The next article was published in the July, 1994 issue and advocates the use of non-organic growing methods. The article that follows is a rebuttal that presents organic methods, and was published in the September 1994 newsletter.
I cannot help but cross swords with the continual barrage of articles in our Tropical Fruit News advocating organic gardening as opposed to conventional plant care. In these writings we are led to believe organic gardening will solve our problems from the pollution of our planet to a reduction in the incidence of cancer. While this simple solution sounds wonderful, in reality it is an impracticable pipe dream. The reality of the situation is if we were to abandon present day agricultural practices in favor of this back-to-nature approach we would all starve. In modern agriculture one person's efforts can produce enough food to feed a hundred. Such agricultural efficiencies would be impossible to obtain using organic gardening techniques.
Is organic gardening really all that great? Is organic gardening solving our problems or creating more problems than it solves? Application of animal manures, contaminated with diseases and parasites, can tend to spread and perpetuate an unhealthy condition as well as subject humans to the possibility of becoming infested. Using plant materials as a mulch can spread virus and fungus diseases a well as weed seeds. A thick mulch placed around tree trunks is a sure way to invite Phytophthora fungus problems, especially in citrus.
We are led to believe chemical fertilizers are poisons that should be avoided. Actually these synthetic plant foods are clean and uncontaminated. They mostly start out, not as garbage or other refuse, but as clean minerals excavated from the ground. If slow release fertilizers are required they are available in plastic encapsulated pellets with various time-activated schedules.
In modern society the backyard grower has only a limited time to devote to gardening. To do this efficiently and effectively he or she needs all the help they can get: help from available agricultural pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers and modern technology. To indulge in organic gardening is more a mental state than a practical solution. Frequently hobby gardeners practicing this so called "nature's way" are giving bugs a field day. Their plants are often badly infested with aphids, scale, and whitefly along with their tell-tale fungus-covered excretions blackening the foliage. If there are any predators they remain well out of sight. What is visible are armies of ants grazing off these plant parasites and moving them from one location to another like cows in a pasture. I can think of no worse scenario than having an organic gardening fanatic for a next door neighbor. Such a situation would enable a migration of plant pests to fly, walk, crawl or be ant transported in an endless procession infesting my plants with no end in sight.
There are two sides to every coin. Organic gardening may be a way of life for some. For me it would be a disaster.
We would like to offer a reply to William F. Whitman's 'Point of View' published in RFCA July Newsletter. He showed strong opposition to the use of organic methods. We hope to show that organic gardening is both practical and philosophically sound.
Mr. Whitman stated that if we were to abandon present day agricultural practices in favour of a back-to-nature approach we would all starve. We believe that if our society continues its current agricultural practices, we will indeed all someday starve. Our present agricultural system is based on the use of non-renewable fossil fuels and limited supplies of fertilisers (especially rock and guano phosphate). It is not sustainable!
Present day agriculture is largely responsible for the tree felling, soil erosion, soil poisoning and other environmental disasters that are seeing thousands of hectares of good Australian farmland turned to desert each year. Present day agriculture is not about providing food; it's about making money. Australia's production is intended mostly for export or the luxury market. There are massive inefficiencies. One man CAN NOT feed a hundred in modern agriculture without MANY OTHERS to provide the resources he requires (men have been forced off the farm to work in the tractor factories and agricultural laboratories to support our lonely farmer). The modern farmer can not operate without using fossil fuels and other scarce resources. One man can feed a hundred with organic methods without the need for any of the supporting infrastructure and energy needs of a modern chemical farm. He may need a little extra labour, but in today's climate of unemployment, labour is NOT a scarce resource!
Countries like China can support huge populations with organic methods while Australian 'chemically dependent' farmers struggle to support one family on hundreds of hectares (if not thousands). C. Tudge (New Scientist '86) muses on the proportion of the British Isles that could be given back to nature. He comes up with a conservative estimate of perhaps 60% (this based on inefficient modern agriculture). Others believe the figure to be closer to 94%. There is so much land that is underutilised or not used for food production at all. Our own experiences with permaculture systems show that they quickly produce much more than can be picked, let alone eaten. There is ABSOLUTELY NO REASON to think that man's present population can't be fed by organic methods. However, no method of agriculture will support a population that increases without end. Population and economic growth must stop at some time.
We also can't agree that the debate is organic versus conventional plant care. Organic gardening IS conventional gardening. Current chemical use is a very recent phenomenon resulting from the conversion of World War II industry to agriculture; it's even newer or unused in most of the developing world. Organic gardening and farming has been providing for us for centuries. PLANTS CAN GROW AND YIELD WITHOUT CHEMICAL PROTECTION OR INTERVENTION.
