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Farming Myths

Posted 1/18/2014 11:33am by Don Kretschmann.

I was very upset that last Sunday's Pittsburgh Post Gazette carried an op-ed piece by a leading advocate of GMO's entitled "The Myth of Organic Agriculture" without an opposing viewpoint as they often do for controversial topics.  Henry Miller claims organic produce is no better for you or the environment.  I don't disagree that there are conficting claims and studies of organic vs. conventional nutrition.  But there is a much larger story that simply that.  Here was my response, submitted, but not yet published.

Dear Editor,

  In a way, I'm glad Dr. Miller threw down a gauntlet with the provocative title The Myth of Organic Agriculture because there are many reasons to bring a discussion of our food supply to public discussion.   It's more than talking about chemical analysis of foods for a limited number of substances which someone deemed to constitute the essence of "nutrition".  Organic and "sustainable" agriculture are more than some kind of a luddite conspiracy to mislead and bilk the public.

   For anyone not involved in the issues of our food supply, there's a great battle going on for control of our food supply.   On the one side are the forces which would have it all under the control of biotechnology/bioengineering firms, industrial suppliers of fertilizers/pesticides, large holders of agricultural land in monoculture, factory-like confined animal feeding operators, consolidated processors/marketers at the grocery/consumption end, and --critically-- all the university research this industrial complex can afford.  A quick look into Dr. Miller's background reveals he is clearly on this side. On the other side are traditional producers of our food, the ones everyone trusts inherently, locally focused family farmers.  

  "Organic" farming was a term made popular by J.I. Rodale in the 1940's not so much to be defined simply, as Miller would have us believe, as not using man-made fertilizers and pesticides in farm production, but rather a whole constellation of practices based on the lessons of nature.  At heart, organic farming seeks to bring the earth to life with the complex interrelated natural systems we see in the world as the model and health from nutritious food as the goal.   The interventionist strategies espoused by Miller are the opposite approach.

  Brian Snyder of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture says in a blog, "Unfortunately, we live in a time when many, if not most scientists believe that nature must be manipulated, or even defeated, in the course of addressing the really big problems our society now faces.  Such expectations quite naturally affect their findings, particularly if monetary compensation depends on it.  But an increasingly vocal minority of scientists is speaking up in support of a different kind of belief system, one that reveres, not the way things used to be, as is sometimes said, but the way things are, right in front of us, with the same insistence that others might apply to scripture."

   Led by these more respectful scientists, whole new fields of study are exploding and I feel will, over time, throw the search-and-destroy/command-and-control, chemical warfare method of agricultural production into the dustbin.  Examples abound.  In the field of soil microbiology in just a few years we've come to know there are billions of times more microorganisms than were previously thought to exist!  And there are myriads of beneficial symbiotic relationships these organisms have with other plants and animals.  Endomycorrhizal strands extend far more extensively into the soil than plant roots. These fungi bring nutrients and water into the root cells themselves, exchanging them for plant sugars.  Fungicides or acidic fertilizers obviously frustrate this natural relationship.  There's plenty of evidence that the competition between the billions of microorganisms present in a healthy soil eliminates the danger posed by some which are human pathogens.  Nature has it covered.  "Not so,", say the arrogant interventionists, "destroy them all!"  In the end, doesn't this put us all more in peril, not less, in much the same way a person whose immune system compromised by chemotherapy is prey to any pathogen which wanders his way? 

  Through DNA analysis, it's been found that within the human body there are ten times more microbes than there are actual human cells!  The purpose and interactions of all these has only begun to be understood.  It is already abundantly evident that our health and wellbeing are intimately related to this ecology.  To blandly declare war on this life system puts us in peril.  There's an epidemic of allergic, autoimmune, and digestive disease in the "developed" World.   The trail increasingly leads to this war on nature.  

   Organic agriculture seeks to bring this tapestry of life to bear on food production.  It is no myth at all.  Organicists dance with nature the way it is, not as they would like it to be.  The other agriculture of  artificially constructed organisms, with tens of thousands of mammals crowded on to a few acres to prepare them to enter the food chain, with deadly chemicals used routinely around food crops, with food barely recognizable to consumers, is the alter-universe of mythology.

 ---Don Kretschmann, organic fruit and vegetable grower for 37 years

P.S. "Backbreaking drudgery of hand weeding..." I've been farming organically for well over 30 years.  I know hundreds of other organic farmers and I don't see any great tide of "human consequences".  I'd say as a group they are healthier than their conventional counterparts.  They likely get more exercise.  My occasional trips to the chiropractor are sometimes as the result of field related stress, but more often than not comes the question from the doctor, "Have you been bent over the computer?"  So should we coin a new moniker "Backbreaking drudgery of desk work"?  I suggest it to the good doctor from Stanford.