Thursday, 30 March 2017

The "Terroir" concept applied to food crops
(The Chinese version of this article was published in Lianhe Zaobao on 5 March 2017.)

The French word "Terroir" refers to the set of environmental factors (soil, climate, etc.) and the farming practices employed to grow the grapes that give a wine its unique flavour and aroma.

For the same reason, the taste and flavours of vegetables are strongly related to the natural environment of the farm and the farming approach employed. Unfortunately, most vegetables available in supermarkets, and even wet markets, are rather tasteless.  These vegetables are probably grown (or rather, manufactured) in large commercial farms, which cannot afford to pay attention to "Terroir".

In Japan, a farmer called Akinori Kimura managed to grow stunningly delicious apples using "natural cultivation" method that employs neither pesticides nor fertilizers, not even organic fertilizers such as compost or manure. He points out that the key is in the soil.

In Hong Kong, about half a century ago, a farmer in a small village managed to grow a variety of Chinese cabbage which became famous because of its flavours and texture characteristic of the natural environment of the village. The variety was even given its own name "Hok Tau Pak Choi". Sadly, this variety is now extinct.  Those Hok Tau Pak Choi seeds available for sale online must be fake.

Photo credit: 江昱德 (鈴穀社會企業股份有限公司)



Soil is alive
Soil is not just a medium to physically support a growing plant. In nature, soil is alive with countless numbers of living creatures in it - microbes, insects, worms, etc. Above the soil, there are butterflies, bees, dragonflies, birds and other small animals. All this biodiversity, both in and above the soil, enhances the cycling of nutrients, and this is how soil gets its fertility.

The vitality of soil comes from soil microbes. Presence of healthy microbe communities in the soil is key to healthy plant growth. The world of soil microbes is much more complex than we can think. What we do know is that a lot of the nutrients that a plant needs come from the soil microbes through symbiotic exchange. It is obvious that a good farmer should take care to look after the natural environment both in and around the farm, including the soil. If too much fertilizer, whether organic or chemical, is applied, the communities of soil microbes will be adversely affected, leading to unhealthy plant growth and further problems such as high nitrate content and less nutritious crops.

Phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables
Besides vitamins, proteins and minerals, there is another very important group of nutrients, called phytonutrients, found in fruits and vegetables. Science estimates that there exists more that 100 thousand phytonutrients, but scientists have only studied less that one tenth of them, such as lycopene, anthocyanidin and carotene. Although phytonutrients aren't essential for keeping you alive, they help prevent disease and keep your body working properly. Among the benefits of phytonutrients are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities, reducing cancer and heart disease risks. Phytonutrients are diverse in nature and many are responsible for the colours and flavours of the plant foods. That's probably why nutritionists ask us to take plant foods of a variety of colours.


So, how are phytonutrients produced in plants? It is "terroir" again. The set of natural environmental factors - climate,  soil, microbes, insects and animals, provides the conditions and ingredients for a plant to produce a complete set of phytonutrients in it. Human health comes from soil health.

While it is difficult for large commercial factory farms to produce crops rich in flavours and phytonutrients,  there are examples of successful small natural farms that use natural farming methods to produce healthy and nutritious foods for the communities, and are financially sustainable too. One such farm is Le Bec Hellouin Farm in France.


Small natural farms in Singapore - an opportunity
Land scarcity in Singapore is actually an advantage in establishing small natural farms. In every district, there are already amenities and facilities like community centres, parks, hawker centres, multiple-storey carparks, clinics, post offices etc. How about farms that produce food for the residents - the next level of the already successful Community in Bloom Initiatives by NParks. Not just gardens, but small farms of 0.1 to 0.5 hectares that seriously grow food for communities while looking after the environment. In this way, consumers (residents) are close to the farms and they can see the source of their food.

The Tengah Forest Town that our government is planning has a huge potential to establish a few bigger natural farms too.

References:

香港鹤薮白 (Hok Tau Pak Choi in Hong Kong)



Thursday, 1 December 2016

“The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.” - Franklin Delano Roosevelt

The video embedded in my previous blog post shows contractor destroying my good soil by pressing all sorts of demolition debris on it. Someone asks whether this is a standard practice among the construction/landscape contractors in Singapore. Well, if it is not standard, it is certainly common. A well-known case is the ACRES Vs ANA Contractor case. I have also heard of cases concerning landed properties whose gardens were spoiled due to landscape contractors burying hazardous materials under the soil. To the contractors, it makes financial sense to "reuse" those waste materials, but it is detrimental to the soil, on which we can grow our food.

Anyone who engages construction/landscape contractors must be very vigilant. Once the soil is damaged or contaminated, it takes years and a lot of money to clean up.

I was involved in insect surveys in a forested area recently. It is heart-sinking to see so much construction wastes dumped randomly in the forests.