Organic fruit and vegetables can easily be grown by the average backyard gardener so long as he/she doesn't always expect them to look the same as in the shop (though often our vegetables look far superior to Woolies 'fresh' veges, as well as being better nutritionally). When people insist on eating European vegetables in the tropics, it does make it harder of course. To grow strong healthy plants, one must provide them with an environment that suits them. There are thousands of delicious plants suited to our growing conditions that most people have never heard of. Organic backyard growing is easy if you grow plants that suit the area's climate, grow mostly perennials or self-seeding plants, and use mulches, ground covers and plant heavily to minimise weeding. We can see our soils improving year by year - not disappearing into the sea. It is also lots of fun .... no need to worry about dangerous chemicals or listen to noisy machines.
As for the problem of organic neighbours and their insects; organic and chemical farms indeed aren't too compatible. Herein lies the heart of the philosophical difference. The organic approach is about working with nature and creating living ecosystems that produce large yields in total. The modern agricultural approach is based on growing plants in a sterile environment, much as modern medicine tries to keep humans healthy in a sterile environment. We forget that we are a part of nature, and have evolved to live with nature, not in a sterile vacuum. Our society has an attitude problem; we hate long grass so much that we'd sooner look at dead grass; most of the chemicals used on crops are for cosmetic reasons. Even if biocides were people-friendly, we'd much rather be sitting on the back deck looking at birds and bees than at a sterile patch of uniform vegetables grown in dead soil. Rather than being frightened of nature, we can marvel at being a part of it.
The organic approach also considers bacteria and viral life a useful part of any ecosystem. Microorganisms are essential for good health, and organic farmers encourage the microflora of their soil; a rich microflora discourages the buildup of pathogens.
Weeds are rarely a major problem to the intensive organic grower; in fact plants we label as weeds often perform many useful functions (many are even good to eat). Only in sterile monocultures are they seen as intolerable.
Faeces are also not ignored in the organic approach. Rather than flushing them to poison the sea and deplete the land, organic growers realise they are an important resource. In Chinese culture, farmers compete for the human faeces resource. While hygiene considerations are important, human faeces are a resource to be investigated. Cow and horse manure are the more commonly used manures (these are thought not to carry any human diseases). Manures can certainly be considered less harmful than many chemical biocides.
Chemical fertilisers may be sterile, but that doesn't mean they are better for us, any more than chlorinated water is better to drink than stream water with fish living in it. The fact that artificial fertilisers use scarce resources and large amounts of energy in their manufacture and use are problems. Just as serious are nutritional questions. Plants usually obtain nutrients via a complex interaction of root hair environment and humus colloids. When plants are force-fed highly concentrated water-soluble chemicals through the water transport cells, the final nutritional make-up is vastly different (Firman E Baer report, Rutgers University). Long-term chemical use also results in poisoned soils and waters.
As for biocides, their history is frightening ..... there is film footage of people swallowing DDT, believing it to be harmless. There are about 3000 pesticides available on the Australian market, some banned overseas, many not fully tested. The levels of dieldrin found in some autopsy results were 22 times that allowed in beef exports (Bulletin, '89). In fact, pesticide residues in Australians (a subject which has been very little researched) appear to be much higher than in the United States (including hexachlorobenzene, dieldrin and DDT). Chemical use is associated with acute toxicity, asthma, allergic reactions, birth abnormalities, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, mental disorders, reproductive failure and breakdown of the immune system. Very little monitoring and research of chemical use is done in Australia - overseas reports are very scary. Perhaps we're too frightened to really know what's happening in Australia. Australia has a clean green image overseas which helps our export market .... our overuse of chemicals will very soon spoil this advantage.
We hope we haven't given the impression that we seek a return to bygone days or third world farm drudgery. There is a place for modern knowledge and technology. Slow-release chemical fertilisers that don't burn young plants, kill soil life or leach to our rivers and groundwater may have a place in building up lost soil fertility (then trees and recycling should maintain it). Hybrid seeds have certain advantages ... it's only as they start to replace tried hardy varieties that we all should worry. Ancient systems as well as modern innovations are part of the permaculture approach to organic food production to produce an environment good for people AND nature.
This was meant to be a short reply. For further information try the many excellent books available (e. g. Permaculture - A Designers' Manual by Bill Mollison, or books by A. Podolinsky or contact T.O.G.A. or Permaculture Group FNQ Inc.)
The above is our point of view based on the facts as we know them. We'd welcome any information that corrected any errors. We hope that Mr. Whitman and others with a similar outlook can appreciate our stand and tolerate us as neighbours a little longer. Even better, we'd like to be contacted by those willing to brave the transition from chemical to organic methods.
DATE: September 1994
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