Our agricultural crops illustrate the fact that an evolution of species for speculative economic values only through man’s management has increased pests, diseases and extinction rather than their healthy and fecund survival.
-- William Albrecht
There are more definitions of organic farming than there are organic farmers; chemical-free, spray-free, natural, ecological etc. This is as much due to unawareness of the history of farming as it is of organic farming practises themselves. Understanding the forces that gave rise to several different approaches to crop production and animal husbandry in turn gives rise to the realisation that there can be no simple definition of such a complex activity.
Let us first put farming where it belongs. It is the single most important pursuit of humankind. Without farming, we would have insufficient food, clothing and shelter to support the world’s population. Without farming, there would be no cities, civilisations or computers revolutionising the way we perceive the universe and communicate with each other.
In the beginning, we had hunter-gathering. Humans lived in small nomadic groups scattered over large areas. Until recently, it was believed to be a harsh existence of unremitting toil. Accurate anthropological observation of the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies does not support this view. It is apparent that such groups spent only a small proportion of the day obtaining food. The balance between the population and food supply was maintained not just by nature (disease, death from predators, drought-induced famine etc), but also by human intervention. For instance, excess female infants were killed.
This method of population control existed until quite recently in agrarian societies. Some societies practised it directly by slaughtering newborn daughters until a son was born. Later, this developed into women explaining away the death of a female infant by starvation as, “it was sick and wouldn’t eat”. While the feminist movement would have us believe that this was a system devised by men for the oppression of women, it was in fact an essential part of the fabric of a society that of necessity lived within the limits of its resources.
In hunter gatherer societies, there was a division of labour between male and female. The men hunted for animals, the women gathered wild fruits, vegetables and grains. From this observation, it seems likely that agriculture, the controlled growing of fruit, vegetables and grains, was invented by women. This most important development some ten thousand years ago, was the dominant force in human progress until three hundred years ago. Population growth beyond the limits that Nature set had become possible.
Men, however, were still hunters. When they were not sharing the labour of working in the fields, they managed to hunt several species of animal to the point of extinction in more settled areas, such as Britain. These species included wolves and bears. It is interesting to note that there is no recorded human death caused by a healthy wolf in the history of the United States following European settlement. Clearly, hunting was performed more for cultural reasons, rather than food, or safety.
There is a belief, or assumption, that agriculture was an unmitigated success. Unfortunately, we can see from looking at its birthplace, North Africa and the Middle East, that it has left devastation in its wake. Humankind had gone from a belief that Nature set the limits, to a belief that those limits could be expanded by human activity. When the population of Mesopotamia expanded to the limit of the agricultural food supply, irrigation was introduced to increase the amount of food. This eventually led to the birth of a desert and the demise of agriculture in that region. It looks ever more likely that the Sahara, the largest desert on the planet, was at least partially created by human agricultural activity.
The solution devised to overcome this problem was migration. Much of recorded history is an account of migration, caused by both population pressure and the need for finding replacement for worn out land. In Roman times, Israel was “a land flowing with milk and honey” and North Africa was “the granary of the World”. Both are now suffering badly from desertification.
This is not to say that all agricultural activity was so singularly unsuccessful. In southern China, there is land that has been farmed intensively and continuously for four thousand years, supporting several times the number of people per hectare than anywhere else on the planet. The Nile delta, with its annual injection of silt from the mountains of Ethiopia, remained productive for even longer. It is only the building of the Aswan dam that poses a threat to the continued fertility of the region, due to its holding back the farmland’s annual injection of fresh silt.
Until Jethro Tull devised his horse-hoeing husbandry, farming methods had changed little since Roman times. Tull’s invention of the seed drill to place cereal seeds in straight lines enabled the use of the horse-drawn hoe for weed control and a consequent increase in food production per man-hour. “Turnip” Townsend’s Norfolk four-course crop rotation reduced the amount of land in fallow and enabled more animals to be over-wintered. This too increased food and fibre production, and the population of Britain boomed, setting the stage for the rapid expansion of industry.
