Sir Tim Smit founder of the UK’s Eden Project, one of the world’s best known ecological visitor attractions, has been invited to expand the Eden Project brand into China, writes Michael Wale.

The invitation comes as the country moves to place a massive area of land under organic agriculture. While separate developments, together they make Smit hopeful that positive ecological forces are gathering momentum.

Smit is to launch three Eden Projects in different location across China, mainly as way to to record each area’s plant history, and when we meet in London he draws my attention to three major speeches made by President Xi, in which the Chinese premier directly addressed the issue of China’s need to return the soil to good health and address food safety and security.

Smit comments: “It didn’t get any coverage in the West, but there is a small but swiftly growing organic movement in China. Initially it was a premium crop approach but the increasing worries about provenance and safety have seen the market and interest grow significantly.”

As for his own view he says: “ I feel that largely organic is the best and most economic way to grow crops.” So what is Eden Project’s approach to organic, and is the existing centre in Cornwall predominantly organically managed? Smit explains: “The Eden Project is not totally organic because the management regime of exotic crops requires by law that all foreign pests are destroyed with stringent penalties for non-compliance. We would prefer to manage with biological controls but the law will not permit it”.

Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project

In Britain, Smit has quickly become a leading voice of the newly formed Sustainable Soil Alliance, a movement launched at the end of last year at a meeting convened at the House of Commons. The meeting was also addressed by the DEFRA Minister Michael Gove, who, in a host term in office, has moved the British Government’s policy towards a much more environmentally oriented focus that prioritises a ‘public goods’ approach to food and farming.

As for his Chinese venture, Smit confirms that the first Chinese soil will be dug this summer.  The first of the three Eden Project schemes in China will be in Qingdao, and will be developed around the theme of the power of water (it will feature the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, among other things) – a reflection of China’s recognition of the enormous value, and fragility, of global water resources and the threat they face from global warming.

The second Project will be in Yan’an in central, northern China on the Loess Plateau, alongside the Yellow river. This project will explore the theme of land and soil and its importance for life on earth. It will showcase ecological restoration as a vital tool for the future and restore a degraded site just outside the city into a fertile valley full of flowers, agriculture, craft and education.  The third Eden project in China is based at Sheng Lu Vineyard in Beijing. The aim is to create a place to reconnect with nature. Education and training programmes will run from here, offering the chance for children and adults to play in natural environment.

So why is Smit taking theEden Project concept to China? He answers reflectively: “The purpose is to associate gentle provocative thinking to stimulate understanding of our relationship with the natural  world and thereby effecting policy and human behaviour to be empathetic to living in harmony”.

“The purpose is to associate gentle provocative thinking to stimulate understanding of our relationship with the natural  world”

Switching briefly to the Middle East, I ask Smit what line he will preach when leads the case for sustainability in 2020 in Dubai (Smit has been appointed creative director for the main Sustainability pavilion at Expo 2020 in Dubai)? He tells me: “Our approach in Dubai is agnostic. We discuss farming from the standpoint of needing to heal the soil. By definition this requires a huge change in farming methods which will need to see big injections of organic materials, and management regimes to return the soil to proper fertility and consistency through soil content biodiversity”.

I steer the conversation back to organic, and the question that so often seems often to divide opinion in agricultural circles – can organic feed the world. What does Smit think? “I am not certain if organically grown food could feed the world. I would like to think so. But I just don’t know”. So, does he believe that organic is the best way to grow crops? “I feel that, largely, organic is the best and most economic way to grow crops,” he tells me.

So, what would be his message be for conventional farmers, who would argue that they have to earn a living, increase yields and so on? “Yes, earn a living, but earn it by growing, husbanding or stewarding what brings greatest value. Doing it properly, and widening the sources of  income from the farm and land, are not in conflict. So whether it be converting farms to mixed use, or managing them in order to be paid for carbon capture as an additional source of income is all part of the mix. I am also interested in having farmers act as educators to urban growers and being paid for it”.

Smit’s personal campaign in agriculture is to get the Eden Project involved in helping young would-be agronomists, by making it hip, making the training entrepreneurial and by developing understanding of how to keep the maximum added-value in the hands of the producer, or co-operatives of producers. The Eden Project already offers its own university-level degree courses, which Smit tells me are very popular and developing all the time.

He says, finally: “The UK is generally risk averse. Were I allowed to dream I would love Britain to be right back on the world stage leading its research and being the centre of world class agronomy with the health of the planet and its people”.

Main image: Artists’s impression of the Eden Project Qingdao scheme in China.