More than Trees
By Veronica-Mae Soar in GLD Challenge magazine 2019-20
Despite those still in denial, most folk today are well aware of the very real environmental crisis we face - even if it is largely only the scientists who fully understand the seriousness of the situation. Our earth ship - our only home - is sinking ever more rapidly and there are no lifeboats. Some are working the pumps, some are bailing, some are doing their best to stem the leaks and mend the holes; but their battle can seem hopeless at times, as others just talk and argue - and some continue to bore more holes in the hull.
Recently, amongst the exhortations to us all to drive and fly less, eschew plastic and plant bee friendly flowers, the clarion call which has risen above the others is to plant more trees - zillions of them. Several countries have already joined the 'race' to plant the most.
All very good, you might say, so let's examine tree planting in more detail. Is it - as some say - THE way to save us ?
Firstly yes, it is a very good thing; growing trees absorb carbon - although every plant does that. Trees also provide many other benefits: food and shelter for numerous creatures - including humans - a cooling action on the locality, holding water in the soil, guarding against land slides, even a feeling of wellbeing to those who wander amongst them - not to be dismissed lightly.
But in view of the alarming speed with which old growth forests are being cut down, is current planting even going to keep pace? Or will it be left trailing behind ? especially since councils everywhere have been persuaded to clear urban trees in vast numbers to make way for the deadly G5. Our towns and cities will no longer benefit from the cooling and calming effects.
Another consideration is the type of tree planted - and where. It would seem sensible to plant those which are native to the area. But it has been known for vast areas of conifers to appear - in expectation of farming them for their timber as soon as possible - thus releasing any carbon they had soaked up. Equally, changing the land to accommodate trees which would never be there naturally is worse than not planting any.
In their first few years trees also need regular care if they are not to die. The Tree Council has estimated that 9 out of 10 of all the trees planted in the UK by eager community groups do not survive.
So tree planting done well can be of huge benefit and should be encouraged; but let's have a look at other ways of soaking up carbon and restoring our planet home.
Another word which has entered the mainstream environmental discourse is soil. And there are many ways we can encourage the take up of carbon into a healthy soil. Regenerating the soil also has other huge benefits - to the ecosystem, to the biodiversity, to the water table and, not least, to the nutritional value of our food.
Vast areas of monoculture have, in many places, destroyed what should be a vibrant, rich, dark, nutrient and carbon rich soil - and it has become nothing but dead dirt, requiring increasing amounts of chemical input in order to raise another nutrient poor crop. It holds little carbon, no longer retains water as it should and there is considerable run-off carrying pesticides into rivers and even the ocean, creating great dead spots, poisoning fish and other creatures that rely on rivers and streams. It can often contaminate the domestic water supply.
Changes in farming practice can make a huge difference. Already some farmers have taken this on board and are making a difference on their own farms, but it has yet to go main stream. So what does a regenerative farmer do ?
Ploughing, or tilling, is reduced or eliminated, since this releases whatever carbon is in the soil. Cover crops make sure that at no time is the soil bare. Crop rotation means that different crops use different nutrients, and are also less subject to disease. Some farmers sow strips of flowers between the crop, some plant two crops together. Some are now planting trees under which they run chickens, pigs, sheep or cattle. Ruminants are crucial, as a mixed farm with little or no outside inputs works in a virtual circle. The animals are grazed in one area for a limited time and then moved. The grass ley they have munched starts to grow, drawing down carbon and creating a deep root system. Dung beetles scuttle across the pasture, collecting and dealing with the droppings, naturally fertilizing the soil.
It is small family farms which - for financial reasons - do not find it easy to make changes, yet are the ones who most need to do so. These are the ones who require our support and advice.
And there are yet other ways to make a real difference. Some crops are even better at absorbing carbon than trees - one of them is industrial hemp. Not only does this grow quickly with little or no input required, but it will remove toxins from the soil, and can often be grown where conventional crops would struggle. As an extra benefit, it has hundreds of uses which are also good for the environment. It can replace cotton, plastic, paper and wood; it can be used to make hempcrete - a building material more eco friendly than concrete. In 1938 Popular Mechanics declared that hemp could produce 25,00 products. Likewise bamboo - a fast growing grass, described as the "cut and come again" crop. Although not perhaps suited to all countries it is a great carbon absorber and with almost as many uses as hemp.
Damp places like peat bogs and wetlands - many of which have been lost - also make great carbon sinks. Thousand year old peat bogs - once gone - cannot be restored to what they were; but we can stop using up peat for gardening and make sure what is left is cared for. Wetlands are enjoying a bit of a comeback thanks to nature groups, and the more the better. The floating biomaterial has great carbon soaking properties.
So the operative word is GREEN - thanks to photosynthesis, anything which is green is going to have a beneficial effect, some more than others - but we need all of them across the board.
One place not generally thought of for carbon mitigation is the ocean. We are told that the oceans are becoming more acidic, their temperatures rising dangerously; but there is a potential crop even here. Seaweed soaks up CO2 from the water at something like 20 times that of trees in our forests; and when it dies it carries that to the bottom. It also helps to reduce ocean acidity, and provides a habitat for much marine life. Increasing areas of seaweed by deliberate planting could take care of billions of tons of CO2. Not only that, it has the potential to provide both food and packaging material. One particular type can even be used in cattle feed to reduce their methane burps to nearly zero.
Every one of these actions is important. However, on a personal note, I believe that there is also an urgent need for governments to do all they can to tackle those who continue to attack our living earth - either for financial gain or because they have no concept of the harm they are doing. Such people should become the pariahs of our age, we should have no truck with them until they mend their ways - and we should tell them so. I think we all know who they are.