural processes, and like all natural systems they rely on diversity to function successfully and adapt to changing conditions.

Around 90% of global food originates from seed, but globally 60% of the protein and calories that humans derive come just 3 species; rice, wheat and maize; not much diversity for our bodies to work with.  It is thought that there are 10,000-50,000 edible plant species of which only 150 are currently cropped. Since the 1900’s the FAO estimates a loss of 75% of the genetic diversity within agricultural crops.

We only grow and sell open pollinated seed which is genetically diverse (unlike F1 hybrids) maintaining the natural ability of the seeds to be resilient and adaptive.  We are developing a plant breeding programme, using natural open pollination, to increase the diversity of vegetable varieties that are available.  Our selection criteria focus on taste, texture, nutrition and keeping qualities, and suitability for growing in agro-ecological farming systems in the UK.  The vegetable, herb and flower seed we sell is all certified as biodynamic or organic, produced without the use of chemical inputs, using systems drawn from nature.

As a Community Benefit Society we need to be financially viable but our main driver is not commercial, it is in providing benefit to the community; our community could be defined as people who eat food!  We seek to work with farmers, growers, gardeners, chefs, nutritionists, herbalists, scientists and the whole community of people working towards improving access to healthy food produced on a healthy planet.

a tale of two food systems

Our ambition is to underpin the ability of both current and future generations to deliver the benefits of truly sustainable farming. Without suitable seeds & varieties this will become more and more difficult.
We don’t simply wish to work with commercial growers, but to also engage with a much wider audience, to heighten awareness of the importance of how our food is grown. The re-establishment of a ‘food culture’ in the UK in recent decades has demonstrated the rising level of public interest in all facets of food production. The rave reviews and awards won by biodynamic wine has gained a whole new audience for biodynamic food. Organic food is growing year on year, with sales on average in 2013 up 2.8% on 2012. Box scheme sales were up 11%, demonstrating the growing importance people place on a connection to where their food comes from. People want to be fully involved in the whole food cycle and seed is a vital link that, where it is missing, we can help to fill.
For generations, across the globe, people have been inheriting a local food culture from their forebearers; a rich diversity of genetic material providing a resilient, naturally adaptable food production system that is responsive to changes in specific local climatic conditions. At the heart of this system are open pollinated seeds, which can breed true-to-type allowing farmers to save seed for the next year. In this breeding process varieties naturally develop for the locality, making this system ideally suited to truly sustainable farming. In a comparatively short 60 years, across all continents, much of this system has been lost. It has been replaced by a production model based on the ownership of seed by a few global corporations, designed to maximise profit with short-term goals, using systems which are rapidly depleting finite resources with little or no regard for what we shall leave future generations.
So, compare our current food system with a resilient food system:

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Step back and consider how our food system has come to be. In the UK we have an abundance of choice, presented with great panache by an industry finely tuned to sell. Controlled by a few large corporations, in contrast to the demise of the family farm. Declining ecological health, and falling nutritional values in of our food. Now approaching obsolescence our food system is using hybrid and GM seed to prop itself up.

Changes in the 20th century were often driven by well-intentioned policies aimed at reducing both world hunger and the cost of food.  It is now clear that in the understandable rush to reduce famine and improve living standards, the wider, very considerable, costs that these policies carried were not given sufficient weight.  It is very difficult, even today, to be able to capture the full on-going costs in terms of environmental, social and health implications that arise from these policies.
For most people living in the UK today it is easy to take food for granted.  Brightly lit, air conditioned supermarkets present a vast range of blemish free produce throughout all seasons; previous generations would have found it almost magical!  Our ability to be able to present such a vision should be celebrated.  Unfortunately it is not the whole picture.

