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Organic Farming Is Not 19th Century Agriculture

by: Jill Richardson

Mon Jun 08, 2009 at 14:00:00 PM PDT


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Over and over, I hear proponents of industrialized agriculture dismissively say that we don't want to go back to the 19th century. Another way I've heard that put is that we shouldn't keep doing what Grandpa did on the farm, because if Grandpa were around today he'd be out of business - and the world would be hungry. Recently, this was said again, this time by science advisor to Hillary Clinton, Nina Federoff.

"We accept exactly the same technology (as GM food) in medicine, and yet in producing food we want to go back to the 19th Century."

Dr Fedoroff, who wrote a book about GM Foods in 2004, believes critics of genetically modified maize (corn) and rice are living in bygone times.

"We wouldn't think of going to our doctor and saying 'Treat me the way doctors treated people in the 19th Century', and yet that's what we're demanding in food production."

Federoff's got a PhD and I don't, but I'm going out on a limb here to say that she doesn't have a freaking clue what she's talking about. Why? Because nobody who advocates for sustainable or regenerative agriculture is actually advocating "Grandpa-style" farming. Even the modern day Amish farmers are more sophisticated than that!

Jill Richardson :: Organic Farming Is Not 19th Century Agriculture
I think that comparing food and ag to medicine in this context is honestly batshit crazy. Medicine has been advancing consistently throughout time, it's true. But, before we talk about agriculture, let's consider something we non-farmers are more familiar with. How much has a healthy diet changed in the past millennium or two? Not a whole lot. A mostly plant-based diet of whole foods was good for you, and it's still good for you. No amount of 20th century fiddling and fidgeting with food has managed to give us the combination of health, taste, cost, and convenience that we are looking for. Yes, we know a lot more about nutrition than we used to. Yes, we know a lot more about chemistry and food science than we used to. And no, we still haven't a freaking clue how to improve upon nature to manufacture healthier foods.

Now, that isn't to say that we haven't improved upon the diets of past eras. The same foods that existed then are certainly made better by technological advances like refrigerators and trucks. It's nice to augment a diet of local food with treats from far away like coffee, spices, and cocoa, and it's unimaginable to live in a world without refrigeration. Furthermore, while our advances in nutrition knowledge do not give us the ability to manufacture food healthier than naturally occurring foods, the nutritional knowledge gained in the past century absolutely helps us improve our diets to prevent malnutrition!

Now let's talk about how medicine improves our health. If you've never had a disease worse than a bacterial infection, then it's hard to imagine a scenario other than going to the doctor, getting a diagnosis, and going home with a prescription that makes it all better. And I think that's pretty similar to what GMO proponents think GMOs provide for agriculture. Problem + Technology = Solution. That's not always the case in medicine. Not at all. Let me tell you a bit about my health history.

For the first 14 or so years of my life, I had no health problems beyond the occasional ear infection, strep throat, or cold. Around age 14, the headaches started. No amount of Tylenol or Ibuprofen would make these headaches go away. And my head hurt every single day. I started falling asleep in school because it was the only way to ease the pain.

This continued for about 10 years before a doctor finally referred me to a neurologist. In the meantime, I got glasses to correct for nearsightedness, and I began to recognize headache triggers - looking at CRT computer monitors, CFL lightbulbs, TVs, and projectors.

When I graduated college and got my first job, the shit really hit the fan. You can sleep in class if you can still write papers and pass tests. You can't sleep in meetings or at your desk at work. In late 2004, my employer asked me to get medical documentation for the problem, and my doctor wrote a letter telling them it was all in my head. I found an ophthalmologist in Chicago who I saw. Ultimately, that doctor recommended I see a neurologist, and I did in early 2006.

The neurologist still could not diagnose me, but began giving meds a try. Imitrex didn't work. Lamictal didn't work. Topamax had unbearable side effects. She referred me to a nationally recognized headache clinic in Michigan. The doctor in Michigan finally gave me a diagnosis - migraines! Then my insurance refused to pay for the care he prescribed, and I went home with a diagnosis but no relief.

My neurologist tried again with the drugs. Zonisamide? No effect. Celexa? That was literally poison. It made me nauseated and depressed. Nortriptyline? The side effects there are too strange to even describe. My entire body felt strange, and I slept 18 hours a day. But when I stopped taking it I noticed something. It had worked - a little - on my headaches! So the neurologist tried again with a similar med, one called vivactil. And it worked! A little! With side effects, that is, but bearable ones. Increased heart rate, dry mouth, and constipation. A second neurologist then took over my care and he put me on another med, Effexor XR, which made me yawn a lot and gave me vivid dreams. But at least it helped my headaches a little.

