Relevance Notes for Solviva

by Anna Edey

Take One:

     The first of Windward's three sustainability goals involves the development of hyper-integrated aquaponics. Aquaponics refers to the growing of plants and fish in the same system, and the hyper-integrated part has to do with the on-site production of the feed needed to drive the system.

     As one starting point in that process, we're building on work described by Edey in Solviva and by the New Alchemy Institute in the second book on this reading list. While it is theoretically possible to use a system modeled on her work to generate the sort of economic return she suggests, Edey's title is unfortunate in that it's a bit like asking nine women to work together to produce a baby in one month--it's a logical enough proposition on the surface, except for the minor problem that biological systems don't break down that way.

      Still, it's clear that Edey has done important work and advanced the concept of sustainability in significant ways. It's the task of each generation to go beyond the work done by those who've pioneered, and Edey has certainly set an example that's both an encouragement and a challenge.

     We're building on Edey's use of plants and animals in the same airspace by also integrating rabbits, earthworms, fish and Black Solider Fly larva (BSF) into the system. Edey developed the concept of an Earth Lung to address the problem caused by the ammonia that's given off by the decomposition of the urine produced by the animals, something which is important in an enclosed environment because of the adverse impact that ammonia has on plants and animals.

     One solution to that problem we're researching involves using wood chips to absorb the ammonia. The increased nitrogen content then enables bacteria to break down the wood chips into materials which can then be digested by earthworms with a rich form of compost as the by-product.

     Another solution we're exploring is the use of aquaponic beds to absorb ammonia out of the green house air. Ammonia is extremely soluble in water, so much so that almost three hundred volumes of ammonia gas can dissolve in one volume of water. Once in solution, it will be broken down by the bacteria active in the growing beds--first into nitrites, and then into nitrates--at which point it can be absorbed by the plants as a nutrient.

     One difference between Edey's approach and what we're doing is expressed in our third mission point, the use of these systems to sustain a community capable of sustaining the systems--the closing of the circle. The operation of Eday's system was premised on income generated by the sale of salad and eggs, and when the economics shifted--and they always do--the viability of the operation was threatened.

     Our approach is to build systems that directly support the community, and where any economic component is ancillary and optional. At that point, our concern is focused on the quality of the products that sustain our lives instead of whatever the current market price might be.

     When it's in our interest to produce extra for trade or sale, we can do that, and when it's not, then we have other concerns to attend to as we build a life for ourselves here on the edge of the Cascadian wilderness. By avoiding--for the most part--the need to generate income, we're also avoiding the temptation to place non-sustainable demands on our land or on ourselves, demands which necessarily limit our long-term productivity, and thereby, our viability.

     Every book on this list is here because we believe that it's worth study if one wants to increase their likelihood of success by learning from the successes and failures of those who've gone before. Solviva is at the head of that list--I can't pay it a better compliment than that.

Take Two:

     Al Gore's slide show in An Inconvenient Truth makes the case that we're entering into a period of global warming that is going to have a profound impact on the world that we and our children are going to live in. One of the ways that global warming will manifest itself is in a dramatic change in weather patterns worldwide--some areas that currently get enough rain fall to grow crops will not, while other areas will see increased precipitation come in the form of drenching rains that erode away the topsoil. Either road leads to famine.

     Currently, when there isn't enough rainfall, fossil-fuel based energy is used to pump water out of the ground to irrigate crops, a practice which releases more greenhouse gases and leads over time to a decrease in soil fertility as salt dissolved in the water increases the soil's alkalinity. In the future, we're going to have to do things differently--in order to feed ourselves, we're going to need to capture and store rain water, and then use that resource effectively to grow the food we'll need to feed ourselves.

     That's where aquaponics come in. While much of the attention goes to the fish grown in an aquaponic system, the greater reality is that for every pound of fish produced, the system can produce forty pounds of vegetables. By storing rain water, and then using it in a recirculating system, it's possible to produce food crops using less than a tenth of the water consumed by traditionally irrigated agriculture.

     While An Inconvenient Truth does a good job of scarring anyone who's paying attention, it does very little to point people towards ways to mitigate the impact of the global warming effects that are already coming at us ready or not. And even if the release of fossil-fuel derived greenhouse gases were to stop right now, we're in for an extended period of climatic change before nature's balance can reassert itself, and not only is that not going to happen, it's clear that the U.S., China, India and others are in a race to claim and use as large a share of the remaining fossil fuel resources as they can.

     While there's nothing that we can do to change that, what we can do is focus our efforts at working out out ways to cope with the impact of global warming at the local level; i.e. study and teach ways to grow food that don't require non-sustainable inputs of water and energy. There's an old wisdom that holds that it's better to light a candle than curse the darkness, and Solviva does that by offering a bright example of some of the things that can be done with the resources we have at hand right now. Better to tackle this stuff while it's "live and learn" instead of tomorrow when it's "do or die."

     The really great thing is that there's little downside to following the path of sustainability since even if there wasn't any such thing as global warming coming at us, the worse case is that we develop a wholesome food supply that sustains our health and happiness here on the land, something which is worth doing in its own right.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 71