The production of food directly shapes our environment more than any other human activity.  Our linear food system has inputs of fertilisers, pesticides and energy, with food the obvious output, but others include pollution, wildlife losses and carbon emissions.  Most of the inputs are depleting finite resources.  As such this system is unsustainable; it cannot continue forever.
Farmers and those employed in farming are being squeezed out as pressures to maximise production and efficiency create ever larger more specialised and mechanised farms.  The business infrastructure that surrounds farms is also being amalgamated into fewer corporations.  Legal changes have allowed corporations to take ownership of genetic plant material and patent specific characteristics.  The net effect is that control over, and ownership of, the food system is shifting to fewer and fewer people, and those farmers that remain become gradually more isolated from the wider community.
With farmers under huge economic and social pressures, and food policy trying to balance the failing health of the ecology and people, with the vested interests of huge corporate power it is now clear that this system is fast becoming obsolete and an alternative will be needed sooner than most people realise.

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Until the 1940’s UK agriculture and gardeners predominantly used open pollinated seed, as did growers in the rest of the world.  As UK society and governance developed, laws and regulation were introduced to protect those buying seed from unscrupulous seed growers and merchants who were selling either poor quality seed or even just sweepings off the barn floor.

With the outbreak of World War II came the imperative of national self-sufficiency in food.  The Dig for Victory campaign used existing available agricultural supplies, so the seed would still have been mainly open pollinated seed, but at this point Government became involved in food research and development.  Many research centres were created and plant breeding and research became an established part of the British agricultural scene, of which open pollinated seed would have been a part.

In the 1980’s government policy changed and the research and development stations were either closed down or privatised.  Work for which short-term commercial gain would not be forthcoming was abandoned.  Commercial seeds are now very often F1 hybrids and rely more and more heavily on biotechnological research.  F1 hybrids have been developed for farming systems that are heavily dependent on chemical inputs, irrigation and mechanisation, and can lose many of their benefits if not supported by such an environment.  Laws that initially protected farmers from unscrupulous seed sellers were superceded by laws and regulations designed to protect the interests and knowledge of the seed companies.

The benefits of the F1 traits are increased vigour, uniformity of produce, and greater yields.  F1  hybrids are also developed to be resistant to specific plant diseases.  Mechanisation requires plants that are uniform in as many respects as possible.  This allows for harvesting, packaging and handling of produce.   Commercial pressures ensure that growers, including organic, often have little choice but to use F1 hybrid seed if they are to have a market for their produce.  F1 seed can produce identical plants on a field scale in a way that open pollinated seeds have not been bred to do.

These benefits cannot be sustained if these F1 plants are used for seed production, so growers cannot save their own seed and are reliant on buying -in seed every year.  Growers are also excluded from the knowledge and skills of seed production.

F1 hybrid seed has been replaced in some parts of the world by genetically modified (GM) seed.  With an increasing share of the market, the corporations have used substantial profits to develop hybrid seeds, GM and other biotechnological innovations.

F1 hybrid seed – the science
Breeding of F1 hybrid seed is based on natural hybridization when two distinctly different varieties of the same species cross to produce a more vigorous offspring.
F1 hybrid seed production is undertaken using techniques that enforce prolonged in-breeding on two separate homogeneous breeding lines, which are then crossed to produce the F1 hybrid seeds.  This in-breeding reduces the genetic diversity on which open pollinated varieties rely for their long-term health.  Open pollinated plants achieve this naturally through out-breeding / cross-pollinating.

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Just as seed development has been chasing profits, so too have many farm businesses.  The term agri-business was coined to describe those enterprises that no longer fit with long established ideas of what a farm is; when a family and area of land morph into an integrated food production system.  Agri-business has been a reflection of what has happened across many sectors as businesses have become more specialised, seeking to reduce costs and maximise profits within a globalised economy.  As with other sectors this has meant consuming increasing amounts of (mainly fossil fueled) energy and mechanisation, making farms more dependent on their suppliers and using various means to exclude farmers from the process of building and sharing knowledge.  That knowledge is secured by corporations and institutions through intellectual property rights and other mechanisms.

