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Organic Farming: What You’ve Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask

By Arnold de Vrles

Organic farming isn’t a new idea, but the term does tend to get overused and misused, leading to a lot of confusion about what, exactly, organic and eco-agriculture farming really is.

Over a hundred years ago, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes contrasted man’s failure to control human diseases with poisons with his success in maintaining the health of plant life “by learning the proper foods and conditions of plants, and supplying them.”

At that time the foods of man were grown without serious problems of disease of insect infestation. But conditions have changed. The philosophy of smoking out disease as we would smoke out vermin, which Dr. Holmes so derided when applied to human health, has been extended to the whole art of growing foods plants. The modern gardener and farmer devote and enormous expenditure to various techniques, which poison both soil and plants. Farming is a constant struggle to maintain or increase yields on a year-to-year basis with the application of powerful artificial stimulants to the soil and the application of strong poisons for the destruction of plant-eating insects. Little or no thought is given to the effects of such farming methods on a long-range basis, and no effort is made to provide foods that contain an adequate supply of all chemicals and chemical compounds needed for health. The motive is one of immediate yields, and hence immediate profits, without so much as a glance into the nutritional qualities of food plants or the need for developing an effective and safe method of agriculture on a permanent basis.

chickens in field
A flock of chickens roam freely in a lush green paddock near Clarkefield in Victoria, Australia

The agricultural practices of primitive man did not correspond to those seen in civilization. Primitive people employed methods of soil care and fertilization that preserved the fertility of the soil for centuries. The nomadic groups moved from area to area and thus conducted their agricultural practices on virgin soil. Others obtained much of their food in a wild state from the fertile, virgin soils of the plains and forest. These practices meant better nourished plants that were rich in minerals and vitamins, in some cases several times as high as the food of civilization.

Civilized Man    

Civilized man, for reasons of necessity, has been less fortunate. He obviously can produce only a very small percentage of his food on non-depleted virgin soil. He must use the same land again and again. When he does this, he runs into serious problems involving a complete change in the character of the soil. He tries to correct such problems with the use of a variety of chemical fertilizers. Yet he has not been able to prevent the continued depletion of soil and continued lowering of plant health. All that has been possible is the temporary maintenance of crop yields based upon a time-consuming and expensive method of soil fertilization.

Civilized man also has to reckon with soil erosion. It is through erosion that the soil loses many of its soluble minerals. The minerals are washed from the soil into the streams and rivers and often find their eventual home at the river bed or in the ocean. Using the conventional methods of agriculture, this erosion cannot be prevented. Instead it increases and becomes a greater problem with each new year.

Associated with the increasing depletion of the soil is the development of unhealthy plants which are subject to both a wide variety of plant diseases and an abnormal tendency to be attacked by insect pests. As a means of combatting the diseases and insects, deadly chemical sprays are used. These do alleviate the diseases somewhat and momentarily ward off the destructive insects. But they represent the poorest possible solution to the problem. In poisoning the plant and the insect, man is also poisoning himself, for he later consumes the plants or the animals which consume the plants. Cases of human poisoning as the result of eating sprayed food have been noted many times in medical reports, and the cumulative effects of slow poisoning with chemical sprays are bound to be serious. Indeed so extensive has the process of spraying and dusting plants with poisonous chemicals become that the entire balance of nature has been largely upset. Many beneficial kinds of insects have been exterminated, along with the destructive kinds. Insectivorous birds have died in great numbers after eating from sprayed areas, some of the largest salmon-producing rivers have been largely depopulated as a result of DDT poisons which have contaminated the waters. A large population of the necessary bee population, so important both in pollination of plants and food production, has been destroyed by chemical sprays.

Whereas the unhealthy plants growing in depleted soils seem to supply more desirable nutriment for some forms of insect life, they are far less desirable for other forms of animal life, in particular human life. This is due, in part, to the lack of an adequate supply of minerals and vitamins in unhealthy plant life. Many examples demonstrating this dependence of food nutrients upon the soil may be offered. The calcium content of the superior pasturage grown in Pennsylvania and British Columbia is over ten times that of the pasturage has been seen to vary as much as 60-fold, depending upon the condition of the soil on which the pasturage has been grown. Dr. Charles Northern of Florida found that vegetables grown on highly mineralized soil has up to four times the mineral content of ordinary vegetables, tests of oranges have shown increases of 234 percent in mineral content and 30 percent in vitamin C content resulting from improvement in soil fertility. Dr. Pfeiffer found that wheat grown upon excellent soils contained almost twice as much protein as is found in ordinary wheat. This and also other evidence shows the close relationship between the quality of the soil and the nutritional value of food.

