Natural Products Global – Jun 27, 2019 – Jim Manson
As anticipated, climate change, ecology and the wider ‘green transition’ have been placed at the heart of new legislation and policy by the Social Democrats.
Organic Denmark, called the development “a historic breakthrough for organic”, bringing with it benefits for nature, the environment and water quality in Denmark.
The association also praises the agreement’s wider ambitions for climate change, and a new agricultural policy in the EU that focuses on public goods.
“We are now looking forward to the coming collaboration on the development of a new Danish organic policy, which can realise the ambitious goals and maintain Denmark’s status a the world’s leading organic country,” says Paul Holmbeck, Organic Denmark’s political director of the Organic Land Association.
While giving the announcement a warm welcome, Holmbeck said that wider agricultural reforms were needed.
“ (the new direction) …requires new investments in innovation, market development and research. New knowledge, new markets and new innovative solutions must support the organic farmers, companies and food professionals in driving the climate change and creating new jobs in the food industry. Organic stands on three pillars: the market, innovation and and proactive organic policy.”
Per Kølster, chairman of the Organic Land Association, added: “It is crucial that the government addresses climate and biodiversity challenges in a major restructuring in agriculture. And in that work, organic must, to a much greater extent than today, be actively involved in both the forthcoming climate policy and agricultural reform, since organic simultaneously delivers a series of sustainability goals, such as nature and clean drinking water.
In the last 7 years there has been a quiet redefinition taking place in the USDA National Organic Program that oversees organic standards. Large scale industrial producers have insinuated themselves into organic certification to transform what the green and white label stands for.
This equation leaves out the discussion of WHY these things are true, but it is a good roadmap for what organic agriculture is all about. The first given is always “healthy soil.” As we look deeper, we cannot study these parts separately, because plants and animals are integral parts of healthy soil system. No plants means no healthy soil. The same is true with animals. Soil and plants coevolved for 350 million years, and neither can be healthy in isolation from the other. The dance between plants, microbial life, and animal life in the soil is necessary for all.
Western soil science got started with the work of Justus von Liebig (1803-1873). From Liebig’s perspective, soil was a passive storage bin for plant nutrients. However, in Charles Darwin’s 1881 book The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, these ideas were challenged by a vision of the soil as a living ecosystem. But Liebig’s viewpoint dominated Western soil science until the 1980’s when the role of organisms in soil formation became better understood. Liebig himself even turned away from his “storage bin” paradigm in the later part of his life, but our agricultural sciences continued to follow his earlier writings.
If we take away plants, soil can no longer be living. Plants provide the energy via photosynthesis for all animal and microbial life in the soil. These photosynthates are provided first as root exudates that feed the fungi and bacteria in exchange for which they gain the minerals that in turn feed the plants. The visible life forms are as important as the invisible microbial community. Soil animals go from burrowing woodchucks and gophers to snails, slugs and elongate animals such as earthworms, flatworms, nematodes, soil mites, springtails, ants, termites, beetles and flies. All of these species together create a community that is often called the soil food web.
Organic farming is based on protecting and enhancing this web of life. By cultivating the diversity of life, we create a stable ecosystem in the soil. Diseases or pestilence are symptoms of a loss of balance. So the organic farmer’s first job is to enhance the diversity of life in the soil community. This is done by providing materials and techniques to help build a soil carbon sponge.
Conventional agriculture is based on a very different strategy of control and simplification. By making systems that are as simple as possible, it becomes easy to control the inputs and outputs. The inputs are processed offsite to provide plant available nutrients. “Soil” becomes a device for holding roots. It is thus easier to make these systems replicable, much like the model of a McDonald’s restaurant. McDonald’s simplifies their systems as much as possible to serve the same hamburger to every customer around the world. In such a system the expertise is contained in the corporate staff who design the processes and provides the raw materials. The problem is a loss of nutrition in the final product. McDonald’s serves lots of calories that soothe customers’ cravings, but they fail at providing a healthy diet. The end result is the phenomena of customers who are simultaneously malnourished and obese.