To this day, I still have headaches frequently. Several times a week, at least. But they are better than they would be without the meds, and the side effects have subsided. I've tried several other meds not listed here, and I've got percocets handy in case a really bad headache comes on. For all of our wondrous technology, we still do not fully understand migraines (a problem that plagues 20% of the population), nor can we consistently cure, prevent, or even alleviate them. And when we do find meds that manage the headaches, they come with side effects.

The other tools I use on my headaches include healthy diet, stress management, massage, exercise, and a good night's sleep. They are far more powerful on my headaches than the meds, and they come without side effects. Would you consider that "19th century" medicine? Many diseases can be entirely prevented or even cured with such old fashioned "medicine" (and in many cases, these lifestyle changes are more effective than medicine).

Going back to the topic of agriculture, GMOs are blunt tools, like the meds used on my headaches. So are pesticides and fertilizers. You apply a chemical to the problem and you might get a bit of a solution, but not without creating new problems. Is that worth it? Maybe. In the case of my headaches, yes. I'll gladly deal with vivid dreams and a rapid heartrate in return for a little bit of pain relief. But I think we need to realize that we are not all the way there yet - we don't understand complex biological systems well enough yet to control them in the ways we would like.

So tying this back up with the nutrition analogy, while we don't yet completely understand how each specific food and nutrient affects our bodies, we do understand the basics of a healthy diet, consisting of whole ("19th century") food. In agriculture, we also understand the basics of sustainable agriculture, which are largely the same as they were in the 19th century. BUT, we have added technological advances over and above those 19th century practices! Today, you can have the microbiology of your soil analyzed. Today, we don't use arsenic-based pesticides like we did 100 years ago (thank goodness!). Today, we have tractors and combines instead of horses. We might not understand the role of every single bacteria or nematode in the soil, but we've got a pretty good idea of what we're doing, and our knowledge has come a long way since the 19th century.

We need to be judicious about whether to use the blunt tools with side effects (GMOs, pesticides, fertilizers) or modern-day sustainable agriculture to grow our food. And we must remember that there's something different between my headache meds and GMOs. My headache meds are very well within my control, whereas once GMOs get out into the environment, they are out there. You can't put that genie back into the bottle. So given that we do NOT understand nature well enough yet to know the full extent of the GMO's "side effects," we need to be very cautious about the decision to use them or not.

As for the argument people like Federoff make about our need for GMOs in order to feed the world, that seems similar to my decision to use meds for my headaches. My meds are imperfect, but life would be impossible without them. Federoff and others say that people will starve without increased yields because the world won't have enough to eat. So, in that case, GMOs may be imperfect but our other choice is starvation. But that argument is totally bogus. It's pure propaganda from companies that want to sell us their products. It's well documented that the world has more than enough food to feed itself and that our true problem is distribution. We simply have no interest in feeding people who can't afford food. We'd rather grow corn to make ethanol for our cars than to feed the world's hungry.

We need to have honest discussions about GMOs, without being held hostage with threats of starvation and charges that we are arguing for technological regression. And, at the same time, let's have an honest discussion about how to feed the hungry by calling into question our commodity and trade policies and our contributions to global warming, all of which lead to hunger on the scale it exists in the world today.

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Indeed, organic farming is high tech (4.00 / 5)
Organic operations here have some impressive remote sensing setups, with computer-controlled irrigation systems that check the weather, read moisture levels in the soil, and use satellite imagery to decide when and how much to water.

Organic farmers use drip irrigation and t-tape and other state of the art irrigation systems.

Organic farmers use studies that show what crops are best adapted to particular microclimates, which cover crops provide the best rotations, and which plants to grow together. Organic farmers use plant breeding to produce the qualities they want, which might be pest hardiness or drought tolerance or yield, or it might be nutrition and flavor.

Organic farmers use laboratory analysis of the soil to determine not only pH and mineral composition, but also the biological profile of the soil. Organic farmers use some of the latest science in helpful insects and bacteria to grow their best crop.

Organic farmers use tractors (sometimes biodiesel, sometimes not) to do the jobs tractors are good at. One of my neighbors built his own basil harvesting machine for the organic basil he sells to Williams-Sonoma.

Organic is a set of rules that respects the needs of plants and is intended to support the land for the long haul. No worries: there's still a lot of science, research, and technology involved.

As it was, he did a deal with a blancmange, and the blancmange ate his wife.


Exactly... (4.00 / 3)
...but that doesn't fit into the corporate storyline, so that's (just one of the many reasons) why we make them so angry.

We're not supposed to point that out!

The GMO extremists and fanatics (and shills) can't support or back up their arguments on their own merits by any means; so they, by necessity, must disingenuously paint all of their opponents as primitive beings scared of technology.

