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The Case for Organic Farming
By Adrian Myers
Green Books LtdCopyright © 2006 Adrian Myers
All rights reserved.
What is Organic Farming?
"The organic movement is clearly established and here to stay. It is heralding a change in agriculture which is occurring simultaneously in every developed agricultural nation in the world. Far from being a return to the past, organic farming is an agriculture of the future, our future." — Nicolas Lampkin, Organic Farming
Ancient and Modern
On a cold, grey, drizzly day I slipped into the warmth of the Swiss Cottage reference library in London to continue my researches into organic farming and horticulture. It was 1971, and the day I discovered two amazing things: the fact that the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans had been practising organic farming for over forty centuries non-stop, without a loss of soil fertility; and a quote from the original statement of the Soil Association (the leading organic organization in Britain), which read as follows:
"Many scientists and agriculturists now realize that their knowledge of the natural processes underlying soil fertility is incomplete. They recognize that these processes are only partly explicable in terms of agricultural chemistry and that the pure inorganic approach to the study of soil science is a line of thought as dead as the mechanical determination of nineteenth-century physics. 'Dead' is the appropriate word, for the missing link is life itself."
The discovery that some countries' farmers had been farming organically for 4,000 years was revelation enough, and showed conclusively that organic husbandry had a long and noble history; but to discover that modern organic farming is very much more than just farming as practised in this country before 1939, as so many think, really made me sit up and take notice. I began to realize that organic farming is a changing and evolving science, constantly being moved forward by the growing knowledge of the biological and ecological sciences, and as such is at the cutting edge of agricultural development. Conventional farming, on the other hand, began to seem increasingly old-fashioned and limited in its approach. I was becoming aware that not only does organic farming have an enduring past, but it also has a certain future, as the quote at the beginning of this chapter indicates. I would add one caveat to Nicolas Lampkin's statement: that organic and sustainable farming is also growing fast in many Third World countries.
In 1971 my new wife and I were living in London, but had made a major decision to give up our business and find a small farm in the country which we were going to farm organically. In between rushing off to Devon, Herefordshire, Wales and Shropshire on property hunts, we were busy learning everything we could about the subject. In the process we discovered the great classical books of the organic movement. We spent our time avidly taking notes as we read Sir Albert Howard's An Agricultural Testament, Eve Balfour's The Living Soil, Newman Turner's Fertility Farming, Lawrence D. Hills' Grow Your Own Fruit and Vegetables, Masanobu Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution, Edward Faulkner's Ploughman's Folly, and of course F. H. King's Farmers of Forty Centuries: Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan (now republished with the subtitle Organic Farming in China, Korea and Japan). This last provided us with all the evidence we needed that organic husbandry really does work. There are many experiments with organic farming and horticulture being done around the world, but it should be enough for anyone that the longest trial in history has proved itself. It is possible for modern Chinese to read ancient records going back to the earliest times, and because there has been an almost unbroken civilization over this period, with agricultural records going back that far in some provinces of China, we know that soil fertility and crop yields have remained fairly consistent over this period.
More enlightened members of past societies, like China, through intuitive cognition, observation and experiment, developed the concept of the 'Law of Return'. They noticed that all living things, both plant and animal, would at some stage die and rot, and that the resultant product encouraged the growth of the next generation. This is the continuous cycle of birth, growth, death and rebirth. In the autumn, deciduous leaves fall to the ground, rot down and provide nutrition for future growth. Grass where animals have defecated or urinated grows greener and is more luscious. They discovered that if they combined all the waste organic material together away from the field in compostheaps, it produced more healthy and productive crops, it improved the soil structure, and over time could even increase both the long-term fertility and the depth of the living topsoil. As the ancient saying goes: "Corruption is the mother of vegetation."
It was noticed that some tougher crop residues rotted down more readily with the addition of animal manure and urine, and so they developed a sophisticated system of returning all organic waste back onto the land by first piling it in huge heaps which rotted down over the season, ending up as an easily manageable and sweet-smelling product that was pleasant to handle. They rescued everything they could to add to their heaps. They realized that goodness in the soil ran off into their drainage ditches, so they collected the silt and harvested water hyacinth and other plants growing in the ditches and recycled them as well, adding them to the compost heaps. Everything that was organic and would rot was recycled back onto the land, with the result that a vibrant, living and healthy soil ecosystem was maintained that was capable of producing sustainable yields and healthy crops for as long as these practices were continued.
