Tuesday, 11 March 2014

You Vote Three Times Every Day

For some reason I've always been under the impression that organic food - and organic farming - was the environmentally friendly choice. Organic farmers avoid pesticides or herbicides or fungicides, and they only use environmentally friendly fertilisers, right? They use methods like polyculture, soil-building, companion planting and encouraging beneficial predators, and when they have a problem they deal with pests manually or use strictly-controlled organic pesticides if they really, really have to, right?

Wrong! I got quite a shock when I saw this video:

(For the purposes of this post, I'm talking only about the first 1m40s of the video - the rest is another issue, which I've commented on before, here, and about which I'll have plenty more to say in the next few weeks...)

It seems some organic farmers don't give two hoots about environmentally-friendly methods, and use organic-certified pesticides, fungicides and herbicides liberally - in fact, at much higher rates and much more often than conventional fertilisers. Apparently I should have known this back in 2010, when a study showed that use of organic pesticides could actually be more damaging to the environment and its wildlife than synthetic pesticides. In fact, some organic-certified (i.e. derived-from-nature) pesticides are much more toxic than their synthetic counterparts: organic-certified rotenone, derived from the roots of tropical bean plants and effective against caterpillars and beetles, is six times more toxic than carbaryl, a synthetic product used for the same pests. Nicotine sulfate, extracted from tobacco, is six times more toxic than its synthetic counterpart, diazinon. 

Now, some say this study is irrelevant:
"...the implications of the study are minimal because organic farming is not about replacing synthetic pesticides with organic pesticides, say organic farmers, retailers and regulators.
The culture and approach of organic farming is what distinguishes it from conventional farming, organic farmer David Cohlmeyer said. He runs Cookstown Greens, which supplies organic produce to restaurants and hotels in Ontario. Organic pesticides are "irrelevant" to his business, he said.

"When you're doing it right, you don't have pest problems," Mr. Cohlmeyer said. "We don't use any pesticides because we don't need to."

Organic farmers are only supposed to use natural pesticides as a last resort. Instead, crop rotation, planting habitats for beneficial predators and good soil are an organic farmer's first priority, said Simon Jacques, Ontario representative for organic certification program Ecocert."
Good news! I wasn't completely delusional about the good of organic farming then. But the attitudes of the two farmers in the video demonstrate very clearly that an organic farmer is not necessarily a farmer who cares for the environment or supports wildlife on his land. For the two farmers in the video, organic farming IS about replacing synthetic pesticides with organic ones. I don't know why I hadn't seen it coming, to be honest: profit trumps the greater good every time, doesn't it? If you're going to grow big monocultures, you're going to need more pesticides, whether organic or synthetic. And - as well as rendering the 'organic' label fairly meaningless - this revelation highlights again what I think is really wrong with our food supply chain: industrialisation.

It's the sheer scale of industrial farms that causes the trouble. Monocultures push out nature. Small farms and big gardens are far better suited to chemical-free growing, good soil care, manual pest-control and rich biodiversity. On a huge industrial farm, a relatively small number of workers have to deal with a vast area of land in the way that makes the most profit. Doesn't our food supply deserve a little more attention-to-detail than that? They plant monocultures because they're simpler to care for and make the most money. They use chemicals because they're the easiest way to deal with a problem, not the best way. They don't feed or protect the soil any more than they must to get their crop. Wildlife? Wildlife doesn't make a profit.

Food is the foundation of our survival and wellbeing. It's the cornerstone of economy; the number one most important commodity in every country. It's the linchpin of society; civilisations have risen and fallen according to their ability to produce it. You can't build a shelter, use a computer, drive a car or win a war without it. It's our first and foremost concern when it comes to looking after our families and our health - food is personal. As human beings, it is and must be our primary industry, and because it's SO important - because we must throw so much time and energy and resources and land into it - HOW we do it is crucial too.

So why are we so dreadfully out of touch with our food supply? Why have we pushed food production out of our communities? Why have we given up responsibility for it, preferring to pay money for other people, often in other countries, to sort it out for us? How much time and energy and resources and land do we as individuals and families and communities give to it?

Our modern food and farming system has transformed some 700,000,000 hectares of woodlands, forests and meadows into vast, featureless swathes of cereal crops, replacing natural ecosystems, displacing wildlife and sometimes destroying whole species. It depletes soils worldwide up to ten times faster than nature can restore them. It's an enormous source of pollution - the biggest source in many countries - and could even be depleting the ozone layer, scientists say. It's the world's biggest source of animal cruelty. And the worst thing of all? It's not even working! 12% of the world still goes hungry, and a good deal more than that struggle to get the food they need.

And I'm sick to death of claims that GMOs are the answer - the only way to feed the world. Recent news of a GM potato that resists blight failed to mention the naturally-bred potatoes already developed by the Sarvari Research Trust. These 'Sarpo' potatoes are resistant to all strains of blight and have been around for six years - if you grow your own you may well already be familiar with them. The trust is currently busy trying to crowdfund £50,000 to expand their business and make their blight-free potatoes available to farmers and growers across the globe (you can help them reach their target here). Meanwhile, £3,200,000 of public money has been spent trying to genetically-engineer potatoes to do exactly the same thing that Sarpo spuds can already do - and it has taken three years to achieve resistance against just one strain of the disease! Whatever the GM industry is about, it is NOT about feeding the world. Imagine the benefits to the food supply by now if Sarpo had been given that £3.2 million, three years ago!

I've said it before and I'll say it again: divide the worlds 21,800,000 square miles of agricultural land by its 7 billion people and we get nearly two acres each! That's more than enough to feed the world by anyone's logic; we're just managing the land - and its produce - insanely badly. Once upon a time, everyone was involved in their own food production. Today, we get our food from shelves, in buildings, without a second thought, and for that reason we've forgotten that because it's SO important, food production is perhaps THE biggest influence on how our world is run.

Every time you eat, you vote for how you want the world to be. You vote for or against biodiversity. You vote for or against animal cruelty. You vote for or against wildlife, and deforestation, and pollution, and slavery, and CO2 emissions, and chemical food additives. You vote for or against the corporations that seek to own the food supply. You vote for or against your own local economy, and your personal food security in times of trouble. Change never happens overnight, but every pound you spend, every consumer choice you make, every meal you eat is an opportunity to influence the system.

We need to take back responsibility for our food supplies; we need to bring food production back to our communities. We need to get involved. Please, get involved. Support your local farmers and producers and, crucially, talk to them about how the food was produced. Join a CSA, a community garden project or a similar group in your area - or start one! If you don't already, grow some food for yourself! Take the One Pot Pledge. Start some herbs and salad greens in containers - they're easy and some of the most heavily-sprayed conventional crops. Put your name down for an allotment. Do anything to take the power back and have some say about how you want our food system to run. Do it now!


Kantara said...

Wow! Thanks for that thoughtful, in-depth post, Naomi! Like you, we had no idea that Organic meant so little to some who use it so liberally. We're more aware now!

Grace said...

I'm encouraged by the document here http://www.soilassociation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=l-LqUg6iIlo%3d&tabid=353 giving the soil association's requirements for their organic certification in the UK. I think maybe we are better at this than the Americans. I hope we are. :)

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