Down On The Farm

You get back what you put in.

‘There is a sufficiency in the world for man’s need, but not for man’s greed.’ – Mohandas K. Gandhi

‘Modern technology owes ecology an apology.’ – Alan M. Eddison

‘Let us permit Nature to take her own way; she better understands her own affairs than we.’ – Michel de Montaigne (translated)

Organic:

  • 1. Of, relating to, or derived from living organisms: organic matter.
  • a. Of, marked by, or involving the use of fertilisers or pesticides that are strictly of animal or vegetable origin: organic vegetables; an organic farm.
  • b. Raised or conducted without the use of drugs, hormones, or synthetic chemicals: organic chicken; organic cattle farming.

Industrial vs Organic

With the world population passing the 6 billion mark last October, the debate over our ability to sustain a fast-growing population is heating up. Biotechnology advocates in particular are becoming very vocal in their claim that there is no alternative to using genetically modified crops in agriculture if “we want to feed the world”. However industrial agriculture operations strive to increase production and thereby maximize their profit margin without regard for either the environment or human health. The heavy use of pesticides poisons the land and water and has been shown to be carcinogenic. Industrial crops contain more nitrates, and unsanitary conditions in factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses cause high levels of meat contamination which have resulted in recurrent epidemics of food-borne illness. In the US alone, food-borne illness sickens 76 million people, causes 325,000 hospitalisations, and kills 5,000 people every year. A study conducted in 1998 by Consumer Reports revealed that 71% of store-bought chicken was contaminated with Campylobacter and/or Salmonella, bacterial contaminants responsible for thousands of deaths and millions of sicknesses.

Industrial agriculture strives to increase production and maximize their profit margin without regard for the environment or human health.

On the other hand, ‘organic’ farmers who practice ecologically sustainable agricultural practices recognise the importance of protecting the natural environment. They manage their farms in a responsible manner, maintaining the fertility of the land and preserving resources for future generations. In contrast to the industrial/monoculture approach advocated by the biotech industry, organic agriculture is described by the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) as “a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity”.

Birds of a feather?

One of the deadliest plagues in human history was the influenza pandemic of 1918, which is estimated to have killed as many as 100 million people worldwide. The initial source of these strains generally comes from domesticated fowl such as chickens and turkeys, and large commercial poultry operations provide an ideal spawning ground for new pandemic strains. Over the last few decades, meat and egg consumption has exploded in the developing world, leading to industrial-scale commercial chicken farming and mass animal transport, the perfect environment for the emergence and spread of influenza super-strains. On factory farms that confine birds raised for meat, thousands of chickens are clustered in huge sheds. Because they live in their own manure, the virus can be excreted in the faeces and then breathed in or swallowed by thousands of other birds, allowing the virus to circulate rapidly and repeatedly. With so many birds passing the virus back and forth, giving it a chance to mutate each time, low virulence strains of influenza can turn into deadly ones.

Agribusiness conglomerates dismiss organic farming practices, claiming it produces yields too low to feed a growing world population.

But that’s not the worst of it, for the virus often then finds its way into wild bird populations and thereby spreads across the world via migration. The current lethal H5N1 bird-flu virus has been spreading from Southeast Asia to Europe since 2003. And although this strain has yet (and may never) mutate into a form that is directly communicable from human to human, the potentially disastrous implications are quite self-evident.

Vested interests

Not surprisingly, agribusiness conglomerates and their supporters dismiss organic farming practices, claiming it produces yields too low to feed a growing world population. Dennis Avery, an economist at the Hudson Institute (funded by Monsanto, Du Pont, Dow, and Novartis et al) had this to say in a recent ABC News 20/20 broadcast: “If overnight all our food supply were suddenly organic, to feed today’s population we’d have ploughed down half of the world’s land area not under ice to get organic food, because organic farmers waste so much land. They have to because they lose so much of their crop to weeds and insects.” This, of course, is untrue. In fact, as a number of studies attest, organic farming methods can produce higher yields than conventional methods. Moreover, a worldwide conversion to organic has the potential to increase food production levels not to mention reversing the degradation of agricultural soils, and increase soil fertility and health.

An 8-year project conducted in Northern California has shown that organic and low-input systems had yields comparable to the conventional systems in all crops that were tested, such as tomato, safflower, corn and bean. In some instances, the yields were higher than those of industrial systems. It is true that to begin with, tomato yields in the organic system were lower in the first three years, but eventually caught up with the levels of ‘conventionally grown’ tomatoes in the subsequent years and had a higher yield during the last year of the experiment. Corn production in the organic system had a higher variability than conventional systems, with lower yields in some years and higher in others, but both organic and low-input systems resulted in increases in the organic carbon content of the soil and larger pools of stored nutrients, each of which are critical for long-term fertility maintenance.

So not only are sustainable organic agricultural practices good for the Earth but also for us as well. Research has shown organic foods contain higher levels of antioxidants, which help fight certain types of cancer, as containing significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus.

You are what you eat.

But where’s the profit in any of that?

Words: AF Keck, Illustration: http://www.mothi.biz

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