The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century gave rise to a belief that given sufficient time, anything could be understood sufficiently well to be brought totally under man’s control. Humanity had come to the conclusion that there are no limits. As well as dramatically increasing the range and volume of manufactured goods, the Industrial Revolution gave birth to modern science. The scientist believed that simple causes only give rise to simple consequences and that complex systems are made up of a number of simple subsystems. By understanding a sufficient number of simple subsystems, a complex system could be modelled and understood.
It is only recently that these beliefs have come to be questioned. There are limits. Simple causes more often than not give rise to complex results*. The sheer number of simple subsystems in large complex systems mitigates against any possibility of understanding them by fragmentary analysis. One example that comes immediately to mind is economics. Probably more effort has been put into understanding this subject than any other during the last few decades. While economics uses the tools of science, it has proved unequal to the task of predicting the outcome of political decision-making. One disillusioned economist compared our economic system and economic decisions to a man kicking a rabbit. The direction the rabbit chooses to run is unpredictable. The number of variables is just too large.
Similarly, the managed ecosystems of farms have a lamentable tendency to exhibit unpredictable behaviour. No matter how many of the subsystems become understood, the outcome of manipulating them often fails to realise expectations. Nobody in the 1950s could have predicted the economic devastation that would be caused for some Australian farmers in the 1980s by the indiscriminate use of organochlorine pesticides. The pesticides used to kill the cotton boll weevil in the Lower Rio Grande area of North America also killed the weevil’s predators. The population of two previously innocuous pests (immune to the pesticides) swelled to fill the vacancy left by the demise of the weevil and consequently made cotton growing impossible in the region.*
Consequences such as these can take years to reveal themselves, sometimes long after the original cause has been forgotten. While the catastrophic result of the Lower Rio Grande is obvious, more subtle differences can arise with lesser, but still significant consequences. Herbicides commonly used on cereal crops in the name of efficiency are known to reduce overall crop yield by as much as 30%. The herbicide glyphosate appears to inhibit trace element availability in the soil and the consequences of this are more likely to reveal themselves as nutritional problems in the consumers of the produce (livestock, or human), but that is the subject of two other chapters of this book.
There are 2,000 or so different species of microorganisms in a living soil.*0 The exact function and purpose of only a very few have been discovered and the number of possible interactions between them boggle the mind. It looks very much like we will never be able to understand such a living system with any great precision. This is less problematic than it might seem. We are not suggesting that we throw the scientific baby out with the economic bath water. Science, within its limitations, has given us a body of data that, combined with observation of obviously successful farming systems, should enable us to improve our farming and its sustainability. We really have two choices; either we continue to ignore the effects of soil biology and the wider ecology of the farming environment, or we accept that they are a vital component of farming.
One myth that really needs debunking is the belief that organic farming is “chemical-free”. There are many chemicals used by organic farmers, including copper sulphate (bluestone), phosphorous acid, sodium silicate (waterglass), soap (potassium, or sodium stearate), calcium hydroxide (lime) and sodium carbonate (washing soda). The difference between these chemicals and those used by conventional farmers is that they all have been used for a long enough time for their safety to have been established beyond reasonable doubt. The issue of safety from the organic farming point of view is less one of safety for the farmer, or consumer, but one of safety for the biological systems on which the organic farmer relies and the conventional farmer has been taught to ignore.
There is a widespread belief that organic farming is conventional farming minus the chemicals and artificial fertilisers, natural materials substituting for both. While pyrethrum is a natural pesticide, just like the synthetic malathion, its effects are not confined to the target pests. Both biocides kill predators and pests indiscriminately. Consequently, the use of either disrupts the balance between pest and predator, leading to an enhanced environment for pests at the expense of predators. I am not arguing here for the elimination of pyrethrum from the list of organically acceptable inputs, but for a better understanding of the consequences of pesticide use, synthetic or natural.