Over the latter part of the 20th century life changed dramatically for people who work on farms.  Farm work can provide a positive and fulfilling way to earn a living.  On a mixed farm a wide range of skills and knowledge are required and the annual cycle means that no two weeks are the same.  However, on intensive farms, specialisation has reduced many jobs to repetitive, low skill, menial tasks for the minimum wage, with the same tasks repeated every day, week after week.  Without wishing to romanticise what has always been hard work, farming can be about team work & community, with farm communities linked within villages.  The true value of community is easily ignored and has too frequently been lost as communities have fragmented.

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The commercialisation of F1 hybrid seed production has meant that farmers and growers are reliant on the seed companies from whom they have to buy seed every year and are not able to save their own seed. In practice, seed would often be bought from a specialised local seed producer, however smaller seed companies and their breeding lines have been bought by global agribusiness corporations taking control of the critical part of food production; seeds. This loss to the wider community of farmers and growers has been compounded by the use of patent laws to provide a legal framework to secure the corporations’ controlling position.

Globalisation has brought about a change in the ownership of the food system. With food shipped around the world to feed people and livestock, food miles have increased very dramatically. However, the number of companies involved in agriculture have dramatically decreased as a few global corporations have taken control of commodities (wheat, rice, soy, maize, coffee, cocoa, beef), chemical inputs and seeds.

The structure of our food system now means that many farmers produce commodities as distinct to food. Vast volumes of just a few commodities are often sold from very large farms to the commodities markets, which are then traded in the trading halls of the big financial centres. Commodities are shipped around the world and traders make profits through the process while adding no value. Commodities are used in processed foods providing what nutritionalists often call ‘empty calories’.

The horse meat scandal demonstrated what can happen with long supply chains that result from the trading of food as commodities; it simply increases the risk of spoilage, either deliberately or by accident. To try and overcome these risks governments introduce layers of bureaucracy to try and provide a degree of traceability, loading additional costs and complication onto an already complex food system.

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ecological losses

The losses to UK wildlife which can be attributed to farming practices are reported frequently.  Birds and insects are particularly hit through a complex combination of inter-related causes including insecticide use, habitat losses and declines in food availability.  Landscape changes such as the loss of hedges, woodland and scrubby field corners are obvious habitat losses; other changes are not so obvious.

The temporary ban of three neonicotinoids across the EU to protect honey bees and wild insect pollinators has been well publicised.  Recent studies have also shown that declines in populations of insectivorous birds show a correlation with neonicotinoid concentration in groundwater, and that these chemicals are highly persistent in watercourses and soil, with concentrations found in estuarine and coastal marine systems too, having direct implications for invertebrates living in all of these habitats.  How long will we be able to continue to load our natural systems in this way and expect them to continue functioning?

Our soils are crucial for crop production, yet soil degradation, silting of rivers and resulting silt plumes into the seas are a consequence of mechanisation and the adoption of a particular type and scale of cropping systems, such as forage maize, regardless of the suitability of the location and condition of soils concerned.

Poor soil structure not only limits the capacity of soil to attenuate run-off, but lacking the ability to hold water increases the need for irrigation.  Irrigation water is often abstracted from rivers during protracted dry periods, exacerbating the problems of river wildlife.  The diffuse pollution of fertilisers and pesticides in watercourses, requires more intensive and expensive treatment for drinking water use.

Wetlands, potentially rich in wildlife, are drained to allow cultivation of the peat-lands, whilst horticultural systems require excavation of peat for seedling production.  Both lead to rapid losses of a resource that took 1000‘s of years to form; the drying of peat results in very significant carbon emissions.

Food production relies on the health of the soil.  Soils are degrading fast and this is reflected in the declining nutritional value of the food that is grown in it and the health of people eating it.  Processed food exacerbates the problem and obesity, diabetes and heart disease are the result.

