The Green Building Council SA (GBCSA) is celebrating World Environment Day on 5 June with inspiration and ideas on how to bring the outdoors inside, appreciate nature and protect the natural environment that we all share.
The theme for this year is Connecting with Nature and the GBCSA invites South Africans to take positive steps – both big and small – to bring nature into their cities, workplaces and homes.
For inspiration, consider what corporates like Alexander Forbes in Sandton and the Vodafone Site Solution Innovation Centre in Midrand, and hospitality businesses like Hotel Verde in Cape Town are doing to make greener spaces a reality, or the Ngewana family undertook in their own home.
Alexander Forbes’ office building at 115 West Street in Sandton, for example, has literally brought the outdoors indoors with their beautifully landscaped garden reception area, while 58% of the office area has natural daylight levels sufficient to allow the electric lights to be turned off during daylight hours.
The developers of the Vodafone Site Solution Innovation Centre showed considerable sensitivity to nature: care was taken to integrate the building into the landscape and landscapers went to great lengths to protect and relocate indigenous trees that were on site before construction.
Hotel Verde is living up to its claim of being the greenest hotel in Africa. With a whole host of nature-loving innovations, you can literally immerse yourself in nature just steps from Cape Town International Airport. The hotel boasts an indigenous roof garden that also acts as a thermal barrier, an organic food garden and vertical aquaponics set-up that provide all the fresh produce required by the kitchen, and a chemical-free eco pool for guests to cool down in. The developer also rehabilitated the wetlands adjacent to the hotel to the extent that it is now a green lung in the Airport Industria precinct and is host to over 100 species of indigenous and endemic vegetation, an ecotrail, outdoor gym and two beehives housing over 60 000 Cape Honey Bees.
Interestingly, all Green Star SA new buildings tools have a credit specifically designed to protect nature – the Eco-Conditional Requirement – which aims to encourage and recognise development on land that has limited ecological value, and discourage development on or adjacent to ecologically sensitive sites. This credit recognises that humans need to exist alongside, and with minimal impact to nature, so discourages damage to or infringement of vegetation of high ecological value, or indigenous natural vegetation that is in its untransformed state; threatened or protected species, including flora and fauna; and watercourses of high ecological value, which include those deemed significant under a local, provincial or national register and registered wetlands.
But GBCSA Chief Executive Officer Dorah Modise points out that it’s not only corporates and hotels that should be investing in greener spaces: everyone can make small changes towards greener buildings and healthier lifestyles, without a large outlay of capital or time.
“Think baby steps: bring more greenery inside, for instance, or make sure there is as much natural light as possible inside your building,” says Modise. “Plant as many plants as you have space for – whether that’s a pot plant on the window sill or indigenous gardens outside – or a herb or vegetable garden.”
A great example of this is how the Ngewana family transformed their backyard into a herb and vegetable garden, as part of the GBCSA MyGreenHome project. Read more about this and more at www.mygreenhome.org.za.
“Making a concerted effort to spend as much time as possible in nature is beneficial on so many levels – it’s good for physical and mental wellbeing and relationships, plus it helps to remind us to live in harmony with our fellow beings. Our natural systems are also responsible for keeping our planet in a healthy livable state, so for the sake of our children we must preserve nature, whilst at the same time enjoy spending time in nature.”
“A good way to start is to join us in celebrating World Environment Day on 5 June 2017. We will be helping create the world’s biggest nature photo album, and you can too by snapping selfies of yourselves connecting with nature and tagging @GBCSA and #WithNature and #WorldEnvironmentDay,” concludes Modise.
As word gets around that soil is alive, farmers have adopted a whole new attitude toward their land.
For three weeks every month, Ray Archuleta captivates audiences with a few handfuls of soil. He begins with two clumps, dropping them into water. The soil from a farm where the soil isn’t tilled holds together, while the tilled soil immediately disperses, indicating poor soil structure.
Next, volunteers from the audience — mostly farmers and ranchers — pour water over a soil that grew a variety of crops, and it runs right through. A sample of tilled soil that grew only corn is like a brick, and the water sits on top.
Water is the most precious resource for growing crops, and having a soil that is unable to absorb water is crippling for farmers.
The implications of Archuleta’s demonstrations are obvious to food producers, who see the fate of their acres in those clumps of soil.