The public perception of organic farming being chemical-free has led to increasing demand for organic produce in the belief that it and the organic production system are chemical-free. The organic movement, by perpetuating this myth, has diminished its credibility. Many modern agricultural chemicals degrade rapidly, particularly in an environment conducive to microbiological proliferation. While research in this area is in its infancy, there now appears to be a distinct likelihood that conventional farming can deliver produce at least as “clean” as organic farming production standards demand. The Green Movement, by promoting the desirability of chemical-free produce and the Organic Movement, by accepting this, have completely missed the point of the organic farming technology developed since the turn of the century. A little more history will clarify this.
The great German chemist, Justus von Liebig, applied his considerable intellect to understanding plant nutrition. He discovered through many pot trials that plants depended on a handful of elements in the soil, most notably nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Furthermore, he discovered that he could feed these substances to plants in water-soluble form and achieve yields much higher than usual.
Liebig postulated that the element in shortest supply was the limiting factor in crop yield and that all of the elements removed with the crop must be replaced. These simple, common-sense concepts have been taught in agricultural and horticultural institutions ever since. Shortly before he died, Liebig wrote about his later discovery, his theory did not work out in practise. Unfortunately this work has never, to the best of my knowledge, been translated into English.
The barrel shows Liebig’s theory diagrammatically. If the potential yield of the soil is represented by a full barrel of water and the individual staves the quantity of individual fertility elements in the soil, then the barrel can only be filled to the height of the shortest stave.
Following the publication of Liebig’s ideas on crop fertilisation, John Lawes invented what he called superphosphate. He discovered that turning animal bones into fertiliser with sulphuric acid was much less expensive than grinding them up, since sulphuric acid was a cheap by-product of the Industrial Revolution’s chemical industry. This acidified phosphate gave crop yield increases for little financial outlay. When the supply of bones became insufficient, rock phosphate, the petrified residues of bird excreta, was an even cheaper substitute. Interestingly, Lawes’ original directions for using superphosphate recommended reverting it with lime to neutralise its acidity.
The second major impact of modern industry on agriculture came after the First World War. The conflict gave rise to a big demand for explosives based on nitrogen. Large factories were built to convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia and nitrates. When the battle ceased, there was an understandable reluctance to cease production. Although it was “the war to end all wars”, the potential for future conflict meant that the factories needed to remain productive. The factories were converted to nitrogenous fertiliser manufacture which made the shareholders happy and governments feel more comfortable.
The two decades between the First and Second World Wars is when the revolt against scientific agriculture began in earnest. Scientific agriculture was seen by certain farmers to have lost something in the pursuit of increased production. Animal health was in decline with new diseases and crop health also was suffering from new pests and diseases. Lucerne fields that had yielded well for decades needed to be ploughed up and resown after less than ten years. To some farmers and scientists this was a clear indication of the failure of modern, intensive methods of production. To others, it was a marketing opportunity to sell “cures” for these problems.
In India, Sir Albert Howard was studying the role of certain fungi and humus (compost) in plant health. This work gave rise to a concept he called organic farming. This wasn’t simply a return to the conventional farming of the past, but built on new concepts of plant nutrition and the relationships between crops and livestock. “Progressive” farmers were simplifying their farms, after the fashion of factories; artificial fertiliser inputs at one end and produce and “waste” coming out the other. Howard believed there was more benefit to be gained from using animal manures and crop residues to build soil fertility. The concept of the organic farm included that of mixed farming, where the byproducts of one part of the farm were the inputs for another. Rather than burning straw, it was used as animal bedding. The mixture of dung and urine-soaked straw was then composted with crop residues to become fertiliser for crops.
Howard had found that some plants he was studying relied on a symbiotic root fungus (mycorrhiza) for their phosphorus needs. In return for supplying the plant with phosphorus, the fungus took its carbohydrates from the plant. These fungi needed particular soil conditions for their survival and the plants on which they thrived often required the fungi for their survival. The soil conditions they favoured were high in humus and biological activity. The source of humus was decomposed crop residues and animal manures, the very materials that factory farming was assiduously burning, or dumping, often in the belief that they were a source of disease.