Similarly, in a conventional agriculture system, the yields are high per acre, but, as Vandana Shiva has said, the yield of health per acre is low. As it turns out, we are part of that co-evolution of soil and plants and animals. Human nutritional needs are complex and beyond our full understanding at this point. But organic farmers believe that by embracing those natural systems, we can feed ourselves well, even if we never fully understand why.
As Einstein once said, there is a simplicity that comes before complexity that is worthless, but there is a simplicity beyond complexity that is priceless.
These simplified conventional systems have been promoted by an industry that profits by selling remedies to the unintended consequences of such crude simplicity. Their high yields are unsustainable without the liberal use of poisons. Plants grown in a soil devoid of biological complexity are very vulnerable to disease and insect attack. And of course, the more we use such poisons, the less healthy the soil becomes, so more pesticides are needed, and on and on.
In livestock production, the epitome of conventional agriculture is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) where animals are isolated from the land. Their food is grown far from where they live, so their manure is lost to the production system. There is no honoring of Albert Howard’s Law Of Return.
In vegetables and berries, the epitome of conventional agriculture is hydroponic production. Hydroponics is a system that relies entirely upon processed inputs to feed the plants. The old organic adage is, “Feed the soil, not the plant.” The guiding principle of conventional agriculture is: “Feed the plant, not the soil.” Obviously, hydroponic production is the most extreme example of this philosophy.
The practices of organic farming are ancient, but not all traditional farming systems could be called organic by the definition of such pioneers as Albert Howard. Some traditional agriculture was not sustainable and ultimately led to the downfall of civilizations. But organic principles have been practiced in the intensive farming of southeast Asia for over 4000 years. They were learned by Howard in India and subsequently taught in the West. Since then, soil science has confirmed Howard’s ideas to an astonishing degree. Every day we learn more and more about how soil communities function and about why such a system need not depend on pesticides to thrive. Every day we learn more about the connections between the soil microbiome and our own microbiome.
From this logic we derive a conclusion that is important to remember: that the absence of pesticides in a successful organic system is the result of how we farm, not the definition of it.
The organic movement has long believed that food grown in a healthy soil is the foundation of human health. In recent years it has become clear that agriculture is also deeply involved in the climate crisis, both as the problem and as the solution. Conventional agriculture contributes directly to the destruction of the living soil, leading to the spread of deserts and the warming of the planet. We have the skills and understanding to farm without chemicals in a way that will build a soil carbon sponge that can cool our warming planet. Our impediment to achieving this is social and political, not technical.
The inclusion of hydroponics in organic certification is thus not an example of innovation and improvement. It is an example of conquest and colonization. It is simply a hostile takeover of organic by economic forces. It has been widely resisted by the organic community, but the USDA continues to embrace hydroponics as organic just as they embrace CAFOs as organic. Their redefinition of organic is in opposition to the law and to international norms. The US once again becomes the rogue nation throwing away our mutual future so somebody can make a buck.
At this time, huge quantities of hydroponic berries, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and greens are being marketed as “Certified Organic” in partnership with the USDA. And there is no way of identifying what is hydroponic in the organic label.
The Real Organic Project was created to challenge this process. Our efforts include the creation of an add-on label so that real organic farmers and eaters might be able to find one another in a deceptive marketplace.
Last year, thanks to a doubling of organic food sales in just four years, organic’s share of total food sales in Denmark reached a remarkable 13.3% – an achievement that Organic Denmark hailed as “an extraordinary tipping point”.
So how did Denmark become the leading organic nation in the world, and how can other countries learn from the Danish organic success story?
That was the question Organic Denmark’s international market director, Pernille Bungård, set herself for a special presentation at last week’s Organic Food Iberia event in Madrid.
Denmark, of course, has already travelled a long way on its organic journey – Danish consumers are culturally primed for organic. So, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that a healthy 11% of Danes can be classified as ‘super heavy users’ of organic. The fact that these consumers account for 44% of total organic sales shows how important a group they are.
