True organic farming requires learning and acquiring a deep and long-term understanding of a farm’s ecology and its crops. It is about a subtle management of the environment to grow our crops with the minimum interference and disturbance.
Spraying a field with a nerve poison to control aphids and thereby killing all other insects by accident is as violent and ignorant as a Nazi book burning; planting phasealia to attract adult hover flies and lacewings whose larvae will eat the aphids is a peaceful and truly knowing one. Annihilating all soil life with the fumigant mythyl bromide to kill a few weed seeds and pathogens when 99.99% of the soil’s population is beneficial is as dumb and intellectually lazy as expecting carpet-bombing Vietnam to lead to peace and freedom. Using the last of our fossil fuels to make nitrogen fertilizer which clover could provide for free and without contributing to global warming is the mark of a blinkered economic system incapable of seeing beyond a self-destructive worship of the free market and greed.
How could we be so dumb? Organic farming is smarter in so many ways; it is more than just not using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; it is about our relationship with the planet we live on, including the seven billion people we share it with. At its best it is about humility, understanding and learning from nature rather than arrogance, domination and destruction. It is about peace and respect rather than violence.
I know this is wild stuff and I sound like a hippy but I don’t care. My early years as an organic grower taught me that if you go to war with nature without the back-up of an arsenal of fossil fuel based agro-chemicals you will loose. That made me angry initially but with loosing comes humility, re-evaluation, introspection and fundamental learning. Looking back over my early years as a grower it is hard to believe how personally I took it when things went wrong. It was all about ego and my fields were my empire. Perhaps the self-centered arrogance would have subsided with age anyway but I am convinced the vulnerability inherent in organic farming helped.
For most converting farmers there comes an epiphany when they realise they have got the relationship wrong; that organic farming is not about substituting ammonium nitrate with chicken shit, pyrethrum with soft soap or herbicides with flame throwers, that the conflict is unnecessary and ultimately self-defeating and that the key to organic farming is observation, empathy, humility and understanding rather than power.
Nature can provide what academics would call the “elegant” solutions that include balance and the subtle relationships between organisms that make chemical farming’s clumsy, energy consuming, often thoughtless abuses seem grotesque by comparison; it has so much to teach those who are receptive and organic farmers normally become more receptive than most. If Bush and Blair had spent their bonding time on an organic allotment with their hands in the soil rather than driving a golf cart around in bomber jackets they would have realised that they were not omnipotent and their countries might not be fighting their unwinnable wars.
Guy Watson founder of the Riverford Organic Veg Box Scheme and co-author of the Riverford Farm Cook Book. www.riverford.co.uk