As Sir Albert Howard, one of the pioneers of the modern organic movement, observed: "The maintenance of the fertility of the soil is the first condition of any permanent system of agriculture." It is only in comparatively modern times that soil scientists have begun to understand the living soil and the natural processes involved in plant nutrition, but ancient farmers intuitively understood this. As F. H. King noted:
"While it was not until 1877 to 1879 that men of science came to know that the processes of nitrification, so indispensable to agriculture, are due to germ life, in simple justice to those who through all ages from Adam down, living close to Nature and working through her and with her, have fed the world, it should be recognized that there have been those among them who have grasped such essential, vital truths and have kept them alive in the practices of their day."
The Aim of this Book
Looking back at history is a very valuable exercise, for it shows us what is possible. However, the main purpose of this book is to show that only sustainable agriculture and horticulture have any sort of future when it comes to food production. By definition, only sustainable forms of farming and horticulture will continue to survive, by whatever name you like to call them, whether 'biological', 'ecological', 'sustainable', 'fertility', 'biodynamic' or 'organic'. On the other hand, a system of husbandry that has a tendency to denude and pollute the natural fertility of the soil, is by definition without a long-term future. I am fully aware that there is little chance of all agriculture becoming strictly organic, but it has to become sustainable. I use the term 'sustainable' in a very specific way, to mean sustainable over time, maintaining or even improving true biological soil fertility; and sustainable in the sense of not degrading and poisoning the environment in the process. Not all sustainable systems are strictly organic, but I have concentrated on organic husbandry as the standard to aim for. Whilst putting the case unequivocally for sustainable and organic husbandry, however, I have tried to avoid the trap that many proponents of organic farming often fall into, namely self-righteousness. If I do lapse occasionally, my excuse is enthusiasm. As Jules Pretty, an advocate of sustainable farming, has quite rightly cautioned, those who are concerned with the development of a more sustainable agriculture must not fall into the same traps by making grandiose claims to have the sole answer.
This is not a handbook on how to farm and garden organically; there are many excellent books on the subject, such as Nicolas Lampkin's Organic Farming and Bob Flowerdew's Organic Bible: Successful Gardening the Natural Way. Nor is this a consumer guide, because this subject is covered comprehensively in Lynda Brown's indispensable The Shopper's Guide to Organic Food.
What it does is attempt to show organic husbandry as continuously evolving and developing, through the innovative developments of organic farmers and advances brought about by scientific research and understanding. Organic husbandry is not about returning to farming and gardening as it was seventy to a hundred years ago; indeed, I aim to show that the organic approach is more modern in its outlook and practice than conventional husbandry, which is stuck in the 'modernistic' paradigm based largely on an oversimplification of Liebig's discoveries — the view that plants require nutrition solely in the form of water-soluble chemicals. The modern organic approach, on the other hand, is based on an evolving knowledge of soil ecosystems as understood by the biological sciences. I argue that intensive, sustainable approaches to growing food are essential if we are to feed the world whilst protecting the environment, creating a truly fertile and thriving soil ecosystem, and at the same time protecting our own health, not only for our own generation but for those to come. I contend that so-called 'conventional' agriculture, which uses huge amounts of energy to fuel it, inevitably has a limited future, and that any form of agricultural system that considers the pollution of our food and environment as a price worth paying for progress, is fundamentally flawed.
Running as an undercurrent throughout this book is the story of the living soil itself. Chapter Three seeks to explain the fascinating world of the soil ecosystem and the interrelated and co-operative interactions of plants, microorganisms, small animals, and fungi that make up the living rhizosphere (the topsoil and its environment), which has maintained life on this earth for millions of years, and which, when nurtured and enlivened, can provide us with all the healthy food we will ever need.
The definition of any sustainable system of agriculture, and indeed a sustainable society, is the extent to which it recycles its waste, in particular its organic waste. Chapter Six discusses recycling systems, with examples from around the world, the theory and the composting of bio-waste — from the smallest heap to municipal and company composting systems on a large scale.
Inevitably I also discuss the problems caused by conventional farming's use of fertilizers, pesticides and intensive animal production, as well as BSE and genetically modified (GM) crops. Above all, how did we come to be farming in this way in the first place?
I try to challenge the reader by showing that, as with many aspects of modern living, we are faced with a choice not between going backwards or forwards, but between two alternative futures: one based on life-harming activities and the wish to dominate Nature, the other based on life-sustaining activities and the recognition that we are part of Nature. It is our changing attitude to Nature and our relationship to it that is another undercurrent running throughout this book. This attitude is seen as the reason for the way we practise agriculture today, and I explore how by reevaluating our relationship to the rest of Nature — and our own nature — we can re-evaluate our attitude to the land, and therefore the way we grow our food.
