How to Green the Desert: Europe’s Heatwave and some Holistic Suggestions
In the Northern Hemisphere, the balance of light is turning ever more towards darkness as we approach the Autumn Equinox. This is following a summer which in many places was unusually hot and dry(1, 2). This is perhaps not unexpected; climate change scientists have been predicting extreme temperature spikes for a number of years(3). However, it seems that a lot of farmers were nevertheless unprepared and many crops have been lost(2). Such occurrences can be seen as unfortunate; but can also serve as lessons for us. When you look at the factors exacerbating aridity, it seems clearer than ever that industrial farming is ill-equipped to deal with adaptation. This article will explore a little what happened in the heatwave, particularly in the UK and look at an example of a permaculture site which survived unharmed.
Throughout Europe, rainfall in the summer of 2018 was so low that many places were reported as having droughts. While some of the affected areas of the drought were wild places, such as the forest fires which swept through the coniferous forests of Norway and Sweden in June and July(4), the main losses were from the farming industry. Both Lithuania and Latvia declared national states of emergency in July(2, 5). Germany and Poland were reported as experiencing severe losses in wheat production(2), with many farmers in Germany resorting to destroying their crops since they did not have the resources to continue watering them(2). Many cattle farmers, such as in the UK, had to use their winter supply of animal food to feed their cows(6), since the grass had all withered and dried, creating a temporary solution and more problems in the months to come.
Time to break old habits?
It is perhaps interesting to note that though probably many different farmers have been affected by the drought, the main crop losses being reported on were those of wheat and dairy. With one source estimating a loss in European wheat production of up to 10%, or 10m tonnes(7). It is not necessarily surprising that these two were chosen to focus on; the EU exports more wheat than anywhere else in the world(8). The way that wheat and dairy are farmed using industrial methods however involves maintaining a monoculture or semi-monoculture (if the cows are allowed to live in fields rather than in factories), on a large area of land with no trees, which is generally flat enough to be machine-farmed. Creating such conditions is almost a perfect reversal of the techniques recommended by Bill Mollison, David Holmgren, Brad Lancaster and others(9)(10)in order to conserve water in the soil and maintain moisture retention.
So far, the EU’s main response seems to have been to repeal laws which were created to promote soil regeneration and biodiversity and allow farmers to grow crops on fallow land in Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Portugal. But if the conventional farming methods used exacerbate drought conditions anyway, could this be a sign that we need to change our consuming habits? The EU has been reported as the second-biggest wheat consumer in the world after China(8). Yet if the very methods used to grow this crop are unadaptable and contribute to the drought which destroys it, perhaps this, among all of the other criticisms of industrial wheat-farming, could serve as an incentive to EU farmers and lawmakers to consider other, more holistic farming methods.
Forests to the Rescue
In July, the Independent newspaper published a satellite image of ‘the UK’ (mainly England) (11) as an illustration of the effects of the drought. Much of land which was green on the satellite image from a month prior is yellow and brown. However, patches of green still remain on the image, most notably where there are national parks, such as Dartmoor and the North Yorkshire Moors. This suggests that the drought could perhaps have been not such a big problem for places where the ecosystem is allowed to exist in a somewhat intact manner. Last month, I visited Martin Crawford’s food forest at the Agroforestry Research Trust (12) in Dartington, Devon, to find evidence of such a suggestion.
Martin Crawford introducing the food forest garden. Photo by David Ashwanden
Coolness in the heatwave
Crawford first began planting the food forest in 1994, and now you can walk through cool, green avenues of Italian Alder (Alnus Cordata), past hedges of Autumn Olive (Eleagnus Umbellata), Raspberry (Rubus spp), Plum Yews (Cephalotaxus harringtonii) and many more species which Crawford says, require very little maintainance these days, as an ecosystem of some kind has been established.
Mint groundcover in the sunlight. Photo by David Ashwanden
Many different types of fruit dangle invitingly from trees as you step through patches of groundcover including Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia Struthiopteris) and thickly-scented mints (Mentha spp), Lemonbalm (Melissa Officinalis)and Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata).
The sheer number of edible species growing together is quite overwhelming; however, what struck me most in my visit during one of the UK’s driest summers on record is the fact that there is no irrigation system in the forest garden and that although Crawford watered most of the plants when the forest was first getting established over twenty years ago, at present he does not provide any water to any part of the garden.
Not even during the heatwave?
“No, and everything was fine,” he assured me.
- Nelson, A, 2018. ‘Crop failure and bankruptcy threaten farmers as drought grips Europe ‘. The Guardian, 20/7/18. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/20/crop-failure-and-bankruptcy-threaten-farmers-as-drought-grips-europe
- De Sousa, A, Wilke, W, 2018. ‘Europe’s Blistering Heatwave is Ruining this Year’s Harvest’. Bloomberg, 16/7/18.https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-07-16/europe-s-blistering-heatwave-is-ruining-this-year-s-harvest
- UCAR Center for Science Education, 2011. ‘Climate Change Predictions’. https://scied.ucar.edu/longcontent/predictions-future-global-climate
- Watts, J, 2018. ‘Wildfires Rage in Arctic Circle as Sweden calls for Help’. Guardian, 18/7/18. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/18/sweden-calls-for-help-as-arctic-circle-hit-by-wildfires
- McCullough, C, 2018. ‘European Farmers Suffer Extreme Drought’. All About Feed, 23/7/18. https://www.allaboutfeed.net/Raw-Materials/Articles/2018/7/European-farmers-suffer-extreme-drought-312584E/
- Pritchard, E-L, 2018. ‘British farmers call for emergency help from the government as “crippling” heatwave continues’. Country Living, 2/8/18. https://www.countryliving.com/uk/wildlife/farming/a22621825/drought-summit-farming-emergency-heatwave/
- Vidal, J, Stewart, H, 2018. ‘Heatwave Devastates Europe’s Crops’. Guardian Weekly, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/guardianweekly/story/0,12674,1039838,00.html
- USDA data on wheat, 4/18. Available as a PDF here: https://www.ndwheat.com/uploads%5Cresources%5C546%5Cworld-web-charts.pdf
- Lancaster, B, 2013. Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond. Rainsource Press: Tucson, Arizona.
- Mollison, B, Holmgren, D, 1988. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, USA.
- Osborne, S, 2018. ‘Britain so badly scorched by heatwave it has turned from green to brown in photographs’. Independent,18/7/18. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/uk-weather-latest-heatwave-satellite-pictures-hottest-summer-met-office-a8453666.html
- Agroforestry Research Trust, 2018. ‘Agroforestry Research Trust’. https://www.agroforestry.co.uk/