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Perhaps you're a little like me. You like the idea of things that are 'organic'. You like the sound of the word and the authenticity behind the idea. But what does Organic/Biodynamic actually mean and why does it cost so much more? Well I'm a little more informed after researching this week's post. Trust me, you'll want to be more informed too when you find out that your unassuming NON-ORGANIC apple in today's lunch could be covered with 7 known carcinogens, 19 suspected hormone disruptors and 10 neurotoxins…
You may be surprised to hear that the agency responsible for testing the presence of these residual toxins - the United States Department of Agriculture - doesn't actually suggest you stop eating this food, as it asserts that single doses of these chemicals are not dangerous. Hmm…what about the combination of toxins from my non-organic three fruit and five veg, build up of mercury in my canned tuna, diesel particles in the surrounding air and the off-gassing from my Chinese-made Swedish furniture? This so called chemical cocktail effect is something I suppose we all have to be mindful of and limits the usefulness of 'reductionist' or blinkered science.
So it's simple right - only eat organic as it's automatically better for you? Well…it just isn't that clear cut. For every study saying organic food is better for you, there seems to be another that suggests it's of no advantage. The same can be said of blind taste testing. In a recent episode of the long running River Cottage series, our host Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall sets up a chook challenge - his home grown organic birds vs store a bought. The results where neck and neck…well a poor choice of words I'll grant you, but I was certainly surprised to see people preferring the blander white meat. Hugh's look of shock said it all "maybe we've actually forgotten what chicken was supposed to taste like?" It's all a bit depressing.
So what do we KNOW about organic food and farming that does make it an attractive option? Well we know that organic farmers have to set aside a certain amount (at least 5%) of their property for 'nature' or biodiversity conservation. We know that the soil organic matter in organic systems is much higher and therefore more carbon and indeed water can be stored in the soil. We know plants need lots of biology/life in the soil to access the nutrients. We know organic food is produced with less/or no fossil fuel based chemicals and that it employs more people per-hectare than non-organic agriculture (a large reason why organic costs more). We also know that something dramatic is going on with chronic health issues in Western and increasingly Eastern diets. I'm not saying there's a direct causal link between industrial farming and degenerative disease rates (many do) but when we consider more people under 30 are being diagnosed with cancer every decade since the 'green revolution' perhaps something's going on?
insert hyperlink over green revolution [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Revolution]
But perhaps the most compelling case for organics is that mainstream agriculture is slowly taking up organic strategies and methods. No-till farming, rotational grazing, cell grazing, increased use of perennial pasture and using tree shelter belts are all topics now seen on Landline that used to only appear in Permaculture magazine! The Camperdown Compost Company are working with non-organic dairies in the western district to increase soil biology and to radically decrease the amount of artificial fertiliser required. Last week I attended a presentation by Precision Agriculture where the accuracy of GPS guided farm vehicles means pesticides can be targeted only at the weeds, with less going onto the produce you and I eat.
What's the difference between organic and biodynamic?
Here's a passage from marketfresh.com.au that describes this well I reckon:
While organic farming is known for its avoidance of synthetic chemicals, biodynamic farming is even more stringent. Biodynamic farming aims to achieve “self sufficiency” by generating fertilisers for crops and food for animals through natural processes that regenerate the farm system. Biodynamics grew out of a series of lectures by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1924. "Biodynamic agricultural principles emphasise living soil, the farm as a wholistic organism, and note both the visible and invisible forces that create a healthy eco-system". Other references relating to the development and principles of the biodynamic movement may be obtained at www.demeter.org.au
Biodynamic farmers use 'preparations' such as '500' as well as less conventional strategies such as burying cow horns filled with manure. Sounds weird? Who cares - just check out the soil a biodynamic farm compared to the chemical equivalent and you'll be amazed.
I suppose the thing that separates both organic and biodynamic farmers from the rest is that they're not just operating for a profit. Often they've had to withstand lower yields and much higher operating costs than their chemical using counterparts and it's generally an underlying belief that they're producing healthier food from healthier farms.