Organic Living

Organic Living

by Michael van Straten

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Admitting that "[i]t may be impossible in the modern world to lead a completely organic lifestyle," Michael Van Straten (The Good Sleep Guide) argues in Organic Living a lively polemic-cum-how-to that "every person who takes a step toward organic living makes a difference." The author, who for 25 years hosted an alternative health call-in show on London's major talk-radio station, explores organic farming, eating and gardening, recycling and eco-friendly household products in the interest of health and the environment. The book should attract interest, especially given the recent uproar over genetically modified foods. Photos not seen by PW. (Aug. 8) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Rodale Press, Inc.
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Chapter One

... the natural environment

While it may be impossible in the modern world to live a completely organic lifestyle—where all the products you use and all the food you eat are either manufactured or grown without synthetic chemicals and without harming the earth—every person who takes a step toward organic living makes a difference. Every family that encourages a household culture of organic living makes an even greater difference by educating their children to live organically in the future. Every tiny saving of fuel and every purchase of organically grown food will help. Each of these small steps contributes to a reduction of toxic material in our environment and a lower rate of global warming.

    As the worldwide consumption of fossil fuels increases year after year, so does atmospheric pollution and the production of greenhouse gases (particularly carbon dioxide). The result is global warming and significant climate changes. Melting ice caps, rising sea levels, coastal flooding, and other climatic disasters are only some of the consequences of our exorbitant use of fuel resources.

    A major factor in this equation is the amount of energy used by conventional farming. Huge amounts of fossil fuels are used to manufacture synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and other agrochemicals, as well as to transport the raw materials and finished products and apply them to the land. The amount of fossil fuel used in crop production is estimated at 2.2 percent of total energy usage in the United States. Adopting organic farming systems on aninternational scale would lead to substantial savings in fuel costs. More importantly, it would make a major contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

    Over the last 20 years, the efforts of activist groups like Friends of the Earth as well as massive media coverage of environmental disasters caused by pollution, nuclear and chemical accidents, acid rain, and toxic waste have made us all more aware of how much we waste our planet's resources and pollute the natural environment—and a great deal of that waste and contamination can be attributed to the modern conventional farm.

farming and the environment

Organic farming is seen by many as necessary to the future of life on earth, yet it is barely 100 years since all agriculture was essentially organic. Until the 19th-century German chemist Baron Justus von Liebig invented an artificial chemical fertilizer, most fields and farms were fertilized with manure from their own livestock or with plant refuse—gigantic sources of compost that were entirely organic. Once von Liebig found a way of producing artificial fertilizer, this natural cycle was broken.

    The new fertilizer must have seemed miraculous to farmers, who were under constant pressure to produce more food, and when World War II broke out, undermanned farms took grateful advantage of every available chemical aid. These included the pesticide DDT, which was originally developed by the military to kill mosquitoes, lice, and fleas, and the organophosphate compounds, which were intended for use as nerve gases. Agricultural use of pesticides increased dramatically in the post-war years, and a cycle of dependency was created: Insects developed resistance to the chemicals, which meant chemicals had to be used more frequently in order to have any affect. At the same time, fertilizers were being poured onto fields that were continuously cropped, giving the soil no opportunity to replenish its natural minerals, so that it, too, needed larger doses of chemicals to support plant growth.

    Today, nearly 4 million tons of agrochemicals are used annually in the United States alone—which is about 30 times the amount used in 1945—and hundreds of pesticides are licensed for use around the world. Not all of them are harmful, but many have troubling side effects. In humans, dangers linked to agrochemicals include birth defects, damage to reproductive systems, interference with hormone systems, brain or nervous system damage, damage to immune systems, and a greater risk of developing certain cancers. As an example, the preliminary results of a recent study at Stanford University's School of Medicine show that people who use pesticides in their home and garden have an increased risk of developing Parkinson's Disease.

    Despite all the warnings and adverse publicity, the worldwide use of nonagricultural pesticides is growing dramatically. According to World Crop Protection News, the global market for nonagricultural pesticides is worth about $7 billion per year and is growing by 4 percent annually. The report also states that at least 12 percent of worldwide pesticides sales are nonagricultural. These highly toxic chemicals are used as fly and insect killers in the home, for the treatment of wood, or applied to golf courses and community areas. A staggering 40 percent of all household pesticides (with a value of more than $1 billion) are used in the United States.