Ain't working too well for them these days though, eh?

It's especially heartening these days, seeing that those types are becoming more and more shrill and laughably extremist; over the internet and everywhere else...

:)


[ Parent ]
would you be willing to do a diary (4.00 / 4)
on this Elfling? Bc the very fact that organic is high tech really goes against the storyline of pesticide/biotech companies and it's important to get the facts out there.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Oh please oh please oh please oh please???? (4.00 / 3)
* ahem *

Yes, such a diary would be most welcome.

I have succumbed to the Twitter craze. @Omir55


[ Parent ]
Please include (4.00 / 3)
tips for growing basil! So I can try Jill's 'I don't need no stinkin pasta' pesto recipe.

[ Parent ]
Here's my suggestion (4.00 / 2)
soil + pot + Basil seeds + Sunny location

Water regularly - voila! Basil is very easy to grow and it's a fast crop. Don't let it flower - cut it back as soon as it threatens to. The main trick is that it likes warm soil.

Also, you can buy a pot of basil for less than a cut bundle this time of year. Try keeping one alive for a while and get the hang of it that way.

Enjoy!

As it was, he did a deal with a blancmange, and the blancmange ate his wife.


[ Parent ]
I will try to get to one this month (4.00 / 1)
Right now I'm hip deep in alligators, so to speak.

But meanwhile, here's a nice bit from UC Davis, a review of their research center for sustainable agriculture:

http://www.sarep.ucdavis.edu/a...

Two examples of some work they did:

The Organic Effect in Desert Vegetable Production
(2001) -$20,000
Evaluated crop rotations for desert vegetables in
conventional, organic, and integrated systems

Yields in organic systems were equal to conventional

Nitrate leaching was reduced
under organic management

Cover cropping and reduced
tillage reduced costs and
improved soil structure in both
conventional and organic
systems

Grant Project Impacts:
Education Grants Highlights
Innovations in Dairy Production
Series (2002-03) -$1,300
Coordinated by Ecological
Farming Association
87 participants

Focused on environmental stewardship and
practices to decrease water pollution

Highly rated: 50% of grower participants stated
they would change their practices as a result of  
the program  

87% of the agprofessionals attending planned to
implement what they learned

This is from November 2008, when fuel costs were through the roof, published in the decidedly conventional California Farm Bureau newspaper:

http://www.cfbf.com/agalert/Ag...

Over the last decade a large and growing number of farmers have taken up the practice of growing cover crops--to improve soil quality and reduce erosion and runoff.

But now the value of the "green manure" in legume cover crops is making them even more attractive.

The higher costs of fertilizer have increased interest by conventional growers in legume cover crops, which have the ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and put it into the soil.

"Sharp increases in synthetic fertilizer prices have helped to fuel interest in planting legume cover crops by non-organic growers," said Jeff Ehlers, University of California, Riverside, grain legume plant breeding specialist.
Ehlers is one of the UC researchers who are working feverishly to find or develop cowpea cover crop varieties that serve multiple uses.

Some of the more useful cowpeas are exceptional at controlling weeds in particular time slots. Others help control nematodes or crop diseases. And there is even hope that a cowpea variety from Africa will produce a strong enough dose of a biofumigant to reduce symphylans, the persistent garden centipede that feeds on the roots of tomatoes, asparagus, leafy vegetables and other crops.

Science, baby!

As it was, he did a deal with a blancmange, and the blancmange ate his wife.


[ Parent ]
OT - migraines, suggestion (4.00 / 3)
Jill, have any of your medical therapists ever broached the idea of bio-feedback to send the blood AWAY from your brain (to hands & feet) when you feel a migraine lurking?  

My husband got this idea himself (I think) and taught himself (I'm pretty sure) how to do it to deal with HIS migraines.  Which, interestingly enough, came on in his late teens (junior & Sr year in HS), which is when his family does most of puberty.... said his head was completely stuffed with cotton wool for about 3 years (last of HS, first of University!).  

He is unusually (I think) self-aware of his physical being and can spot migraines coming about 95% of the time.  Whereupon (this is what works for HIM, no idea if part or all of it would help you, I have learned that there are practically as many types of migraine as there are people who get them!), he gets a cup of tea inside him ASAP (with milk & stevia), and goes into the bedroom to lie down in the dark for ... 30? minutes.  I assume he does the bio-feedback (starve the developing headache).  He's "fragile" for about 24 hrs afterward, but hasn't had a complete migraine in years.  He does the tea-and-dark thing about a half-dozen times a year these days (54).

In any case, I'm SO glad you finally got a real diagnosis, even if it is this!


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