Does Nature Really “Do Its Thing” on Organic Farms?

Fridge picI am lucky. My fridge is full of food: mostly produced in the UK or Europe; all nutritious, safe and affordable; and almost all produced on conventional farms, with a small amount of organic food (in my case, chocolate). Given that you’re reading this, I’ll hazard a guess that you are lucky too. 795 million other people can’t say the same thing – and feeding all the people on a planet where 1 in 9 don’t currently have enough food is, in my view, our biggest challenge.

The fact that we face this challenge makes me really irritated when celebrity chefs who could make a huge difference, bow instead to popular rhetoric. In his latest blog post, mockney chef and food pundit Jamie Oliver proclaims that “…organic food is natural food, where nature has been allowed to do its thing, and I’m sure most of us will agree that putting natural ingredients into our bodies is only going to be a positive thing.”

If we ignore the nonsensical claim that natural ingredients produce positive results (Really? Let’s examine puffer fish, solanaceae poisoning, dangerous fungi, absinthe, the many consequences of obesity…), let’s simply look at his claim that organic food is natural.  Except, well, it’s not. Agriculture first developed ~12,000 years ago, and ever since then farmers have been doing their best to breed crops and animals that are best suited to their farming system, whether it’s organic or conventional. Want dairy cows that produce high-quality milk from grazing pasture; leaner pork chops; or strawberries that can survive supermarket handling? You’ve got it. All achieved through traditional breeding techniques (otherwise known as “nature doing its thing”): noting that plant or animal A has desirable characteristics and breeding it with plant or animal B to (hopefully) produce better offspring. No scary chemicals, scientists with syringes or genes in test-tubes. Every farm in the world is founded on “nature doing its thing” – not just the organic farms. We can argue whether GMO crops are natural (breeding techniques are simply more refined and specific) or not (scientists playing god…) but that argument becomes redundant in the EU and many other regions, where GMO crops are not approved.

Can organic producers use pesticides? Yes, if they’re compounds approved for organic production (e.g. highly-toxic copper-based fungicides). Can they use antibiotics and wormers? Again yes, if a proven disease problem exists (note that rules differ slightly between the UK and USA). Are organic farmers just merrily sitting back and letting their crops cross-pollinate and reseed, and their bulls run around happily “doing their thing” to whichever cow they come across? No. It’s a beautiful bucolic image to suggest that organic farmers are happily working with Mother Nature whereas conventional farmers have an evil scientist sitting on one shoulder and a big agribusiness corporation on the other, but its simply not true.

According to Mr Oliver, “…the simple fact is that often we don’t actually have to interfere with nature.” The idea of a world where we could feed over 7 billion people without having to actually invest any research dollars into improving food production is lovely, but it’s smoke and mirrors. At the most basic level, what happens if we don’t “interfere” by controlling weeds (whether by chemicals, mechanical tillage or human labour)? Crop yields are reduced, food production goes down and we feed and clothe fewer people. What happens if a cow has problems giving birth? In nature, she dies. On a farm (whether organic or conventional) both she and the calf are saved, providing milk and meat for us to eat. According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, 20% of global animal protein losses are due to diseases for which treatments already exist – we simply need to make them available to every farmer worldwide. Just think how many more people we could feed if we interfered with nature in that way?

Huge amounts of research monies are invested each year to find ways to improve food production on both organic and conventional farms worldwide. Some are highly technical, others are simple, but all are contributing to the goal of feeding the world. Unfortunately, when food pundits jump on the “let’s promote system X” bandwagon as Mr Oliver has done with organic production, using persuasive but false arguments, we lose traction in fulfilling the real goal. Rather than arguing about which foods we can/should be buying, we need to accept that there’s a place for all systems; examine the ways in which all systems can improve soil fertility, animal health and environmental impacts; and make faster progress towards feeding the world while still enjoying our food choices.

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4 thoughts on “Does Nature Really “Do Its Thing” on Organic Farms?

  1. I believe it is inhumane to withhold antibiotics to sick animals when treatment is medically indicated; which is required by US Organic production standards. Imagine not treating a child with a painful bacterial ear infection when an antibiotic would treat the disease and relieve painful symptoms. It is very difficult for me to understand how the US Organic animal production standards can be seen as humane.

    When it comes to disease, letting nature do it’s thing can be inhumane.

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  2. The “Big Lie of Agroecology” is a romantic set of false notions about farming that go something like this:
    “If we would just design our farming systems to be more diverse and less specialized–to more closely mimic natural ecosystems–then our production would escape pest pressures; would require fewer inputs; would reveal better yield stability; and display greater resilience under adverse conditions.”

    This agroecology belief system reads beautifully well on paper, and is appealing intellectually. It is more like a prayer than a recipe. In fact, there are a few successful demonstrations in ecological literature. These are frequently highly scale dependent; small scale. They are the exception rather than the rule. However, just like communism or fascism, the outcome of following this “natural design path” in the real world leads to poverty, starvation, environmental degradation, and economic disaster.

    As Bovidiva notes, this belief is deeply held among vanguard chefs, food writers, and privileged high-income eaters,. It is also held by academics, e.g., E. Ann Clark (Univ. of Guelph Canada), M.A. Altieri and C. Kremen (UC Berkeley), and among EU agroecologists. It is intellectual arrogance; chasing false ecological Gods.

    Agriculture is a disturbed ecology: learn it; live it; love it. Stability does not come from randomness, does not come from blindly emulating natural habitats. Farming manages a highly uncertain biological system. Appropriately engineered, disturbances enhance farming system stability rather than degrade it.

    I find it interesting that as these pundits wax poetic about natural farming systems, a Nobel was awarded last month for the discovery and wide use avermectins and abemectins, animal de-worming medicine compounds originally isolated from soil bacteria. Am I the only person who thinks this is ironic?

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