Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
English Editorial – Organic Myths, Exploded

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MOF&G Cover Summer 2009
Home Gardens: Growing Good, Safe Food

Jean English – Editor, The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener

“One of the big lies in the popular press is that organic farms are labor-intensive,” said Mary-Howell Martens at MOFGA’s Spring Growth Conference in March. She and her husband, Klaas, told how they manage 1,400 certified organic acres of crops in New York state with only three full-time and two part-time people working the farm. (See the Spring Growth coverage in this MOF&G.)

The key seems to be a love of ecology and diversity. Because they don’t use synthetic herbicides that could kill weeds in a monocropping system – say an herbicide that kills broadleaf weeds in corn – the Martens are free to intercrop and rotate their corn with a multitude of other economic crops.

Because they think about root causes of problems that arise, they also find permanent, root solutions rather than reactive, short-term, toxic, expensive bandages. If a particular weed is present, they ask themselves: What property of the soil and/or cropping system is encouraging that weed to grow? Then they manage soil fertility, planting times and rotations in ways that encourage the crop rather than the weed – or insect, or disease. Their expert management has streamlined their operation so that it is, indeed, labor-efficient.

The Martens practice what Eliot Coleman refers to in his new book The Winter Harvest Handbook as “deep organics.” Like the Martens, Coleman tells how to pay careful attention to the nutrient density of crops (hence to the health of soils, micronutrients included); and how to farm in a way that nurtures healthy crops rather than relying on inputs (even organic products) to fight pests. When pests are present, figure out why they are present and address that problem directly, he says.

Other myths about organic farming have been shattered in recent years. Numerous studies have shown that organic farming can yield as much as or more than conventional; and that the products of organic farming are often denser in nutrients than many conventional crops.

A recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, suggests that it makes little sense to support genetic engineering at the expense of technologies proven to increase yields substantially, especially in many developing countries, where organic and similar farming methods that minimize the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, combined with traditional plant breeding, can more than double crop yields at little cost to poor farmers. (See the News section of this MOF&G.)

At the same time, yield drag in genetically engineered crops, such as soy, and the expense of buying patent-protected seed and of not being able to save one’s own farm seed, are casting new light on problems associated with this shortsighted technology.

In every issue of The MOF&G we carry news about toxic effects of pesticides used in conventional agriculture. We never have a shortage of recent reports on the subject. In the current issue alone, we report on two pesticides that UCLA has associated with Parkinson’s disease; a correlation between pesticide exposure in parents – especially to herbicides used on home lawns – and rates of childhood brain cancer; and the toxic effects of Roundup herbicide on human cells.

No wonder so many Maine farmers and gardeners choose to enjoy organic products.

Home Gardens: Growing Good, Safe Food

Sales of vegetable seed to home gardeners jumped in the past couple of years, and the National Gardening Association anticipated a 20 percent increase in the number of people growing their own vegetables this year. The NGA says that an average home garden can generate more than $1 per square foot in produce, and that U.S. households raise more than $21.6 billion worth of produce from their gardens.

This is good. Gardening is great exercise; spending time in the sun helps our bodies produce healthful vitamin D; and growing our own food gives us security – and choices.

Now that the Maine Board of Pesticides Control has approved growing genetically engineered sweet corn containing the Bt toxin in every cell (including every kernel on the ear of corn destined for consumers), growing our own is one more way to practice the precautionary principle in our own backyards.

When the BPC’s Medical Advisory Committee (MAC) reported on Bt sweet corn in February 2009, it told the board that it lacked sufficient data on chronic effects to assess the impacts of the corn on human health. Despite the lack of data, the BPC approved Bt sweet corn for planting in Maine in 2009. The MAC will meet on July 20 to discuss the effects of Bt sweet corn on human health – even as the ears are ripening in the field.

Enjoy your homegrown, non-GE sweet corn!

– J E
MOF&G Cover Summer 2009
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