The message is powerful, and producers drive home knowing that soil is alive, that it can be sick or healthy, and that healthy soil can do some pretty amazing things — like make a farm more resilient to drought, sequester enormous amounts of carbon, reduce erosion and support an ecosystem that’s teeming with life.
Archuleta, a conservation agronomist with the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, popularised these soil health demonstrations that by his estimates have reached more than 100,000 farmers and ranchers in the US alone.
He’s a pioneer of a movement that has recently stolen the spotlight from conventional agriculture.
Known as the soil health movement, it is a management philosophy centered around four simple principles: reduce or eliminate tillage, keep plant residues on the soil surface, keep living roots in the ground, and maximise diversity of plants and animals.
Some immensely successful farmers have ascended to celebrity status in the agricultural community preaching these principles. They are growing more food while drastically reducing their use of inputs like herbicides and fertilisers, which is the ultimate strategy for becoming more profitable.
Health denotes life and function. Quality is like the quality of a couch or something. Farmers intuitively grasp soil health.
Ray Archuleta, conservationist and agronomist, US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service
Benefits on top of profitability include enhancing the health of ecosystems we depend on. The possibility of a win-win for farmers and the environment is a driving force for the movement.
“This whole movement emerged out of desperation,” says Archuleta. Over 10 years ago, he thought of a farmer friend of his and wondered, “Why can’t he make a good living on 600 acres of prime irrigated ground, and why can’t he bring his son into the operation? It starts dawning on me that something is wrong with modern agriculture.”
In many ways, that “something” is that farming has become too expensive. Over the past several decades, farmers have increasingly paid more for inputs like equipment, seeds and chemicals, while commodity prices have remained stagnant or even fallen.
Sociologists call this phenomenon the “double squeeze,” as the rising cost of doing business, combined with meager returns, has put pressure on profits.
Combined with soils that are deteriorating from centuries of tillage and monoculture, these trends exacerbate the vulnerability of a profession that is already fraught with uncertainty.
For farmers, the blend of poor soil and the double squeeze makes it harder to survive an extended drought or bounce back after a few failed crops. On a larger scale, it threatens rural economies, natural resources and food security alike.
But in 2011, Archuleta saw an opportunity to reverse these trends. Jason Weller, then the NRCS chief of staff, had assembled Archuleta and a group of other NRCS employees from around the country in Greensboro, North Carolina to create a plan for the federal agency to engage in the broader sustainable food movement.
The soil health movement had been bubbling around the country for two decades. The Greensboro team, and ultimately the NRCS leadership, decided the time was right to scale it up into a coordinated, national effort to advance soil health.
Birth of a movement
We don’t know who first uttered the term “soil health” in the US, but Jay Fuhrer started saying it in the 1990s. As a district conservationist with NRCS in Bismarck, Fuhrer was dismayed by the declining status of the soil in his region. He used to spend his summers building sod waterways on farms in North Dakota.
“We had all this erosion, and we were trying to establish a safe outlet for water coming off a field,” says Fuhrer. “But the question begs, why is the water coming off the field?”
The answer is what Archeluta demonstrates in his presentations today: Degraded soil has a hard time absorbing water. That means much of the water a farmer needs to grow crops runs off and eventually pollutes streams and rivers, taking precious topsoil with it.
“So we got together one day and we kinda looked at each other,” Fuhrer says, recalling a meeting at the field office in the early 1990s. “We asked, ‘how much further can we bring this system down?’ It got pretty quiet in that room. Honestly at that time, we didn’t really know what changes we were going to make, we just knew that what we were doing wasn’t working.”
So Fuhrer and the other NRCS conservationists in Bismarck dubbed themselves the “Soil Health Team.” Fuhrer doesn’t recall why the term “soil health” popped into his head, or where he heard it for the first time, but the team began to educate itself about ways to restore and maintain soil function.
They read academic papers and learned from successful producers in the region, and then they brought what they learned to other farmers and ranchers in North Dakota through workshops and farm tours.
Ray Archuleta knew something special was happening in North Dakota. He heard about Gabe Brown, a farmer and rancher, turning his operation around after a few years of failed crops by eliminating tillage, growing diverse mixes of crops and changing how he grazed his cattle to more closely mimic the way bison once grazed the prairie.
And he almost completely eliminated his chemical inputs, helping him to become more profitable.
Archuleta watched Fuhrer and Brown start to redefine agriculture in North Dakota. And when they popped into his mind years later in Greensboro, North Carolina, what had been an undercurrent suddenly took a turn toward the mainstream.