Howard further discovered in his experiments with humus manufacture and use (composting), that its presence in the soil conferred many benefits. Perhaps the most important from the point of view of the farmer beset by pests and diseases, was the relative absence of these problems in compost-grown plants. Tomatoes grown with compost were more resistant to Tobacco Mosaic Virus. Plants infected with TMV were placed among the plants in the trials. Even tomatoes grown using compost made from plants infected with the disease were unaffected.
When Howard was eventually allowed to experiment with feeding compost-grown crops to cattle, he found that they were resistant to infection by foot and mouth disease, even where infected cattle were allowed to rub noses with those in his feeding trial. It must be pointed out that the strain of FMD was much less virulent than that which caused so many problems to British farmers in the 1960s.
Howard returned to England and began publishing his ideas. They gave rise to the Soil Association which he co-founded with Lady Eve Balfour. The Soil Association was formed to scientifically investigate the differences between scientific and organic agriculture. This work was published in Balfour’s book, “The Haughley Experiment” which these days is printed as a single volume with her earlier book, “The Living Soil”.
The work at Haughley clearly showed marked differences between systems that used chemical fertilisers, with or without crop and animal manure residues. Although chemical fertilisers increased grass yield, the output of milk per cow was less. Crop yield increases were insufficient to pay the cost of the artificial fertiliser used. One anomaly that showed up was egg production appeared to be dependent on amount, rather than quality of feed.
In Germany, Rudolf Steiner founded a school of philosophy, Anthroposophy. Some of his followers were farmers and they brought their agricultural problems to Steiner for his advice. In response, he eventually gave them a series of lectures published in his book, “Agriculture”. This farming system he named Bio Dynamic and it bears more than a passing resemblance to Howard’s organic farming with a similar emphasis on humus. It differs however in taking account of cosmic and spiritual forces, as well as the influence of soil. The association with spiritual beliefs and astrology has limited the appeal of Bio Dynamics for scientists trained to ignore what it automatically calls pseudo-science. Nevertheless, several respected scientists have pursued the concepts Steiner introduced, particularly in Germany.
In the United States, Dr William Albrecht took a different approach again. He was head of the Missouri Agricultural Research Station for several decades and he published an enormous number of papers about his ideas of plant nutrition and animal health. He took considerable pains to distance his work from that of organic and Bio Dynamic researchers.
The basic precept behind Albrecht’s work was that there should be an explanation for why stock health was observably superb in some regions and poor in others. He conducted extensive soil testing in various parts of the United States and found a correlation between the ratios of certain elements in the soil and protein content of the plants growing in them. When the mineral balance in a poor soil was adjusted to equate with that of a good soil, protein content of crops increased and animal health improved. He further discovered that water-soluble fertilisers were inferior to simple crushed rocks containing the required minerals.
Albrecht was also keenly interested in the effects of farming on human health. Having discovered that the prairies of the mid-west produced the healthiest livestock, he postulated that human health in this region should, in turn, be better. Since good health was a prerequisite for acceptance into military service, he perused the army intake records for the various regions of the United States and indeed confirmed his suspicion. The rejection rate for army service was lowest where soil fertility was highest and highest where soil fertility was lowest.
In more recent time, Professor Miguel Altieri at the University of California has worked on the role of ecological diversity in reducing pest problems in organic and peasant farming. He coined the term agroecology for this work.
Although there were other workers looking at alternative methods of crop production and animal husbandry, these four schools have been the most important in shaping Australian organic production methods. The first three had very little influence on the wider agricultural community when they were being devised. However, post World War Two events gave them the impetus they needed to the point where they, and Altieri’s agroecology, are now considered seriously.
The development of “cures” devised to overcome pests and diseases gained a significant boost from poisons developed as nerve-gas during World War II. Rather than storing the materials that remained unused, they were converted into pesticides and fungicides. Again, the chemical companies’ shareholders were happy to see these by-products of plastics and drug manufacture sold at a profit, rather than being stored at great expense. Governments were pleased to see them dispersed, instead of being dangerous sources of chemical pollution.