To finish on a positive vision of the future, the last two chapters discuss how agriculture can be regenerated in both the West and the Third World, with many inspiring examples of successful and sustainable programmes that illustrate the huge growth of organic and sustainable methods throughout the world.
I should like to explain my use of the terms 'agriculture' and 'farming'. When discussing organic agriculture, the subject is often restricted to the Western, commercial way of farming. This, in my view, is a very exclusive and limited way of thinking. I use the term to include all farming, whether small- or large-scale, horticulture, forestry, or private or community gardening for food. In the Third World, as Vandana Shiva (physicist, ecologist and activist) has so forcefully commented:
"It is women and small farmers working with biodiversity who are the primary food providers in the Third World, and contrary to the dominant assumption, their biodiversity-based small farms are more productive than industrial monocultures."
Above all, I hope the book will be of interest to the general public, who are becoming increasingly interested in the subject not only because of concerns about the quality of our food, health, the environment, GM crops and the treatment of animals, but also because they want to know more about the philosophies, science, ideas and history of organic methods over the centuries, as well as the latest scientific knowledge that has transformed our understanding of the ancient methods of farming and taken them to new levels.
Defining Organic Farming
When we go to the shops to buy something marked 'organic produce', what does it mean?What are organic farmers doing that conventional farmers are not? We often think that organic farming is just about growing crops without chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, but in fact it is much more profound than that. The best way to start is to begin by quoting from Lynda Brown's The Shopper's Guide to Organic Food:
"In organic farming systems, food production is viewed not as the supplying of a commodity, but as a holistic enterprise where sustainability and health, each important as the other, are interlinked, and where healthy food can be produced only on healthy soils and from animals reared on a natural diet."
This is all well and good, but let us broaden the picture. There is a profound difference between the philosophical and even scientific views of organic and conventional farmers, mainly in their attitudes towards Nature in the broadest sense, but also in their views on the natural ecology of the soil and on plant nutrition.
Mother Earth — Gaia
Traditional societies had, and still have, a concept of 'Mother Earth' — a living entity, self-organizing, self-sustaining, self-regenerating and self-regulating. This leads to a reverence and respect for Nature, of which those societies and individuals saw themselves an integral part. What happened to European thought over the centuries, and particularly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was a change in this perception. As Vandana Shiva has noted: "The transformation of the perception of nature during the industrial and scientific revolutions illustrates how 'nature' was transformed in the European mind from a self-organizing, living system to a mere raw material for human exploitation, needing management and control."
This ancient idea of Nature as intrinsically interconnected and self-organizing was reawakened with the development of the science of ecology, and the study and increased understanding of the biosphere (the totality of all the organisms on Earth) and our planetary system by people such as the scientist James Lovelock in the 1970s. He took the interconnectedness of species and the environment a stage further, seeing the world's environment and the total life of the planet as functioning in a coherent way, as functioning as a self-regulating single super-organism, which he called Gaia.
Unfortunately, Lovelock's theories were misunderstood by both the scientific community and some of his supporters. The fact that he was championed by many 'new age' thinkers only enhanced the suspicions of the scientific community, although he has always been very clear to qualify his theory:
"I have frequently used the word Gaia as a shorthand for the hypothesis itself, namely that the biosphere is a self-regulating entity with the capacity to keep our planet healthy by controlling the chemical and physical environment. Occasionally it has been difficult, without excessive circumlocution, to avoid talking of Gaia as if she were known to be sentient. This is meant no more seriously than is the appellation 'she' when given to a ship by those who sail her, as the recognition that even pieces of wood and metal when specifically designed and assembled may achieve a composite identity with its own characteristic signature, as distinct from being the mere sum of its parts."
Despite its initial scepticism, the scientific community has recently begun to take Lovelock's theories more seriously. His theory of a 'self-sustaining super-organism' has been re-evaluated in the light of modern complexity theory. This mathematical theory deals with the way a spontaneous transition occurs from a less orderly to a more orderly state in the internal dynamics of complex systems when they reach a critical level of complexity. For example, a computer simulation of the internal interactions in an ant colony, in which the ants obey only a few simple rules, revealed rhythmic and orderly patterns of behaviour within the colony — and these patterns emerged purely as a property of the system itself. Interestingly, complexity theory also applies to non-living systems. This means that Lovelock's idea that both the Earth's biological life forms and its non-life components, such as the atmosphere, interact in a coherent and self-sustaining way, begins to make mathematical and scientific sense.
Excerpted from Organic Futures by Adrian Myers. Copyright © 2006 Adrian Myers. Excerpted by permission of Green Books Ltd.
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