Today, government agencies, food and agribusinesses, universities, and environmental groups are all pivoting to support and capitalize on the possibility of a paradigm shift in agriculture, and they are investing millions of dollars in the process.
With thousands of farmers already on board, powerful partnerships have taken on the challenge of filling knowledge gaps in the science and economics of soil health that prevent other producers from taking the plunge. USDA announced a US$72.3 million soil health investment to help farmers adapt to and mitigate climate change.
A pledge of US$4 million from the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, founded by Cargill, the Environmental Defense Fund, General Mills, Kellogg Company, Monsanto, PepsiCo, The Nature Conservancy, Walmart and the World Wildlife Fund, will augment an on-farm study and demonstration effort of soil health practices led by the farmer-led Soil Health Partnership.
And the Walton Family Foundation provided a US$626,000 grant to the Soil Health Institute to quantify the economic implications of soil health management systems. Money is coming from all sides to support this movement.
One of the most unexpected outcomes of the soil health movement is that groups that were once fighting each other are now working together to achieve the same goal.
In the fall of 2013, for example, representatives from Monsanto and the Rodale Institute (“the organic pioneers”), came together with the Walton Family Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, Cornell University, farmers, federal agencies and numerous other stakeholders to draft a strategic plan for advancing soil health as the cornerstone of land use management decisions.
This meeting, led by the Farm Foundation and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, has helped spawn numerous initiatives, like the Soil Health Institute, with the goal of leveraging these powerful relationships to research and spread soil health.
What is the secret of soil health that enables such diverse groups to unite under the same banner?
There has been little analysis of soil health as a movement, but one possible reason for its success is that it nestled right in the middle of a Venn diagram of two ideologies that are so often at odds.
To productivists driven by the “feed the world” mentality of agribusiness and yield-maximising producers, soil health means bigger and healthier plants and animals. But it also jibes with environmentalists’ goals of improving water quality, sequestering more carbon, using less pesticide and herbicide, and providing greater habitat for biodiversity. At least for the moment, it truly seems to be a win-win.
Beyond that, however, the answer — one that can be instructive to other environmental issues — seems to lie in crafting and delivering a message that can be championed by all sides.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the push by NRCS and the research community was to advance “soil quality.” This term worked fine for scientists, because it is easy to define and measure, but farmers didn’t connect with soil quality.
“Health denotes life and function. Quality is like the quality of a couch or something,” says Archuleta. “Farmers intuitively grasp soil health.” That minor turn of phrase made all the difference.
Similarly, soil health is aligned with many of the concepts of agroecology, but agroecology is not a staple of the American farmer’s lexicon. The soil health terminology made it possible for agroecological farming practices to emerge in mainstream American agriculture.
The success of soil health can also be attributed to the way the message is delivered. Demonstrations and conferences are the core infrastructure of the movement.
High-profile farmers and ranchers speak and write to thousands of producers around the country every year, sharing stories of how soil health has revolutionised their operations. Inspired by these talks, demonstrations and articles in farming magazines, producers experiment with soil health practices on their own farms.
Pockets of formal or informal regional producer networks have popped up all around the country, and they exchange what they’ve learned through experimentation. The movement has taken on a life of its own.
With momentum now spilling into countries around the world, global attention to soil is at an all-time high. The United Nations designated 2015 the International Year of Soils.
The race is on to understand soil in all of its complexity and to engage in agriculture that will prepare soil for the tough times ahead. Still in its infancy, the soil health movement will take continued effort and resources from all sides to maintain momentum.
But everyone is at the table together, and the table is set for a revolution.
South Africa’s department of agriculture said on Friday that scientific tests have confirmed the presence of the invasive fall armyworm in the maize belt, the first time the crop-damaging pest has been detected there.
Countries with confirmed outbreaks can face import bans on agricultural products because the armyworm is classified as a quarantine pest. The pest can also cause extensive damage to crops and has a preference for maize, the regional staple.
The fall armyworm is an invasive Central American species that is harder to detect and eradicate than its African counterpart.
The South African samples were collected in the caterpillar stage and had to emerge as moths before positive identification could be done.
“This pest is a good flyer and cannot be contained in a specific area. Damage reported in South Africa so far is mainly on yellow maize varieties and especially on sweetcorn as well as maize planted for seed production,” the department of agriculture said in a statement.