Everyone buys organic Organic Denmark breaks down organic consumers into five main subsets. ‘Functionalists’ who make 31% of organic consumers are looking for “quick and easy solutions”. ‘Idealists’ (20%) identify with “clean, sustainable and home-made”, while ‘Convenience seekers’ (19%) “have a low interest in food, and choose the cheapest products”. ‘Food lovers’ (17%) look for “taste, quality and country of origin, and ‘Traditionalists’ like things “simple, Danish and traditional”. The big take-home here, says Bungård, is that “consumers are different – but everyone buys organic”.
Danish consumers’ biggest motivation to buy organic is ‘fewer residues’, followed by ‘higher animal welfare’, ‘better environment/drinking water’, ‘health’, ‘quality’ and ‘fewer additives’. Bungård admits to being surprised that “quality is comparatively low” on the list.
An important part of Denmark’s success with organic has been down to the way key stakeholders work together. Winning over the country’s major retailers has been a major priority for Organic Denmark. The organisation has literally worked its way through all the major supermarkets, persuading them about the organic opportunity. The major supermarkets and grocers in Denmark account for the vast majority of organic food sales (the Coop chain commands a whopping 35% by itself). Organic Denmark has also been able to get the discounters successfully onside – Netto, for example, now accounts for 12.2% of all organics sales.
Record numbers of French farmers converted to organic last year, according to France’s lead organic body Agence Bio.
Around 5,000 new organic farms achieved certification in 2018, meaning that 9.5% of all French farms are organic, while organic now accounts for 7.5% of the country’s farmland.
Agence Bio says the sharp rise in organic production was helping keep pace with strong consumer demand, and also limit the need for imports.
Florent Guhl, director of Agence Bio, pointed to the impact on employment in the farming sector. “In total, 14% of agricultural employment is now in organic farming.”
The biggest growth in organic farming came from the grain sector, and was partly a response to depressed prices for conventional grain. But generous financial organic conversion support and supply chain investments also provided encouragement.
In the field of pulses, 40% are already organic. In viticulture too, the leap is also striking (+ 20%), with 12% of the French vineyards operating to organic standards in 2018. To encourage winemakers to take the plunge, a CAB label (organic farming conversion) was created to cover the three-year conversion period. The logo allows the winemaker to explain to the consumer that it is engaged in the organic process, and therefore qualified to sell its wine a small premium over conventional.
Despite the considerable successes of 2018, work remains to be done if France is to reach the 15% organic farmland target, which French government wants met by 2020.
A group of organic farmers say the organic movement has ceded too much power to the big food multinationals, who are now trying to dilute its core values to make organic fit the free-market business model.
The key global forum at which the multinational food industry has been trying to dilute core values of the organic movement is the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex). Established in 1963, the main functions of Codex involve drafting global standards, guidelines and other related texts for foods, including food supplements. The World Trade Organization (WTO) uses the texts produced by Codex in its adjudication of international trade disputes involving foods.
For some years now, Codex has been watering down global organic standards to permit the use of substances such as sulphur dioxide, which can cause allergic reactions in some people; and carrageenan, for which there is evidence that it is associated with the formation of ulcers in the intestines and cancerous tumors in the gut. Worse still, however, Codex now allows kiwifruit and bananas to be labeled as organic even when they have been artificially ripened through the use of ethylene.
Why is this happening? On a basic level it is simply because organic foods fetch higher prices than ordinary, non-organic foods. The large non-organic food producers see an opportunity to break into the market for organic foods and make larger profits.
On a deeper level, however, organic foods promote better health than non-organic foods, by virtue of the fact that they contain higher levels of micronutrients. In addition, of course, organic foods don’t contain pesticides, residues of veterinary drugs or genetically modified (GM) organisms either. Bearing in mind therefore that good health is not in the interests of the ‘business with disease’, this ultimately makes the increasing demand for organic foods a threat to the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. This is not only because organic foods promote good health, but also because they result in a lower demand for pesticides, veterinary drugs and GM foods.
