Saturday, March 17, 2012

Organic or Not

According to Wikipedia, "Organic foods are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives."

Fair enough.

I'm going to start this post by saying that I have no bones to pick with organic producers or honestly any producers as long as they operate their farms with integrity. The problems start when producers, marketers and regulators say or allude to doing one thing and then go and do something else entirely. This is equally true in both conventional and organic agriculture. Even more problems accrue when organic producers try to use industrial production methods to ramp up scale. That's like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Type "organic feedlot" into your favourite search engine and see what comes up. I think you'll be surprised.

If you can't use synthetic pesticides to control weeds and insects and you can't use commercial fertilizer to replace the nutrients that are harvested and removed from your soil along with your crops then one has to modify production methods in order to achieve reasonable production and pest control while maintaining soil and animal health. Long (7 year +) crop rotations with small areas under cultivation and with most of the acreage in well managed pasture under a system of rotational grazing will go a long way to making organic production methods work as they ought to do. Lots of forages combined with lots of animal manure applied appropriately will build soil fertility and minimize pests. Animals that live in uncrowded conditions and that are moved to fresh ground every day or two will have minimal problems with pests and diseases.

The gold standard mentioned above feels sometimes like it's almost impossible to achieve. And if you're trying to go organic and you deviate very much from it I promise you'll get bit in the rear sooner or later. Sometimes you'll get bit in the rear anyway, just for fun.

In spite of what you may believe sometimes there isn't much difference between organic and conventional production methods, either. I'll highlight my points with an example.

Sweet corn producers have battled European Corn Borer (ECB) for a long time. Long rotations help control this pest and most producers, both conventional and organic, practice long rotations. Organic producers also sometimes plant a refuge....another crop that's more attractive to corn borer than sweet corn. But if ECB really comes on like it does in some years none of this will be enough to save your crop and other methods will be called for.

Here are some of the things you can do to control ECB infestations.

1. Grow GMO sweet corn that has bacillus thuringenesis (Bt) genes already in it to combat European corn borer ?

2. Grow conventional non GMO sweet corn and spray it with Furadan or other insecticides multiple times to control European Corn Borer ?

3. Grow organic non GMO sweet corn and dust it with Bt powder several times during the growing season.

As near as I can tell, option three is/was in compliance with at least some organic certification programs.

No matter their stripe, farmers face a myriad of unexpected problems and even the best farmer gets caught with his pants down periodically thanks in no small part to to the fickleness of nature and animal life generally. There is more than a little truth to the statement that anyone aspiring to start an organic farm ought to probably spend some time learning to run a conventional farm first so that when the inevitable challenges come there may be a fail safe in place instead of instant financial ruination. I've farmed my entire adult life and it still surprises me how quickly animals can get sick and how vigorously weeds can grow.

In some ways our farm would qualify for organic certification, especially on the cattle side, but in spite of the possible economic benefits I've never bothered to try to achieve it and I doubt I ever will. While I don't love using them, sometimes a few dollars worth of fairly benign pesticide will do a lot less damage and provide better results than will any certified organic procedure. Likewise, sometimes judicious use of vaccines and antibiotics will save a valuable animal and/or prevent a devastating disease outbreak before it has a chance to run amok. While I think there is much to learn from well run organic farms, I don't like some of the constraints that come with organic certification.


Bif said...

Informative post. =)

Jack said...

Excellent post Jason. Our training makes it hard to accept some of the ideas associated with organic and yet I appreciate the consumrs desire to have food that they feel is safe and produced by farm families. Finding the balance is always the challenge.
The buds are just starting to break on the early trees and the mosquitos are out in small numbers and it March in Ontario!

RuckusButt said...

Good post. A big issue I've heard about is, for example, dairy farms who go the route of organic certification but the practices are practically identical to a non-certified farm. They don't spray pastures for the cows and the drug etc regulations are already quite strict. Yet you'd pay twice as much for organic milk. Unless there is something I don't know about (entirely possible) that just seems to be bad for farming as a whole (but great for the organic administrative bodies!)

RuckusButt said...

Jason - time to lay bets on forsythia blooms in Ontario!! :-) It looks like this year might beat my previous record of April 3rd (2010, full bloom, started a few days before that). Last year was April 14th. I think if we get a good rain in the next couple days and the temps don't drop too low we will be golden.

Jason said...

Organic dairies do get paid more for their milk but much of the additional revenue is eaten up by having to buy organic grains, etc. to feed the cows.

In our house we tend to like to purchase items that are minimally processed and sometimes this is difficult to do unless one goes organic. Down here most all the chicken on conventional store shelves has had a 15 % chicken broth and sodium solution added to it and it ticks me off to pay three or four bucks a pound for flavoured water. So we pay a bit more and buy "unenhanced" chicken instead. We don't buy beef at the store but you can bet I'd be buying something guaranteed not to contain "pink slime" no matter the cost. From a pathogen perspective it's almost certainly safe to eat but just because we can doesn't mean that I want to.

Jason said...

At Ottawa, knowing absolutely nothing about where things are at except that everyone tells me it's warm I'm going to lay a bet on flowering forsythia by March 30th if the weather holds and it rains.

Jack, you want to chime in on forsythia bloom dates from Lindsay ?

Ours started Feb 2nd down here this year...same day our daffs bloomed. Central and eastern Ontario is typically about eight weeks behind us for both daffs and forsythia.