Organic Farming and Nutritional Losses

With serious nutritional losses involved in growing foods on depleted soils, it need not surprise us to find that human health deteriorates in direct proportion to the degree that soils are depleted. Dr. Weston Price found that mortality rates for heart disease and pneumonia vary in accordance with the depletion of the soil. The areas which have been settled longest were found to have the poorest soils and the highest mortality rates. Improved soil is followed by improved health and deteriorating health. The history of racial groups and the extent to which they have depleted their soils shows this conclusively. It has even been noted that the human facial structure markedly changes, with facial defects becoming more apparent, as the soil becomes exhausted.

And this is not the end of the price we have paid for depleted soil. Our enjoyment of food has suffered as well. Fruits, vegetables, and other foods grown upon poor soils lack the strength of flavor normally found in good foods. The apples and other fruits which were grown in this country before the advent of chemical fertilizers and sprays were so full of goodness and flavor that modern fruits, in comparison, seem flat-tasting and insipid. Immigrants to America are usually delighted to see the great mounds of fruits and vegetables offered for sale everywhere, but then report their disappointment at the lack of flavor in these foods. Compared to the fruits grown in parts of Europe, the Near East, and the Far East, the fruits of this country can be considered no more than poor imitations. When we gave up some of the valuable nutritive qualities of our foods, we gave up much goodness of flavor as well.

Sea vegetation has been heralded as a superior source of vitamins and minerals. For this reason it is often sold in its dehydrated form as a supplement to the diet. As a general rule, sea vegetation does contain several times as many minerals as do land grown vegetables. The reason again goes back to the base for growing plants. The sea bed is undepleted. The vegetation that arises from it is consequently rich in minerals. It possesses the same quantity of nutritional factors which land grown plants should possess when grown under satisfactory conditions.

Our solution does not lie in turning to the sea for our staple food, even though some sea vegetation may find practical use in good nutrition. The basic need is to determine, if possible, the causes of the loss of soil fertility and then undertake a process of scientific soil development until all normal fertility is restored. This of course would be sheer fantasy as far as agricultural orthodoxy is concerned. The loss of soil fertility has always been considered inevitable if land is used for repeated croppings. The actual restoration of normal fertility has likewise been considered impossible as long as the land remains in use. Only by returning the land to nature is a return to fertility expected, and this is a slow process of rebuilding topsoil, which is thought to require hundreds of years. So, in terms of orthodox agriculture, no return of normal soil fertility is contemplated. The only orthodox solution that has thus far been attempted on a national scale is to accept depleted soil as inevitable and then try to counterbalance some of its effects through the very extensive use of chemical fertilizers.

Yet the situation is far from hopeless. Indeed, there is no reason for pessimism whatsoever. It is only by closing our eyes to all the realities of soil development that it is possible to suggest that soil depletion is inevitable or restoration of fertility is impossible. The rise of eco-agriculture, a growing and dynamic movement of land reform based upon the principles of organic farming, has provided a scientific solution to man’s problems of the soil. The fact is that, though the application of the techniques of organic farming, soil as a whole can be restored fully and completely to its original fertility. And this does require scores of hundreds of years either. It can be accomplished rapidly enough to be of benefit to people of this generation, and much improvement may be noted within just a few years after the process of scientific soil development is initiated.

Organic farming and gardening is the practice of growing crops with the use or organic fertilizers, in the form of plant and animal waste matter, instead of highly-soluble chemical fertilizers. The practice includes the use of low-soluble rock powders, such as ground phosphate, limestone, basalt, granite, etc., when these are considered necessary or desirable. It is thus nature’s method of replenishing the soil, brought to its peak of efficiency by the intensive use of humus, mulching, composting, and all other methods of incorporation organic matter within the soil to meet specific conditions and requirements of different forms of plant growth.

This article was originally published in the February 1972 issue of Acres U.S.A.