Organic farming promotes natural resistance to common food-borne human pathogens, according to a study that evaluates the benefit of soil organisms. By protecting valuable species of dung beetles and soil bacteria, organic farming systems naturally act to clean up and decompose potentially pathogen-bearing animal feces.
While these natural systems suppress pathogens on organic farms, coventional chemical-intensive farms are left with higher levels of fecal residues and are therefore significantly more likely to yield produce carrying such foodborne pathogens as E. coli. The authors emphasize that curbing the spread of common foodborne pathogens could save thousands of lives and prevent millions of illnesses each year.
The study, “Organic farming promotes biotic resistance to foodborne human pathogens,” published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, compares dung beetle populations, soil bacteria diversity, and feces removal rates on 70 organic and conventional broccoli farm fields across the west coast of the U.S. In addition to studying field conditions, authors conducted additional microcosm studies to directly test the effects of dung beetles and soil microbes on the suppression of introduced E. coli.
Results from field analyses show that organic management practices lead to greater biodiversity among dung beetles and soil microbes, which translate to higher rates of feces removal. Microcosm results confirm that by removing fecal matter, the beetles and microbes retained by organic management reduce potential E. coli contamination. These new findings add to the list of ecosystem services unique to organic farms, further bolstering the case for organic as not only an ecological but an economical solution to global food production.
In the context of recently reviewed insect declines worldwide, this study also serves as a warning of yet another key ecosystem service that will certainly be lost unless a major agricultural transformation to organic systems is mobilized. Dung beetles, whose actions in soils not only protect against pathogens, but also unlock critical nutrients, are in decline. The impacts of dung beetles on soil fertility are vital to the sustainability of farms and pastures used to maintain livestock. By burying and processing feces on cattle farms, dung beetles introduce 80% more nitrogen into the soil than would otherwise remain. By increasing soil organic matter, dung beetles simultaneously increase water infiltration, thus stabilizing farms and heavily grazed areas against erosion, flooding, and drought.
Findings from the present study highlight the need for dung beetle diversity in addition to abundance, since some dung beetles bury feces more effectively than others. Notably, researchers find that the commonly introduced species O. nuchicornis, which tends to dominate over other species and reduce overall diversity, is less effective at burying feces, with consequences for both E. coli contamination and soil fertility. Similarly, previous work attests to the importance of soil microbial diversity for maintaining ecosystem services. The key to healthy produce and fertile soils, across the board, is diversity.
Due to agrochemical use, that precious diversity is in decline. Monitoring in Europe, according to the 2019 review of insect declines, shows the greatest terrestrial loss of insect biodiversity on record to date: more than 60% of documented dung beetle species are in decline. Soil microbial diversity, too, is threatened by continued application of pesticides in industrialized agriculture. Highly toxic gases known as “soil fumigants” are used on a wide range of high-value crops to control nematodes, fungi, bacteria, insects, and weeds. Soil fumigants wipe out entire soil communities, thus necessitating the use of other chemicals to provide the fertility and pest control services that soil organisms provide. In addition to fumigating soil, which intentionally kills all living things in the soil, other chemical-intensive practices also threaten soil life. Glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide, is also an antibiotic. Glyphosate-tolerant plants release glyphosate into the soil, where it has a continued impact on soil microbial diversity.
Beyond Pesticides holds the position that these patterns carry a lesson. Insects and microbes that act to control crop pests and fertilize the soil reduce the need for pesticide and chemical fertilizer use. Reliance on chemical controls creates a vicious treadmill: pesticide use kills natural agents of pest control, thus creating a demand for more pesticide use, which kills more of the beneficial organisms, and so on.
Join Beyond Pesticides in getting off the toxic treadmill and instead working to build a sustainable food system based on natural control systems. Be a model for your community by creating a pesticide-free zone in your home yard, neighborhood, or even jurisdiction. Add your pesticide free zone to the map by taking our Pesticide Free Zones Survey. Show your neighbors and beyond that a world free of pesticides is both desirable and achievable.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.