I understand that most of the forests (a huge piece of land) are to be destroyed for development, but thoughtless dumping of construction waste must be controlled. In the development project, there would be areas reserved for green spaces (gardens and parks). If the random dumping of wastes is allowed, it is hard in the future to find clean soil for creating parks and gardens.

It is already well-known that Singapore is not a clean city, but a cleaned city. It is very common to see pavements, lawns and even parks littered with rubbish like cigarette butts, plastic cups, packets, bottles, etc., and National Day rubbish too.


In Ground-Up Initiative, volunteers would sometimes help to collect dry leaves from around the premises to be used as mulching materials in our food garden. But often, there is so much rubbish among the dry leaves that everything has to be dumped as general waste and sent to the incinerators.



It is very sad.

Soil health is human health. We are what we eat and what we eat comes from the soil.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (32nd U.S. President) once said: "The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself."






Saturday, 26 November 2016

We need more small farms

When I visit some vegetable markets in Taiwan and Hong Kong, I often enjoy not only the vibrant and lively atmosphere, but also the sight of a large varieties of vegetables. I believe those vegetable varieties, not seen in supermarkets, are probably grown in small local farms. They can't be grown by large scale industrial farms, whose primary concern is their return on investment. These large farms would use agrochemicals and machinery, less workers and grow only a few commercial crop varieties to achieve higher "efficiency and productivity". Industrial farms are not growing crops - they are manufacturing crops. The people who work there are not farmers - they are workers.

Whereas, the practices in small local farms are more friendly to the environment, and can produce safer and more nutritious food.

But the situation is very worrying now. A report tilted "HUNGRY FOR LAND: Small farmers feed the world with less than a quarter of all farmland" says that

  • Small farms are currently squeezed onto less than a quarter of the world's farmland.
  • We're fast losing small farms and farmers in many places, while big farms are getting bigger
If this trend of big farms displacing small farms continues, it is logical to predict that there will be less crop varieties, and hence a narrower spectrum of nutrients, available to the people. Think of how many banana varieties you can buy in our supermarkets today. I myself have also read about and witnessed the extinction of a few vegetable varieties in Hong Kong.

In a previous blog post, I talked about how my humble food forest that my wife and I took two years to create, was destroyed in three days by an agro-corporate firm. They would then build a high-tech greenhouse to grow crops indoor, shutting out Nature, who was regarded as the supreme farmer by Sir Albert Howard in his book "An Agricultural Testament"

Watch this video clip to see how they destroyed my food forest, laid and pressed demolition debris such as crushed toilet bowls, tiles, plastic pipes onto the soil, in order to build their greenhouses on it.



We need to reverse this dangerous trend of small farms disappearing and big farms getting bigger.

Singapore is often regarded as a land-scarce island nation, but it is easy to see pockets of lawn areas scattered throughout the island. I hope the Singapore government will see the values of small farms and the potential of these lawn areas becoming productive small farms, providing safe and nutritious food for its people - small farms being part of food security in Singapore.

In every district, there are amenities and facilities like community centres, parks, hawker centres, nursing homes, clinics, post offices etc. How about farms that produce food for the residents - the next level of the already successful Community in Bloom Initiatives by NParks. Not just gardens, but small farms of 0.1 to 0.5 hectares that seriously grow food for communities.

I vision a Singapore with many small farms in different areas, producing really safe and nutritious food using responsible farming practices that are friendly to the environment and to the people.

Thursday, 22 September 2016


Sustainable High-Tech Farms?

The word "sustainability" is very loosely used nowadays. As I am a passionate food grower, I tend to be very sensitive when I hear a farm claim that it is a sustainable farm.

Many high-tech farms claim that their farming methods are sustainable. These include those indoor farms in which the environmental factors are artificial and smartly controlled (LED, air-conditioning, etc.). To support their claim, they usually point out that they can produce higher yield and yet use less water, less land area, little or no pesticides, etc.



I judge whether a farming approach is sustainable using Nature's principles of permanence: Diversity and Law of Return

(1) Diversity
We need to have a diversity of crops, weeds, and wildlife in the farm. When you have biodiversity in your farm, you are actually managing pests. You don't need to spray poison. When you have biodiversity, you are recycling nutrients, and the soil is getting all the fertility it needs, without us having to apply fertilizers. You can get rid of the herbicides, the pesticides, the fertilizers through intensifying biodiversity.

(2) Law of Returning
We need to be giving back to Nature, giving back to soil. While we are growing food for human consumption, we must, at the same time, be feeding the living soil too. Hence farm wastes must be returned to soil as much as possible, through mulching and/or composting. We must assist Nature in recycling nutrients and materials.

So, for a farm to be truly sustainable, it has be be regenerative through observing these two Nature's principles of permanence.

Those high-tech farms, which shut Nature out, cannot be truly sustainable.