March & April 2023 monthly talks

Both our last 2 evening talks of the season broke the mould in terms of the subject matter and of audience participation.

March: Climate Change beneath our feet

Our March talk was given by Emma Brisdion, a Science communications consultant, who delivers a regular podcast called “For what it’s Earth”. She began her talk by asking the audience: “Name one good thing you have done for the planet this week.” Her talk then focused on the loss of permafrost in Arctic Sweden, caused by global warming. Permafrost is a huge carbon sink, and when it melts, carbon is released into the atmosphere, increasing the greenhouse effect. Snow which accumulates around trees insulates the ground below, increasing permafrost melting, so in Sweden, planting more trees in these areas will not help to reduce global warming!

There is no permafrost in the UK, but a large number of peat bogs, covering 12% of the land area. These are also huge carbon sinks, storing more carbon than all the forests of France, Germany and the UK combined! So, draining them (or allowing them to dry out) and digging up peat both release carbon in to the atmosphere (as CO2 and methane), further increasing the greenhouse effect. 

Peat bogs are important because they act as sponges as they retain large amounts of water, reducing the chance of flooding downstream. They are also slow to dry out (unless drained). They also filter pollutants out of the water that flows through them, and harbour unique flora and fauna. Damaged peat bogs release 6% of the Earth’s carbon, & losing 5% of our peat-lands emits the same amount of carbon per year as all man-made emissions. Peat is dug up for forestry and agriculture & burned to support heather for grouse shooting!

Emma’s list of saving peat bogs includes: banning peat composts, banning peat burning, removing trees from peat bogs, re-wetting bogs that have dried up, & planting mosses, particularly Sphagnum moss, from which peat is formed.

Emma delivered a similar crucial message about our soils generally, another vital carbon sink. Roughly one third of the Earth’s arable soils are degraded due to poor agricultural techniques. It is estimated that some soils might have only 60 more harvests left! She advocates home composting, or at least making full use of food waste bins, eating seasonally, locally & organically, and planting soil-benefiting plants, such as legumes. Don’t leave soil bare in winter, do make use of fallen leaves as a soil conditioner and don’t dig the soil because it damages the structure.

Above all, talk about climate change, its causes and effects, 25% of the population need to be talking about it before governments will act.

April: Working Together for Food Justice

The April talk was even more radical, with an unprecedented level of audience participation. Entitled: “Working together for food justice”, it was given by Ped Asgarian, qualified as a Marine Biologist, but with several years experience in food production and retail (he ran the Chew Valley community farm for 7 years). He is currently a key member of “Feeding Bristol”, a local charity.

More an interactive lecture than a talk, Ped asked the audience to call out words they associate with the current food system. Emotive words such as: processed, plastic, unequal, industrial, worldwide, livestock factories, and many more were added to his flip-chart list, as well as more positive contributions such as: free range, efficient, affordable, choice & organic.

He also (with the help of the audience) explained the term “food justice” - which involves repairing the current food system to ensure equal opportunities for everyone on Earth to obtain sufficient, well-balanced food. He used a number of statistics to highlight how we are nowhere near this, even in the UK, one of the most prosperous nations on the planet. The poorest 10% of the UK have £53 per week or less to live on, about one third of what they need to afford enough food to feed a family of 4. This is being made worse by the current cost of living crisis.

We discussed current strategies to help: free school meals, free nursery places, community fridges, food banks, waste food from supermarkets, Bristol Fair Share, and more. Ped explained that none of these address the inequality that exist here, and in most countries, & only a radical re-distribution of wealth globally would help to greatly reduce the need for these short-term fixes. Ped urged us all to read their document: One City Food Equality Strategy for Bristol 2022-23, a 25-page summary of their work.

Both of these talks indeed gave us a great deal of “food for thought”!

Dave Sage

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