The outbreak of armyworms has spread to Namibia and Mozambique and is causing “considerable crop damage” in southern Africa, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation said earlier on Friday.
Suspected outbreaks have also erupted in Zambia, Zimbabweand Malawi. They follow a crippling El Nino-triggered drought which scorched much of the region last year, hitting crop production and leaving millions in need of food aid.
The FAO said an emergency meeting would be held in Hararefrom Feb. 14 to 16 to shape coordinated emergency responses to the armyworm threat and other potential hazards such as the spread of avian flu which has been detected in other African regions.
In Malawi, where 6.5 million people, more than a third of the population, are dependent on food aid until this year’s harvest in March, the infestation has spread to all 28 districts in the country.
The armyworm moths lay eggs in maize plants and the caterpillars have also been known to march en masse across the landscape – hence the name. They have been known to destroy 90 percent of the crop in fields they infest.
South Africa’s agriculture ministry is registering pesticides for use against the fall armyworm.
As climate change brings unpredictable weather, droughts, floods, heat waves, cold spurts, and a general sense of chaos to the world of agriculture (and, well, the world, in general), one element is a little more mysterious.
Researchers from around the globe, led by Delphine Deryng, an environmental scientist at Columbia University, took a look at one curious element amongst all the disaster. Increased carbon dioxide levels are heavily associated with climate change, and it’s certainly no shocker that carbon dioxide levels are rising due to all kinds of human activities. But plants, we all learned in elementary school, actually love carbon dioxide: They take it in and expel oxygen, right? So does that mean, even if plants can’t save us, that at least they’ll be happy?
It turns out: sort of! An explanation of how this works, from the study’s release:
The concept is relatively simple; plants take in carbon to build their tissues, and if there is more carbon around, they have an easier time. Leaves take in air through tiny openings called stomata, but in the process the stomata lose water; with more carbon available, they don’t have to open up as much, and conserve moisture.
The study takes into consideration an excess of carbon dioxide in the air and tries to figure out how that would affect the planet’s four main crops: maize, wheat, soy, and rice. This turns out to be more about water than a simple more-carbon-dioxide-means-more-yields connection; the study finds that all four crops will take in more carbon dioxide and use water more efficiently by 2080, but not that we will necessarily see higher yields.
According to these calculations, the study predicts that wheat fields fed by rain, including those in North America, could defeat increased heat and water scarcity stress and actually produce more yields. Irrigation-fed wheat, as in China and India? Nope—still screwed. Corn yields will decrease everywhere, and the jury’s still out on rice and soybeans (the study found that some projections show an increase and some show a decrease).
This study is not, of course, saying that climate change will be good for crops. The inherent unpredictability of the change makes it exceedingly difficult to expect much of anything to go right, let alone to predict it. But it is demanding that we look at all possible effects of climate change, and take note that this is all much more complex than “the planet is heating up.”
Imagine a city rising from a lush bamboo forest, but this city uses no concrete and no steel; it doesn’t stick out of the forest, so much as blend in. This is the vision presented by penda, a Chinese and Austrian design firm, at Beijing Design Week this year. By 2023, penda claims, a city housing 20,000 people could be built entirely from their modular bamboo construction system, free to grow in every direction as the need arises.
The system uses no nails or screws – the bamboo is tied together with ropes – leaving the bamboo cane undamaged so it can be reused in other constructions. All of the materials in penda’s bamboo city are completely recyclable, allowing the city to rise and fall with minimal harm to the environment.
According to penda’s press release, “The project describes a true ecological approach of growth, which leaves no harm on the surrounding environment nor on the building material itself and is, therefore, a counter-movement to a conventional way of the present construction process.”
The bamboo city takes its construction materials from the bamboo forest where it lies. Since bamboo has a rapid growth cycle, the architects envision a never-ending supply of building materials, wherein two new bamboo trees are planted for every one that is removed. The system can grow to house 20 families within nine months, panda states, and as new families arrive, new modular buildings, including communal spaces, bridges and even floating structures, can be added in any direction. By 2023, they picture a city of 20,000 people nestled in 250 acres of bamboo forest.
As a proof of concept, penda created a bamboo pavilion at Beijing Design Week. During the event, visitors were invited to plant seeds into baskets which were then attached to the pavilion. The plants will grow along the bamboo structure, allowing nature to take over the design process where architecture leaves off.