Resource depletion

Any system is only truly sustainable if the process can be repeated indefinitely.  Resource depletion demonstrates the shortcomings of the 20th century food system.  Nitrogen fertiliser and pesticide production, centralised distribution networks, intensive pig & poultry housing, crop storage and drying, and, cultivation and harvesting machinery all use massive amounts of energy resulting in huge carbon emissions with well-known consequences for climate change.  Almost all of this energy is derived from fossil fuels, which are a finite resource.  Potassium and Phosphate fertilisers are also mined from a finite mineral resource.  As everyone who has lived through the last few years will know natural resources are becoming more and more difficult to access, and more expensive as a result.

Healthy food, enough food, affordable food, our food

Since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, published in 1962, people have been concerned about pesticides and their environmental and health implications.  Concerns are growing about the most commonly used herbicide, glyphosate, and its consequences for human health.
The UK news recently has featured both food poverty, and food banks, and protests by dairy farmers demanding that milk prices are raised to cover the economic costs of production.  A 2014 study has shown that the cost of a range of healthy food has risen 3 times more, per calorie, in the 10 years to 2012, than a range of less healthy food.  So despite policy aims to provide ‘cheap’ food the evidence would suggest that outcomes aren’t delivering food that is affordable to all; neither allowing all of our farmers to earn a living, or providing good quality ‘cheap’ food.

Global food security has also been widely discussed, with the assumed response being to increase the production of food to reduce world hunger.   The Global Hunger Index 2014 provides an overview and insights on the fight against hunger and malnutrition.  It states:  “One form of hunger that is often ignored or overshadowed by hunger related to energy deficits is hidden hunger—also called micronutrient deficiency—which affects some 2 billion people around the world. This shortage in essential vitamins and minerals can have long-term, irreversible health effects as well as socioeconomic consequences that can erode a person’s well-being and development. By affecting people’s productivity, it can also take a toll on countries’ economies.” This suggests that the need to address the quality of food is as big a factor as the quantity of food.  There are also big questions as to whether the problems relating to access to healthy food relate directly to agriculture, or if policies which directly address poverty are the critical factor.

planting out onions for a breeding project

Imagine a food system that is self-regulating, rooted in natural processes and able to react and adapt to changing climate and other shocks. Such a system could re-build our ecology and re-invigorate our soils, our food and our health. With local supply chains connecting people with the source of their food and rebuilding communities based on shared responsibility and trust. At the heart of this system would be open pollinated seed.

In the 2014 UN report on The Transformative Potential of the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter sensibly suggests that a combination of different food systems will increase resilience through enhanced diversity.  Resilience is defined as the ability to be able to spring back to shape, or the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.  This function brings considerable stability and contributes to a truly sustainable system.  Resilience will come from diversity in as many forms as possible:

  • open pollinated seed brings an adaptable genetic diversity to the agro-ecology; re-building the health of the wider environment will increase biodiversity;
  • re-building the soils through the incorporation of humus will restore diversity to the soil food web;
  • healthy soils will feed our plants with the diverse range of nutrients they need for vitality that will in turn provide a diverse nutritious diet for us to eat by shaping our economy around community co-operation we can benefit from the diversity of a multitude of family farms, social enterprises, smallholders and other businesses, providing entry points for young people to become farmers and growers with greater access to land and smaller capital requirements.

Greater food security can come through re-establishing local supply chains and markets, enabling wider engagement in farming and re-building connections between growers and consumers.  Creating self-reliant local food systems returns control, knowledge and decision making to local communities.

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Since the 1940’s work relating to seeds has largely diverged into heritage seeds and commercial seed production.  Heritage seeds are an important genetic resource to maintain, including cultivars that often contain flavours and appearances which are not commonly found in the popular varieties of  vegetables sold today.  Many serious gardeners enjoy growing these old varieties, although they are frequently not heavy croppers, or harvests are of variable quality and conformity.

Open pollinated seeds are the original ‘open source’ software of food.  Unlike F1 hybrids, their genetic material does not belong to anyone.  These seeds can be saved year after year, or swapped with friends, crossed to develop new varieties and used for the common good.