    In some countries, including India, airline passengers are sprayed with pesticides on arrival before being allowed off the aircraft. And planes flying to Australia, New Zealand, and the West Indies are routinely sprayed with long-acting insecticides before passengers board. There have been many reports of people suffering side effects from these chemicals.

    According to one British study, pesticide use worldwide accounts for 14 percent of all known occupational injuries and 10 percent of all known fatalities. Most deaths from pesticide use occur in developing countries, many of which are still using chemicals that have been banned in Western countries. In 1999, for instance, the small West African country of Benin, whose economy relies heavily on agriculturally based industry, reported 60 documented deaths from exposure to farm chemicals.

    Pesticides also have a serious impact on the biodiversity of the environment. Used on farms as pest controls, they can kill beneficial insects or plants as well as the target pest, thereby disrupting the natural balance of the farm's ecosystem and that of the surrounding countryside. Populations of insect-eating birds such as tits and wrens, which devour caterpillars and aphids, and blackbirds, thrushes, and starlings, which feed on crane flies and slugs, may decline as they lose their source of food, and birds may also die as a direct result of eating insects that have absorbed pesticides. The loss of birds deprives the farmer of useful pest-eating allies, and birds' predators suffer, too.

    Without insect-eating birds around, a secondary pest may replace the primary one that was the original target of the pesticide. In addition, the primary pests may develop resistance to the pesticide, and different pesticides will be needed to control them. It is easy to see that using pesticides can be as inefficient as it is ecologically destructive.

    Sadly, the destruction caused by agrochemicals is long-term, for many chemicals don't break down easily in the environment. In addition, pesticides drift when sprayed (it's been estimated that only 10 to 15 percent of a given pesticide will actually reach its target pest; the rest falls on hedges or woodland and can drift up to a mile in the wind), and the nitrates in fertilizers wash out of the fields into rivers and lakes, contaminating the water and the habitat.

    Once chemical pesticide use was in full swing, it didn't take long for their negative effects to become apparent. In the 1950s, colonies of bald eagles in Florida began dying out because their weakened eggshells broke before their chicks could mature. Otters began to disappear from England's rivers. And, after a huge DDT spraying of a Douglas fir forest for spider mites, the trees died while the worst infestation of spider mites that had ever been seen in the area descended on crops. These were all signs that agrochemicals were destroying fragile ecosystems and spreading through the complex chains of life, leading, ultimately, to human beings.

farming and food

Water companies spend billions of dollars and use tremendous energy resources to filter pesticides and fertilizers out of drinking water. But water isn't the only source of pollution that could have negative effects on our health. There's no longer any doubt that the chemicals farmers apply to their crops and animals are found in our food.

    The nonprofit organization Environmental Working Group has drawn on the results of U.S. government tests to show exactly which pesticides may be present in American foods (find out on its Web site, Pick up a shopping basket in the virtual supermarket and find out exactly what you may be exposed to and learn ways to reduce your intake of pesticides. (I bought pears, a loaf of whole-wheat bread, eggs, bacon, asparagus, and onions, and found I had 15 pesticide residues in my bag, including two carcinogens.) The average American apple contains four pesticide residues; those from other countries may be even worse. The group will also calculate how a child would fare after ingesting these pesticide residues.

    Cotton is one of the world's most heavily sprayed crops, but few people realize how much cottonseed oil is used to make margarine and many other processed foods. What's more, the chemical pollutants move through the food chain when the seedcake left behind after oil extraction is added to animal food. The main recipients are cattle used for beef and milk production. Of course, dairy products like cheese, cream, yogurt, and butter will also contain those chemicals.

    Another source of serious concern is the antibiotics that were first introduced into farming just after World War II and that are now often used almost indiscriminately to treat livestock. Flocks of chickens, for instance, are rarely treated individually. For efficiency, antibiotics to treat or prevent bacterial infections are dispensed to the entire flock, whether they need them or not. Pigs, which are particularly prone to illness when reared in confined spaces, may be prescribed as many as 10 different antibiotics. Cows are regularly treated with antibiotics, sometimes as a preventive measure for mastitis (inflammation of the udder)—again, whether or not they're suffering from it. Fish farms are also big consumers of antibiotics, even though most of the treatment simply escapes into the environment.

