Why be organic?
I’m always surprised by the negative stereotyping that surrounds organic gardening. On Tuesday I did five radio interviews for BBC stations across the country and almost every one started with the question what’s the point of being organic when its so much easier using chemicals? Answering these questions is difficult because you don’t want to sound defensive or aggressive. For me it’s a no brainer. I want a garden filled with wildlife and chemicals kill wildlife. But there are other issues too. Big ones.
For one thing there’s CO2 emissions. It takes six kilograms of CO2 to produce every kilogram of nitrogen based fertilizer. On top of that nitrogen based fertilizers are made using nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas – one which is 200 times more powerful than CO2. The chemical industry has still not addressed its part in the creation of climate chaos. The activities of these industries are threatening all life and it is no longer acceptable to use chemicals to boost your own home harvest or chances of competition victory at the annual local gardening show. Much better to create closed loop systems where the fertility for your garden comes from within the garden, either by making compost or using green manures and liquid feeds like comfrey. Perhaps boosted with a little help from local supplies of composted council collected green waste, farm manures and other waste materials that can be used by the gardener. Cuba have kicked the chemical habit and gone organic because an illegal US blockade prevents the importation of oil based agricultural pesticides and fertilizers. But they have done it using clever composting regimes and other fertility boosting schemes. They are also the only country in the world to meet criteria for human sustainable development laid down in the human development index. We need to get inventive! In Sweden farmers even collect urine from nearby households! (See our podcast for more details). Why not if it works?
Then there’s the link between the use of chemicals and ill health, both in animals and humans. This week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rachel Carson, scientist and author of Silent Spring. Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring fifty years ago and never lived to see its true impact, dying of cancer two years after it was published. In it she traces documented case after documented case where the use of chemicals led to instant and quite often fatal, or long term health problems in animals and people. Back in February I noticed the weekly gardening magazine Garden News posted a story linking Parkinsons to the use of household and garden pesticides. We use these chemicals without appreciating their true effects.
After that there’s the whole question of the resistance of pests to pesticides. Every time you spray pesticides on an infestation of pests some of the pests survive. These pesticide resistant pests pass on this quality of resistance to next generation pests. Its an evolutionary mechanism of survival and it creates headaches for chemical companies who find their products becoming less effective over time. They have to come up with new cocktails to over come the problems, all of which have to be LD50 (LD meaning Lethal Dose) tested on lab animals, thus continuing the cycle of violence against animals both in the field and away from it. Isn’t it saner and much more humane to find renewable alternatives. The use of chemicals also destroys any semblance of natural balance in the garden, killing predators of pests along with the pests themselves. Populations of pests always emerge more quickly than predators so once you’ve destroyed the natural balance you have to keep on using chemicals because there are no predators around to do the job for you.
Organic gardening requires a different learning curve. I don’t think its harder or any less enjoyable than reading labels on the back of boxes of chemicals.
And sometimes it’s a great social activity. This week I went along to our local seed swap group and in between checking out the plant stalls, eating cake and chatting to friends and neighbours I went to a talk about Mycorrhiza. Mycorrhiza is a beneficial fungi that lives around the roots of plants. It sends out long thin shoots known as hyphae which help plants to absorb nutrients from the soil. The speaker showed slides of plants grown in desert soils in Spain that had been grown using a cultivated mycorrhiza they had made themselves. They were about six inches taller than plants grown without the mycorrhiza. The Mycorrhiza also protect plants from attack by root feeding nematodes. There’s a great picture in a book I’m reading at the moment called Teaming with Microbes. It shows a hyphae strangling a nematode. All this sort of activity remains hidden to the average gardener. Mycorrhiza is destroyed by the application of fungicides and also by activity like digging. ADAS, formerly a government body, now an independent research body, have been carrying out research into the use of compost tea (made by steeping compost in rainwater – see http://www.cat.org.uk/shopping for a compost tea maker) as an alternative to fungicides. Compost tea contains effective micro-organisms that shore up a plants defences against fungal attack. Initial success has been reported so perhaps one day this could be an answer for all home gardeners. It seems our plants need a nice cup of tea just like we do.
A love of organic gardening gives me a passion for experimentation and a thirst for knowledge that I wouldn’t get if I were buying solutions over the counter. That’s why I love it so much. So whenever I’m asked the question isn’t it harder being organic this is what I say: “time allowed to slip away out of devotion, enriches not only the one it is given to but the giver as well”. Thank you Antoine de Saint-Exupery and The Little Prince.
Whatever you’re doing this weekend may the sun shine on your parade. And if you’re near The Centre for Alternative Technology at 9.30 pm on Saturday evening (2nd June) come along to the car park and join in with moth night. If you don’t make it, I’ll be reporting back next week. Moths are one of my favourite undervalued species group (see my book Curious Incidents in the Garden at Night-time).