Traidcraft CEO, Robin Roth, Asks - What is Real Organic Farming?
For too long the discussion about pesticides has been entirely anthropocentric: are they harmful to me, personally? It’s the wrong question.
Pesticides are designed to kill pests. They are excellent at doing this, but they are an entirely blunt and blind force, and will, in sufficient quantities, extinguish or impair all life forms that they come into direct contact with.
The real and most important casualty from pesticide use is the soil. Healthy soil is an extremely complex micro-universe teeming with life, untold and unnumbered. Science has not yet begun to define and categorise the estimated billions of bacterial life forms that exist in each handful of good, healthy soil, but this extraordinary world of life enables plants to grow and provides them with everything they need. Repeated pesticide use will rapidly destroy this micro-universe, turning fertile, healthy soil to dust. It is not possible to grow food in dust. Dust also tends not to stay around: it is removed by water run-off and wind. Pesticides will eventually degrade our soil to the point where it either disappears entirely or is infertile. That’s when we will notice that using pesticides is not such a clever idea. It is hard for us to imagine a landscape with no or severely degraded soil, but such landscapes exist throughout the world, we just choose not to see them. Deserts are only the most extreme example.
Real organic farming is not just about the absence of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, it is really about soil health. The original pioneers of organic farming wanted to put as much back into the soil as each crop removed, from which the term “the circular economy” originated. This involves multiple strategies and all of them are sciences in their own rights. Soil contains minerals and elements vital for plant growth, specifically nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. These elements are available in nature, but only in limited quantities and ensuring that our soil has enough of each is a real art. Good organic farming involves many levels of composting (including cattle manure), multi-cropping, bio-diversity with sufficient wood cover to provide moisture and the judicious application of other natural inputs.
Organic farming also understands that nature, generally, provides mechanisms for dealing with pests. Planting marigolds along the sides of small rice fields will deter certain types of rice eating pests, for example. And composted marigolds (and nettles) are good providers of nitrogen. Organic farmers understand what natural techniques can be used to fight which natural predators. The most committed organic farmers will introduce bio-dynamic techniques which involve composting techniques of unusual complexity, paying attention to lunar and sun cycles when planting and generally trying to adapt farming to natural rhythms.
It is helpful to think of conventional, pesticide driven farming as synthetic chemical farming: some go further and call it poison farming. Organic farming should be better framed as circular farming: it puts back what it takes out, and does not seek to wrest control of food production in a way that significantly changes the balances of nutrient and bacterial life in the ground.
Organic standards vary – just like those for fair trade – and there are plenty of organic farm practices that do not adhere to the above description. At its worst, organic farming is nothing more than an absence of the most egregious use of pesticides and fertilisers. At its best, it will ensure we have healthy food to eat for generations to come.
If consumers want to avoid pesticides, they should eat food grown organically in their own gardens. If this is not an option, they should eat food grown locally and organically, and above all, in season. As a third choice, consuming any product that is Organically certified is better than products grown conventionally. Going direct to a farmer is always a better bet than buying in a supermarket.
At Traidcraft we have been helping producers convert to organic and bio-dynamic farm practices for 40 years. We have long understood that paying farmers more for their produce is one thing but ensuring that they have soil to grow their food in in a generation’s time is a much better investment.
Maybe the best advice of all is not to go out walking in the countryside during the spraying season, which is when the poison is airborne and at its most potent. A tea farmer in Darjeeling once told me that spraying season on conventional farms was horrible – the snakes became markedly more aggressive as they writhed their way through the poison. Their skins were on fire and would bite anything that moved. It was so much nicer, she reported, to pick teas, since their conversion to organic farming. The snakes were happier.