    While the British government has now banned four of the most widely used antibiotics, several of these are still in use in the United States, like pesticide residues, they are filtering up the food chain and traces of growth hormones and antibiotics have been found in American dairy products.

    One effect of the overuse of antibiotics in farming is that it has fostered the growth of "super-bacteria." Humans and animals have their own bacterial systems that help the body resist infection, so eating food containing super-bacteria—those already resistant to antibiotics—may make the host species less able to resist illnesses and less able to respond to any antibiotics doctors or vets use to treat them.

    The message of unsafe farming practices has been underlined by a series of worrying food scares. The causes of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)—commonly known as mad cow disease—outbreak in Great Britain have yet to be entirely explained, but unhealthy practices such as feeding the carcasses of animals to their same species and the low resistance to illness of herds raised in overcrowded conditions most likely have contributed to the problem.

    The most recent worry is about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which have come to the public's attention only during the last decade. Some scientists claim that genetically modified crops (also known as genetically engineered or GE crops) will benefit mankind by making plants hardier and less susceptible to pests and diseases, but the effects may be different in practice. The development of herbicide-resistant GM crops is likely to lead to an increase in the use of synthetic herbicides, for example.

    Many genetically modified crops are already in general use. About one-third of the total production of soybeans in the United States is already genetically modified. One random genetic fingerprinting found that 2 in every 15 products on grocery store shelves may contain traces of (GMOs. Because the long-term effects of GMOs on humans, animals, and the environment in general are not yet known, the news that governments had allowed GMOs to be used freely caused widespread alarm in the late 1990s, particularly in Europe. That concern spread to the United States in September 2000 when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed the presence of illegal genetically modified corn in Taco Bell taco shells. The contaminating ingredient was `StarLink', a variety genetically engineered to contain a plant pesticide that is approved for use in animal feed only. Many U.S. consumer groups are now calling for a ban on GM ingredients unless they are properly labeled and tested for safety—a practice that is currently voluntary.

    While GMOs may eventually turn out to be as good for society as has been promised, they need to be fully understood before they can be used as safe sources of food. Until more is known about GMOs, planting experimental crops in areas where the wind allows their pollen to contaminate neighboring crops is clearly unwise, yet this practice is allowed in the United States.

    As large companies, including the McDonald's fast-food chain, respond to consumer demand by refusing to accept GMOs in their products, it is clear that GMOs have a long way to go before the public considers them completely safe. Currently, all the leading supermarkets in Great Britain and others in Europe have banned selling products containing GM food. It's interesting to note that at least five U.S. supermarket chains are owned by European companies. Perhaps they will follow the no-GMO principle established for their European customers by not allowing GMOs in products sold in their American stores.

the organic farm

"Feed the soil, not the plants" is the founding principle of organic farming. This same concept applies to raising animals: Rather than relying on drugs and medicines, raise animals in a healthy environment. Instead of genetically modifying good plant strains or polluting fields, rivers, and wildlife with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, make the earth strong in itself. Feed the soil and you feed everything that comes out of it. Ultimately, you feed human beings.

    Conventional farming systems do not necessarily conserve resources or return anything to the earth. By neglecting the structure of the soil and becoming reliant on pesticides and fertilizers, conventional farming methods treat the earth as something from which we can take without having to give anything back. As Englishman Albert Howard, the father of organic farming, said, it is "expecting altogether too much of the vegetable system that it should work only in this crude, brutal way ... the apparent submission of nature has turned out only to be a great refusal to have so childish a manipulation imposed upon her."

    Albert Howard was a young Englishman who was appointed Imperial Chemical Botanist at an experimental agricultural station in India in 1905. His work and observations there formed the basis of the organic movement. Over the next 40 years, he learned "how to grow healthy crops practically free from disease without any help from mycologists, entomologists, bacteriologists, agricultural chemists, statisticians, clearinghouses of information, artificial manures, spraying machines, insecticides, fungicides, germicides, and all the expensive paraphernalia of the modern experimental station."

