Friday, 3 April 2015

Organic gardening and organic produce and nutrition.

The term "organic" has been used to describe farming and gardening methods since the early 1800's.  It has come to mean gardening without the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides and the produce that results from this method of agriculture and horticulture.

As a term in chemistry, 'organic' means any compound that contains carbon.  I have heard this difference in the use of the term to make fun of people who strive to follow an 'organic' diet.  Most food products contain carbon,  even if they are produced with an assortment of chemical additives.  The terms 'organic food' or 'organic diet' are more usually used to imply that the foods (though not the packaging) were produced without thte use of artificial chemicals.

However,  the more important consequence of 'organic gardening' or 'organic farming' is the preservation of the soil and its flora, fauna and fungi upon which long term food production is dependent.  The health of the soil is as important as any other issue when it comes to our own health and well-being.  Once the soil is destroyed and micro-organisms gone, crops are grown much in the same way as hydroponic crops with chemicals being made available to the roots of the plants in order to obtain the maximum yield for the minimum input/cost.  Broadacre farming is carried out in this way…. seed and fertiliser added to a patch of sterile soil and the resulting monoculture produces the maximum amount of food for the minimum input, measured as profit or  loss to the farmer rather than as quality (in terms of nutrients) of the food.

The reduction in nutrients of food has been measured previously and discussed by a number of authors.     And I have mentioned this previously also here and here.

"The staple foods may not contain the same nutritive substances as in former times… Chemical fertilisers, by increasing the abundance of the crops without rreplacing all of the exhausted elements of the soil, have indirectly contributed to change the nutritive value of cereal grains and of vegetables…"  Alexis Carrel, Man the Unknown

This quotation made by a French doctor and biologist (of dubious political connections) is from his book that was published in 1935.  This quotation appears at the beginning of another book about organic agriculture by Albert Howard entitled "The Soil and Health - A Study of Organic Agriculture" which was published in 1947.

I found this book at a second hand shop some time ago. I paid $2 and it has been very interesting.  Albert Howard travelled extensively and studied methods of agriculture and irrigation in many countries… England (where he looked at Saxon anad Roman agricultural practices)  New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) Malaya, India and the United States.

He considered that forests in historical times grew, matured and organisms died, rotted and returned to the soil.  In this natural state, nutrients and minerals remained available to the organisms that grew.
In the United Kingdom,  agricultural practices 'progressed' until broad acre farming replaced the more primitive practices and, by the middle ages, crop yields had reduced. the fertility of the soil had been reduced.

"The using up of fertility is a transfer of past capital and of future possibilities to enrich a dishonest present: it is banditry pure and simple.  Moreover, it is a particularly mean form of banditry because it involves robbing future generations which are not here to defend themselves."  (Page 63)

The publication by Liebig (in 1840) of a paper entitled "Chemistry in its applicarion to Agriculture" led to the development of chemical fertilisers.

"At first all seemed to go well.  As economic cnditions pressed on the farmer more and moreseverely, he thankfully grasped at the means of incrreasing the volume of his production and after the great agricultural depression of 1879 begn to use artificial manures placed on the market for his benefit." (page 71)

There were  two kinds of compounds.  Nitrogen rich materials produced more leafy greens, and the potassium and phosphorus increased fruiting.  Hence the NPK fertilisers that we are all aware of today.

With all of this in mind,  Howard travelled to other countries where agriculture had been continuously practiced over a much longer period of time.  He learned about composting, how to deal with alkaline and clay soils, the utilisation of 'town wastes' and how to maintain micro-organisms in the soil.  These micro-organisms function to dissolve the minerals in the soil, making them available to the roots of the plants. (Using soluble forms of fertilisers that are short term, need to be added regularly and are washed away in the rain is more expensive and inefficient in the long term.)  He came to the conclusion that nutrients needed to be replenished by composting and returning nutrients to a cycle rather than removing them and adding chemicals afresh each season.  This, of course is what we know as 'organic farming'.

I wasn't surprised to read the information.  I was jsut surprised that it has been so soundly ignored during the 'green revolution' during which chemical fertilisers with particular nutrients for different places (superphosphate) was used and plants bred to depend upon the new chemical compounds and additives.
Healthy soil has worms, bacteria, fungi, yeasts and more.

In the final chapter (1947) the author asks "Why has civilisation proved such a disastrous failure?" and he goes on to answer his own question.
"Our industries, trade and our way of life generally have been based first on teh exploitation of the earth's surface and then on the opression of one another - on banditry pure and simple.  The inevitable result is now upon us."

If this was so obvious to Sir Albert Howard in the year that I was born,  why have we continued for so long on the same path?

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