Sustainable farming systems need open pollinated seeds that provide reliable, nutritious crops with good storage qualities.  These crops can be produced using systems based on biodiversity requiring no chemical inputs due to the high health of plants derived from the balance of soil microbiology and plant communities, using little or no irrigation and less mechanisation.

Biodynamic and organic farmers continue to use open pollinated seeds where possible but it is becoming increasingly difficult to get good quality open pollinated seed that will produce viable crops.  Where open pollinated seed is unavailable derogations are sought from certifying authorities to use F1 hybrids; derogations are in effect exemptions from the ideal requirements which provide flexibility within the certification requirements.   The lack of breeding and development work has created a yawning gap where new open pollinated varieties that are required for organic farming systems should be, effectively in-between the heritage and commercial.  Since 1900 Europe has lost 80% of its food plant biodiversity.

More detailed information can be found at www.open-pollinated-seeds.org.uk

Open pollinated seed – the science
Open pollination is the natural process by which plants reproduce and exchange characteristics from generation to generation. Plants propagate either as cross-pollinators, self-pollinators, or semi cross/self-pollinators.
Open pollinated seeds can breed true to type, which means the saved seed will always closely resemble the parent plants and pass on their characteristics. Given sufficient time and knowledge, established varieties can be crossed to develop new varieties.
Open pollinated varieties carry wide genetic diversity and contribute to bio-diversity within food crops. They are sensitive to the environment and thereby flexible to adapt to, and tolerant of, soil types, cold and warm climates, wet and dry conditions, altitudes, latitudes, salinity, diseases and other factors.

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In 2009 a series of reports were published by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).

These reports were the result of a consultative process initiated by the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), supported by governments from around the world.  The objective of these reports was to assess the impacts of agricultural knowledge, science and technology on the:
 – reduction of hunger and poverty,
 – improvement of rural livelihoods and human health, and
 – equitable, socially, environmentally and economically sustainable development.

Seeds were historically produced by farmers and growers saving seed from their crops to sow the following year.  Some farmers inevitably specialised in seed production and used this as one of their farm enterprises on what would all have been mixed farms, selling on seed to other farmers in the locality.  This is a model that could find new life in a resilient farming culture.  Better farm incomes could be derived more consistently across all sizes of farm through diverse income streams as farms become more self reliant and independent of the corporations from who they no longer need to buy seed, fertiliser & pesticide.

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Today 70% of the world’s population are still fed by small farmers, and these farmers have only 25% of the world’s farmland, although that proportion is shrinking fast.  Most small farmers are women, but their contributions are largely ignored and marginalised.  Small farmers are also recognised as being more productive.

The EU 2011 report Large Farms in Europe shows that 20 countries register a higher rate of production per hectare for small farms than for large farms and in 9 countries the small farms productivity is more than twice as high.  In combination these figures suggest that food security and measures to tackle world hunger are more likely to be delivered through strategies that assist small farmers, rather than large farmers.

In the UK there is a well established trend for farms to get bigger in the name of economic efficiency.  Simultaneously concerns have been expressed that the average age of farmers has risen and no new entrants are becoming farmers.  Currently only 3% of farmers are under 35 years old.  Increasing access to land through social enterprises like Community Supported Agriculture schemes, or as Colin Tudge has suggested, to rent small farm units on larger landholding to spread the risk of large landowners, will engage new entrants and new communities if undertaken on a suitable scale.

Linking local communities with local farms through box schemes and farmers markets is already happening, both on a village, city and national scale.  Local food means short supply lines and traceability; connections can be established between those producing food and those eating it.

Food sovereignty is a term coined by Via Campesina.  500 delegates from 80 countries met in Mail on 27 February 2007, where they adopted the “Declaration of Nyeleni” which says, in part:
“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers. Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets, and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability.”

For communities around the world, including in the UK, to be able to define their own food system they have to be able to have the means, knowledge and legal rights to produce their own seed and breed new plant varieties, and this should be done through social enterprises that are driven by community benefit and family farms.