Like their predecessors, these materials had the property of only working for a short time until the pest, or disease evolved resistance. One class of pesticides though, created problems that still bedevil agriculture; the organo-chlorines. The organo-chlorine pesticides include DDT, dieldrin and heptachlor. They, or their breakdown products, are all very stable materials that accumulate not only in the organism consuming them, but also their predators. Animals high on the food-chain accumulate the most. Bird populations were decimated by these pesticides since they fed on the insects that had been sprayed. The accumulated organo-chlorines inhibited the formation of eggshell.
Ironically, birds are a most effective (and under-appreciated) control on many insects that compete with humans for food. Their decline led to increasing pest problems and a consequent “need” for ever more potent insecticides in ever increasing quantities. The impact of their use on Nature enraged conservationists and Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring” is their manifesto.
Since the alternative agricultures all severely reduced the need for these chemical inputs, they were perceived as “a good thing” by conservationists. This is where the concept of organic equating with chemical-free arose. Bio Dynamic practitioners like to promote themselves as the purest of the pure, however Pfeiffer’s book “Weeds and What They Tell”, published in the 1940s by the US Bio Dynamic Association, advocated the use of the herbicide 2-4D. While the promotion of the desirability organic farming by the conservation movement has led to wider acceptance of organics by the general public, there is a downside. The conservation movement’s propensity for overstating the case and downright misinformation when it suits their purposes, has acted as a brake on the acceptance of organics by the wider farming community and agricultural scientists.
In actuality, many organic farming practises have already entered the mainstream of farming, especially when they have been presented without reference to their origins. It is in anticipation of an acceleration of this trend that this book has been written. The general public is demanding that agriculture become cleaner and greener. As well, there is a trend away from tough, flavourless produce that transports and stores well and merely looks good, toward tastier food. The assumption that organic production methods result in produce with poor appearance is a misconception fostered by the manufacturers of chemical agricultural inputs on the one hand, and the conservationists who believe organic agriculture is conventional agriculture minus the chemical inputs, on the other. Not only is agriculture a spectrum, organic agriculture is a sub-spectrum of its own. There are anti-chemical extremists who will brook no use of any artificial substance and growers who are more concerned about the economical production of quality produce and minimising any negative impact of their farming on the wider ecosystem.
In our investigations of agriculture, we have found many fine organic practitioners who achieve results equal to, and often better than, their conventional counterparts. That is not to say that this is universally possible. In southern Tasmania for instance, we have almost no codling moth problem in apple production. This is not the case in the warmer Australian mainland apple producing districts. It would be foolish to assert that what works well in one district will work equally well in others. While no black spot fungus was apparent in the Orange district of NSW in the summer of 1982/3, it was only kept under control in southern Tasmania with chemical inputs. It is worth noting here that sodium silicate (waterglass), which is an organically acceptable chemical, gave results equal to the more potent modern fungicides. Dr James Wong’s research using calcium hydroxide also showed the potential of this chemical to substitute for a large part of the usual spray program.
Prices for some produce are kept artificially low with hidden costs; wheat, for instance. The Soil Conservation Authority estimates that each kilogram of wheat grown in Australia costs as much as five kilograms of topsoil lost to erosion. Such waste of non-renewable resource obviously cannot continue indefinitely. There is considerable resistance to the introduction of soft wheat in Australia. We are justifiably proud of the reputation of our hard wheats that are necessary for bread manufacture. The soft wheat variety, Longbow, out yields hard wheat by a factor of several times. Products other than bread that use wheat as an input could be reduced in cost by the use of this variety with no discernible difference in quality. A move to this wheat variety would allow less land to be used for the crop and more for growing green manure.
The following chapters describe various techniques used in organic farming and the reasons why organic farmers generally have less problems with pests and diseases than their conventional counterparts. We also assess the shortcomings of the various organic certification scheme requirements in the real world of mass production. While it is certainly true that conventional farming’s sustainability will benefit enormously from understanding the concepts behind organic production, many organic practitioners and their proponents could learn a lot from a genuine understanding of modern crop production requirements.
It is the writer’s fond hope that when he becomes a doddering old fool sitting by the fire with his glass of port, that we will talk not of organic versus conventional agriculture, but only good farming practises.
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© Jonathan Sturm 2002 - 2011
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