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The floods and lessons in a teacup

The floods and lessons in a teacup

The floods in the north of England and parts of Scotland are causing misery to thousands of people. News footage shows flooded streets and clean-up missions, and it’s triggered a discussion about investments into flood protection - or rather the lack of. It might be too early to assess the damage in rural areas, from drowned livestock to ruined soils and crops. But it’s high time to discuss the impact of what’s happening upstream – and it’s not just the fact that according to George Monbiot* areas of the moors are still being drained and burnt to improve grouse shooting. I’d like to highlight the impact organic agriculture can have: it can act as a growing flood defence and keep mountains from moving. Literally.

In the foothills of the Himalayas, in the famous Indian tea growing region of Darjeeling, the positive impact of organic agriculture is not a theory, it is reality and there is proof that it works. Decades of conventional tea growing in Darjeeling, which often included the hefty use of pesticides and herbicides, left soils particularly on steep slopes bare and degraded. Add to that the rainstorms of the monsoon season and you have a disaster waiting to happen. In 1968 it did happen: In a huge landslide on the Ambootia tea estate two whole villages disappeared in the abyss, it was sheer luck that nobody was killed. During the following years more and more 'after slides' happened and the landslide reached a width of 2.5 km. The then owner abandoned the estate. Ten years later a determined young tea grower, Sanjay Bansal, took on the challenge. Together with experts and scientists from India and Europe an action plan was worked out: spring and rainwater were drained in such a way that even heavy monsoon showers could not dislodge more rock and soil. Large parts of the slope were covered with nets to which 'pockets' of soil and seeds were attached. Grass varieties were selected specifically for their dense root network; they could start to grow in the fertile soil of the pouch and extend their fully developed roots into the slope beneath. Once the grasses took hold more plants started to grow: other grass varieties, ground covering herbs and weeds, then shrubs and eventually trees. The Ambootia landslide has been completely stabilised.

What happened in Ambootia wasn’t an exception, landslides happen practically on a daily basis in the Himalayas, the bare scars they leave pockmark almost every slope, they block roads, devastate villages and the wreckage that is washed away in the floods makes the torrents even more lethal. Organic agriculture isn’t the single fix for all of these problems, but it can make a significant difference.

While he was still dealing with the landslide, Sanjay Bansal started switching Ambootia to organic. Today he oversees 13 certified organic tea gardens in Darjeeling. He is convinced that organic agriculture doesn’t just produce the best tea, it also provides the tools to deal with the effects of climate change: No soil is left exposed, on steep slopes grasses with particularly deep roots are inter-planted and if tea bushes need replacing they will have been grown from seed. Normally tea bushes are grown from cuttings for higher yields. Grown from seed the bushes develop tap roots which will grow deeper, are stronger rooted, able to access and hold water more easily. Only mature tea trees produce seed and the Ambootia tea estate is one of the very few gardens worldwide that has tea trees for seed production. Dense lantana hedges border the narrow roads and stop runoff, cover grasses are cut and mulched, soil is improved through worm compost and cow manure. Remaining forest areas are protected, new trees are being planted. And the positive results are clearly visible: even after the heaviest of monsoon rains you will see no flooding in those tea gardens, and in the increasingly long drought season in late winter and spring no irrigation is needed.

I don’t suggest growing organic tea in Cumbria or Yorkshire, but organic agriculture does have the tools to achieve good yields, healthy soils - and it helps to mitigate floods. And if you’re not a farmer but contemplating concreting over your front garden or building a huge patio in the back – maybe you could think again over a cup of organic Darjeeling tea.

*The Guardian, 30.12.2015, page 25