Today 70% of the world’s population are still fed by small farmers, and these farmers have only 25% of the world’s farmland, although that proportion is shrinking fast.  Most small farmers are women, but their contributions are largely ignored and marginalised.  Small farmers are also recognised as being more productive.  The EU 2011 report Large Farms in Europe shows that 20 countries register a higher rate of production per hectare for small farms than for large farms and in 9 countries the small farms productivity is more than twice as high.  In combination these figures suggest that food security and measures to tackle world hunger are more likely to be delivered through strategies that assist small farmers, rather than large farmers.

In the UK there is a well established trend for farms to get bigger in the name of economic efficiency.  Simultaneously concerns have been expressed that the average age of farmers has risen and no new entrants are becoming farmers.  Currently only 3% of farmers are under 35 years old.  Increasing access to land through social enterprises like Community Supported Agriculture schemes, or as Colin Tudge has suggested, to rent small farm units on larger landholding to spread the risk of large landowners, will engage new entrants and new communities if undertaken on a suitable scale.

Linking local communities with local farms through box schemes and farmers markets is already happening, both on a village, city and national scale.  Local food means short supply lines and traceability; connections can be established between those producing food and those eating it.

Food sovereignty is a term coined by Via Campesina.  500 delegates from 80 countries met in Mail on 27 February 2007, where they adopted the “Declaration of Nyeleni” which says, in part:
“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers. Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets, and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability.”

For communities around the world, including in the UK, to be able to define their own food system they have to be able to have the means, knowledge and legal rights to produce their own seed and breed new plant varieties, and this should be done through social enterprises that are driven by community benefit and family farms.

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Agro-ecological farming methods such as biodynamic and organic farming offer sustainable ‘smarter agricultural’ solutions as called for by IAASTD.  Biodynamic and organic farming uses less water, improves soils, accommodates more wildlife, use less fossil fuels and creates less atmospheric pollution.  These forms of agro-ecological farming also give consideration to community building, whether it be through providing a direct connection to a farm and seasonal produce through box schemes, the establishment of Community Supported Agriculture and Community Farms, or simply the frequently higher worker per hectare rates.  The intention is to build connections and supply fresher, better quality food to local people.  Research has also demonstrated the health benefits of organic food.

Soils are much more than just a substrate, or sponge, on which to apply the required chemicals for plant growth.  Just as our digestive systems require a balance of bacteria to work properly, soils need a complex combination of bacteria, fungi and invertebrates for plants to be able to grow to their full potential.  Symbiotic relationships established between the plants and the microbes that make up the soil food web ensure that plants have access to exactly the nutrients that they need, in the form that they need them, when they are needed.

It is only in the last 20 years that Dr Elaine Ingham, and others, have provided a thorough understanding of how the soil food web inter-relates with plants and has a major bearing on soil condition and structure, plant nutrient availability and the capacity of soils to hold water.  Applications of water soluble fertilisers, chemical pesticides, or soil disturbance and compaction will disrupt the workings of the soil food web.  If farming methods are used that work with the soil food web and a diversity of crop plants as an inter-dependent system a high degree of adaptability and resilience is embedded.

A fully functioning soil system has the structure to be able to absorb and hold rainwater under crops in the same way as it is widely understood to be able to do under trees, with the capacity to reduce flood risk.  Maintaining the food soil web can involve the application of composting mulches.  The combination of mulches and water holding capacity reduces the need to irrigate.  By eliminating the use of pesticides and water soluble fertilisers and a cohesive soil structure any drainage water will be clean water, free of pollution and substantially less silt.

With a reduction in pollution, and greater diversity of crops and multi-cropping, biodiversity will be able to thrive once again.  Natural processes work best in microclimates which are created by more hedges and agro-ecological approaches like agroforestry, providing habitat for farmland invertebrates and birds.  Wildflower meadows will return and habitats such as wetlands and heathlands will be freed from diffuse pollution.

Healthy soil produces healthy plants from which nutritious food should benefit human health.  Food without the combinations of pesticides will surely be of benefit to all and reduce health care costs.