    One of the most important people influenced by Howard's work was J. I. Rodale, an eccentric U.S. electrical manufacturer who also did some farming, writing, and publishing. He struck up a correspondence with Albert Howard that eventually led to the magazine Organic Farming and Gardening, which still thrives but is now known simply as Rodale's Organic Gardening. His children and grandchildren have carried on the organic tradition, and today the Rodale Institute is known as the forerunner of organic gardening in the United States.

    Another pioneer of organic farming was Lady Eve Balfour, who began applying Howard's methods on her farm in Suffolk, England, and chronicled her results in The Living Soil. The phenomenal response to her book was one of the forces behind the foundation in 1946 of the organization now known as the Soil Association, the leading proponent of organic standards in Great Britain.

    From the outset, its founders were concerned about the health implications of the increasingly intensive agricultural systems that were becoming commonplace after World War II, and the Soil Association (now a registered charity) is at the center of the campaign for safe, healthy food, an unpolluted countryside, and a sustainable farming policy—both in Britain and worldwide. It also certifies about 80 percent of Great Britain's organic foods.

    In the United States, until quite recently each state was left to develop its own organic standards, making it hard for farmers to sell their organic produce abroad. With so many different governing bodies, it was hard for foreign countries to keep up with the varying standards used by different states. At the end of 2000, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) adopted nationwide organic standards, which undoubtedly make it easier for everyone buying organic products—importers and consumers alike—to know what they're getting.

    Whatever country a farmer lives in, in short, "organic" refers to an agricultural system that encompasses:

* Management practices that sustain soil health and fertility. Farmers build natural soil nutrients by planting cover crops so they don't need to rely on synthetic fertilizers.

* The use of natural methods of pest, disease, and weed control. Weeds, insects, and other pests are managed without chemicals, but with earth-friendly methods such as beneficial insects and mechanical controls instead.

* High standards of animal welfare. Animals are raised humanely, without using synthetic hormones or antibiotics, and they are raised on organic feed.

    A conventional farmer who decides to switch to organic methods agrees to abide by a set of standards that govern all aspects of farming practice. The health of the soil lies at the heart of organic farming and is maintained using natural methods that do not strip the minerals from the soil or contaminate the crops or the environment. The use of artificial fertilizers is prohibited. Pesticide usage is minimal and restricted, both in choice of product and application.

    Crop rotation is the key technique in growing organic crops. Rather than repeatedly planting the same crop in the same place, crops and grazing for animals are rotated so nutrients used by the previous crop can be replenished. For example, an organic farmer will plant clover to replace the nitrogen used by the previous year's wheat crop; the clover can then be cut and used as mulch or harvested for compost, thus providing a double benefit. The choice of crop is also part of natural pest control. By planting a mosaic of crop habitats—grasses and vegetables, for example—the farmer provides a natural balance between pests and pest predators.

    An organic farmer works in what is known as a "closed cycle." This means that the soil is fertilized with manure that has come from livestock reared on the farm, and animals are fed as much as possible on crops grown organically on the farm. In other words, what comes out of the earth is returned back to it. Animals are an integral part of most organic farms, and their welfare is paramount. This means raising them in humane and healthy conditions so that they develop their own natural immunities to disease, and avoiding reliance on antibiotics and other drugs. The farmer must also give his animals a dignified life and, as much as possible, a painless and stress-free death.

    Taking on such a burden of responsibility is a major commitment. Even those who have their doubts about the benefits of organic food accept that an organic farm is a healthier environment than an industrial one. But there is no denying that farming organically is demanding.

    Anywhere in the world, the process of going organic requires a conversion period. For the farmer, this means that herbicides are not allowed and the use of synthetic chemicals is severely restricted. The conversion period will take 2 years for most crops and 3 years for some, during which time the farmer's expenses are high and income is low. In order to be classified as organic, animals must be born on organic land to parents that have been managed to organic standards prior to their birth. Livestock management is changed to free-range systems and non-reliance on antibiotics, wormers, and other treatments. So it takes time, money, and effort to convert to farming organically.


Excerpted from ORGANIC LIVING by Michael Van Straten. Copyright © 2001 by Frances Lincoln Limited. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Edited by Jennifer Hornsby


Copyright © 2001 Rodale Inc.. All rights reserved.

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