Monday, December 29, 2008

Strawberry Fields Forever, or The Promise of Organic Farming

(Published October 15, 2007 Crossroads Chronicle, Cashiers, NC)

I would probably be remiss if in a discussion of organic farming, I did not provide some perspective or context from the origins of farming.

Prior to the start of systematic agriculture, populations were hunter-gatherers. Gatherers could rely only on what edible plants that could be found, and hunting is, well, hit or miss. All available time was spent seeking food for survival. A better system was clearly needed.

In my little pet theory about how this transition came about, when a hunter would return to camp without success, Mama wasn’t happy. Then, as now, when Mama wasn’t happy, wasn’t nobody happy. Except back then, Mama had herself a wooden club. Necessity being the mother of invention, so to speak, it was in fact Man who around 9500 BC first sought to cultivate emmer and einkorn wheat, then later hulled barley, peas and lentils. I might lose some arguments, but at least on this point I’ll stick to my guns; you know, when your right, your right.

Agriculture was humanity’s first technology, and allowed for surplus food supply. Populations thus began to grow, and some individuals were able to focus on other advances.

In the past 50 or so years, agriculture has become intensive and industrial in scale. Extensive use of pesticides, fertilizer, herbicides, and oil- based mechanization has brought about significant advances in crop yield and efficiency. Use of antibiotics and growth hormones in livestock has resulted in similar economic gains.

These advances have fed a growing population, and starvation is no longer a common death as in the previous century. The positives have not been entirely without any unforeseen consequences or negatives, however.

In the case of pesticide, the extensive environmental impact caused by DDT
was first brought to public attention in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. 10 years after the books release in 1962, DDT was banned in the US. While subsequent replacements for DDT may be considered less persistent or toxic, it seems a pesticide which can kill insects which have been around hundreds of millions of years can probably harm humans. More than 80% of the most commonly-used pesticides today have been classified by National Academy of Sciences researchers as potentially carcinogenic -- and are routinely found in mothers' milk.

In addition, many pesticides are non-selective, and kill many helpful insects along with the pests. This collateral damage, along with habitat destruction, is impacting wild pollinators, whose presence is obviously important in the ecosystem.
In the past many different animals pollinated plants, including butterflies, bats, and more than 40,000 native species of bees. As humanity has increasingly disrupted native habitats, many species of pollinators have gone to that great bee hive in the sky. The honey bee has filled in for a time, pollinating a wide range of plant species, but now even the wild honey bee is at risk. Commercial bee keeper operations have been experiencing a problem which has been termed colony collapse disorder, resulting in loss of up to 85% of their bees. Causes of the loss include mites, viruses and possibly inadvertent exposure to pesticide.

Certified organic methods avoid synthetic pesticides altogether. Some organic farming certification standards do allow the use of natural methods of protection from pests such as those derived from plants. Organic advocates state that natural pesticides are a last resort, while growing healthier, disease-resistant plants, using cover crops and crop rotation, and encouraging beneficial insects and birds are the primary methods of pest control.

In the case of fertilizer, as far as possible, organic farmers rely on crop rotation, crop residues, animal manures and mechanical cultivation to maintain soil productivity and soil tilling to supply plant nutrients, and to control weeds, insects and other pests. Commercial farming typically relies on synthetic fertilizer, in which studies have shown result in nitrogen leaching 4.4-5.6 times higher than organic plots. Current farming practice tends to result in nitrates and phosphates running off into lakes, rivers, and groundwater. This leaching can cause algae blooms, eutrophication (nutrient pollution), and subsequent dead zones.

In the case of livestock husbandry, current practices routinely include the use of antibiotics and growth hormones to facilitate growth and production. As in the situation with widespread use of pesticides and herbicides, the long term results of such practices cannot be predicted. However, it is likely that extensive use of antibiotics in animals could lead to further antibiotic resistance in microbes - a growing concern. It is also likely that introducing growth hormones into the food we eat could have some deleterious effect.

In any case, organic farming practices are more sustainable than its industrial cousin. The former requires fewer synthetic (man-made, often oil based) inputs, and results in less environmental impact than the latter. Note the phrase ‘more sustainable,’ instead of actually sustainability. Very little of life in the modern developed world could be considered sustainable, from the perspective of either the continuing availability of natural resources after the next several generations or the continuing viability of this planet to support ecosystems sometime into the 22nd century.

If we were all inside a spacecraft instead of on a planet, how sustainable would it be with a malfunctioning climate system and scarce food supply? But, you are probably thinking that this is a ridiculous analogy, without any similarity to form a proper kind of comparison whatsoever. However, in my defense, it is likely that I was dropped on my head as a kid, although my parents continue to deny that. (But they do get a deer-in-the-headlights look in their eyes when I bring it up, and that is rather suspicious.)

In recent years, the word sustainability has been used in reference to how long human ecological systems can be expected to be usefully productive. It has been noted that in the past, there have been complex human societies that have died out as a result of their own growth and associated impacts on ecological support systems. The implication is that modern industrial society, which continues to grow in scale and complexity, seemingly without much regard to either diminishing resources or the resulting ecological consequences of our actions, might also collapse.

The Beatles (the Fab Four, not the pest) evoked ideas and images of a better world in many aspects; however idealism does not always effectively make the transition from a construct in the mind to a concrete reality. Hope is not a method, as the Army is fond of saying; to attain the possibility of strawberry fields forever, we are going to have to make it happen.


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