Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

By Jean English

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity that belongs to us. When we see it as a community to which we belong, we can treat it with love and respect.”

Arlene Nelson’s words in a short video by the Real Food Media Project ( sum up the basis of true organic agriculture and a philosophy that we need for the planet if we are to survive.

The Nelsons, Minnesota dairy farmers, switched to organic partly for price stability but also because of family illness. “You start to pay attention to what you were using,” says Arlene.

Their son Ross says, “Conventional farming – It’s so easy to put in a crop of corn, come out and spray it with a cancer-causing ingredient. It’s not rocket science. It isn’t good …

I would like to see the whole country go organic.”

In the wake of Russell Libby’s death, we couldn’t agree more. And we need to clean up not just agriculture but all materials production.

As our former executive director said at one of his last public presentations, “We’ve been big organic supporters for decades, and I’m still critically ill, so what we eat isn’t sufficient in a world that’s polluted. So farmers also have to be vocal about the need for clean air, for clean water, for getting toxics out of our food system in every way possible. We can’t say that’s somebody else’s job.”

Libby was, indeed, critically ill in November, having to stop his talk periodically during waves of pain, yet he showed up and spoke up. Now the rest of us have to continue that.

Two inspiring programs note how we can create a less polluted – make that more enriched – world. Architect William McDonough, in “Principles [of] Design Based on the Laws of Nature” (, says being less bad doesn’t mean being good, and he talks about design that really is good.

“In the natural world, things grow, and growth is good,” he says. Being good means modeling our production systems on biological systems; eliminating the concept of waste. Instead of designing plastics that end up in the “Pacific garbage patch,” design polymers that, once we’re finished with them for a particular use, can come apart in sunlight or at high temperatures to become materials for other uses. Design cradle-to-cradle-certified products that go back to biology (the biosphere) or to technology (the technosphere) without contaminating each other, he says (see Such design can create better, safer products with less need for regulation, thus less cost.

McDonough says he doesn’t believe in sewage but in nutrient management. He notes a decade-old technology developed when a sewage treatment plant operator wanted to clean pipes clogged with minerals. When he put the clogging material into a vortex to see if a high spin would keep it in suspension, “little white pearls, struvite” – magnesium ammonium phosphate – formed. This presents a good alternative to getting fertilizer phosphate from Morocco – “a royalty in Northern Africa subject to political disruption” and site of Earth’s main reserve of phosphate as we approach “Peak Phosphorus.” The Netherlands – the world’s second largest agricultural exporter after the United States, dollar-wise – says it won’t import any more phosphate after 2020, according to McDonough.

Rather than focusing on our carbon footprint, we should focus on creating a beneficial footprint, McDonough continues – through green roofs, for example.

Likewise, designer Gunter Pauli talks about biomimetism ( – using the structure and function of biological systems as models to design and engineer materials and machines. Pauli says that instead of batteries, we can use the heat of our bodies and the pressure generated by our voice to power cell phones; instead of pacemakers, the conductivity in healthy tissue can power faulty heart tissue. Thus we can eliminate batteries, and mining and smelting needed to produce them.

Spiders and silkworms use biology to make fiber. Mulberry worm silk placed in an amino acid gel under controlled pressure and moisture generates material “as performant as titanium,” says Pauli. One acre of mulberry trees can produce 2 tons of silk, while the silkworm generates 18 tons of fertilizer and sequesters carbon. This is how the Chinese reclaimed arid lands 5,000 years ago, says Pauli – by planting mulberry and letting silkworm frass rebuild soils. The discovery that the worms produced fiber was secondary.

To cleanse water, use physics instead of chlorine, says Pauli. The 800 psi pressure in the center of a vortex removes oxygen and thus can remove many bacterial pathogens.

The “waste” from coffee production, currently landfilled, can be a substrate for growing shiitake mushrooms, and shiitake waste, in turn, can be fed to animals. “By cascading, we’ve generated 1,000 times more amino acids for human consumption,” says Pauli about a project that exported a cash crop (coffee) and became, through cascading, “the basis for food security, and food security eliminates the abuse of women, particularly girls, orphans,” which helps stop the sex trade.

Laverne Nelson in the Real Food video says, “What’s good for the soil is good for us.” Taking good care of soil isn’t rocket science, either; but it’s more important than rocket science and deserves all our love and respect. And as McDonough says about good design, “This is going to take us all.”