Why grow organically? Organic vegetables have more vitamins and minerals don’t contain unhealthy chemical residues and contribute to better soil, water and air quality. What’s more, they taste better too!
The History of Organic Growing
While artificial fertilisers have been around for 150 years, before the 1940s virtually all vegetables were grown organically. After World War II came a push to make farms as productive as possible. Chemicals used in the war effort were applied to agriculture. Ammonium nitrate used in military explosives was added to soil to increase nitrogen. DDT, which protected the troops by killing typhus‐carrying mosquitoes, also killed crop‐destroying insects on the farm.
Advances in chemical engineering created new products – herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides ‐ that promised to make farming easier and land more productive. With developments in labour‐saving machinery and synthetic chemicals, factory farming became the norm. While this increased food production and economic gain in the short‐term, it took a long‐term toll on the quality of soil, water and air, as well as human and animal health.
Birth of the Organic Movement
The term “organic farming” was first coined in 1940 in the book Look to the Land by Lord Northbourne. Also in 1940, British botanist Sir Albert Howard published An Agricultural Testament. As an agricultural advisor in India, Sir Albert devised ‐ partly out of necessity ‐ a system of growing plants and raising animals without using synthetic chemicals. In 1943, Lady Eve Balfour published The Living Soil and in 1945 she founded the Soil Association, which focused on the relationships of the health of the soil to the health of plants, animals, and people. Lady Eve is credited as founding the modern organic movement in Britain.
Conventional farming methods increase harvests for the first few seasons, but then the soil becomes depleted. Synthetic fertilisers replace macronutrients, but trace minerals are not replaced; pesticides kill “good” microorganisms ‐ necessary to maintain soil health ‐ along with the “bad”. Gradually, the soil structure is broken down. Organic methods restore soil health by adding compost and manure and creating a healthy balance of nutrients. (See “Soil and Amendments” for further discussion.)
Healthier soil means healthier vegetables. Research has shown that organic vegetables contain more of certain vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C. (See “Vitamins, Minerals, and Antioxidants” for more information.)
Water quality is threatened by fertiliser and pesticide runoff from farms and gardens. In the UK, it costs about 128m euros annually to lower the levels of pesticides in drinking water to an acceptable level. It costs 16.6m euros to remove nitrates.
Healthier People and Animals
In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring raised awareness of the devastating effects of DDT and other pesticides on human, animal and environmental health. In the UK today, the Soil Association reports the use of over 400 chemicals to kill insects, weeds and other pests. Pesticides have been linked to cancer, Parkinson’s disease, chronic fatigue and many other diseases.
What about GMOs?
GMOs ‐ genetically modified organisms ‐ are created by transferring genes from one species to another. Common GM crops include corn, soybeans and potatoes. While genetic engineering promises disease‐free crops and vitamin‐enhanced vegetables, as Prince Charles said, “We simply do not know the long‐term consequences for human health and the wider environment, of releasing plants bred in this way.” (Currently no genetically modified seeds are available to home gardeners.)
Organic Growing is Good Business
As people realise the health and environmental benefits of growing food naturally, organic vegetables are becoming more main stream. In their 2006 report, The Soil Association found a whopping 30 percent growth in the organic market in the UK over the previous year.
Organic growing is being embraced by big businesses worldwide. Global sales of organic food are rising at the rate of about 10 percent yearly. Multinational companies like McDonald’s are jumping on the bandwagon, selling organic dairy products in their European restaurants, for example. Giant food conglomerates are buying out or investing in small organic companies.
What is Organic Growing?
Organic growing looks at the interrelationships of all living organisms and works in concert with the cycles of nature. Organic growing avoids the use of:
- synthetic fertilisers
- synthetic pesticides
- genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
Instead, organic growing keeps the soil and environment healthy by using composting, green manures, and crop rotation, as well as natural methods of pest and insect control. See the articles “Soil and Amendments“, “Vegetable Crop Rotation“, and “Garden Pests: Safe and Effective Solutions” for discussions of these subjects.
How You Can Help
Organic farmers and gardeners all play a part in creating a healthier world. The Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA) publishes “Organic Guidelines for Gardeners” which covers all areas of organic growing. Recommendations are categorised as “best practice”, “acceptable”, “qualified acceptance”, and “not recommended”.
You can make a difference: grow organically!