Organic produce at Whole Foods in Ottawa. [Photo © Kristine Walkden]
By Kristine Walkden
On a farm in southwestern Ontario, a young girl works in the hot August sun, hoeing tomatoes. At a nearby field, a tractor roars loudly as it pulls a sprayer behind it. The girl breathes in slowly, the air tainted by a faint whiff of chemicals. As a breeze comes up, she feels a light spray of pesticide residue. She wipes her hands onto her grass-stained pants and continues working alongside a crew made up of migrant workers. No one complains.
For Su Morin, a community food co-ordinator in Cumberland, Nova Scotia, this is how she remembers her summers spent working on a farm as a teenager.
“I was surrounded by large industrial scale farmers that would spray on windy days, onto our crops and onto my skin.” she says. “I remember being really angry and wanting to complain, but as a passive teen, I did not have the courage to do anything about it.”
Morin describes the area she grew up in as made up of a series of large industrial farms that sprayed synthetic chemicals. Her concern for how damaging the chemicals were to her health was one of the main reasons she moved to Nova Scotia and developed an interest in organic farming.
The ecological impact of farming practices has been an ongoing topic of debate in the agricultural world, dividing those who farm and consume conventionally grown produce with those who farm and choose to buy organic. While organic advocates argue that conventional farming practices are detrimental to the environment, critics argue that organic practices are not sustainable and can be just as harmful.
Organic farmers use techniques such as green manure, crop rotation, compost, and biological pest control, while conventional farmers rely heavily on the use of chemical tools. Many organic farmers are concerned primarily about the health of the land.
“The founding philosophy of organic growing starts with the health of the soil,” says Morin. “Whereas, the common practice in conventional farming is simply: spray, spray, harvest, and spray.”
While organic farmers operate on a different paradigm, there’s a common misconception that organic means completely pesticide-free. Organic farmers are allowed to use pesticides, as long as they are biological, or rather natural or non-chemical and are on the Organic Production Systems Permitted Substances List. Sulfur, nicotine and copper are some of the most commonly used natural pesticides and are used to fight fungal and bacterial diseases in plants.
The pesticide predicament
Organic pesticides can be even worse for the environment than synthetic pesticides, according to a University of Guelph study, which examined the performance of two natural pesticides against four synthetic pesticides on soybean aphids over a two-year period.
The researchers reported that because biological pesticides are often used in higher doses than traditional chemical pesticides, they can cause more problems for nearby bodies of water and other parts of the ecosystem.
“All farming practices come with a series of trade-offs,” says Christie Bahlai, an ecologist who co-authored the report. “The trade-offs are never straight-forward and the magnitude of the trade-offs vary with crop, farm scale, soil, climate, location and other practices being used.”
Bahlai said the study was not meant to attack the organic industry as a whole, but to examine the true environmental impacts of organic farming, according to a CBC report.
However organic farmers rarely use pesticides, as they are viewed as a last resort, according to Maureen Bostock, co-owner of Sweet Meadow Farm, a certified organic fruit and vegetable farm in Lanark, near Ottawa.
“We are only allowed to use them if other methods fail,” she says. “We are required to do a proper rotation, use the cyclical life of the insect against itself and put up barriers before resorting to pesticides.”
What’s better for the environment?
Bostock adds that the environmental benefits of organic farming are undeniable in comparison to conventional farms. Organic farms act as an oasis for animals and insects, are successful in building healthy soil structure and protect water streams from harmful chemicals. Chemical sprays used in conventional farming only hit a very small percentage of their target, an estimated one per cent, and the rest drifts into the air and water supply, according to the Canadian Organic Growers.
Organic farms support 50 per cent more animal, insect and pollinator species than conventional farms, according to a study by Oxford University.
At Sweet Meadow Farms, beneficial insects are encouraged and even imported to help control certain pests, says Bostock.
“This year we were quite concerned about the bee population, so we brought in a hive of eastern bumbles bees to take care of pollination,” she says.
Organic farming principles are based on promoting better soil health and structure for long term sustainability, says Rob Wallbridge, an organic farmer at Songberry Farms in Quebec. Soil conditions have become a hot topic across the agricultural sector and more farmers are taking an interest in soil health to help their crops and business, he says.
“As farmers focus more on soil health, they will start to realize the potential that working with the soil biology holds,” he says. “Then they may be more inclined to adopt organic practices.”
Organic soil health
Organic farming systems tend to build up carbon soil organic matter, which helps retain water, prevent run-offs and is more resistant to droughts and floods. Chemical fertilizers used in conventional farming practices destroy soil organic matter, degrades the land and pollutes water streams, according to a report by the National Soil Project in Boston.
Every one per cent increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold 75,700 litres more water per acre, states the report.
“In organics we talk about leaving the soil in better shape than when we got our hands on it,” says Bostock. “It’s a tremendous thrill for farmers to know that the next person can come farm after us and the soil will be healthy, rich and full of life.”
Jodi Koberinski, a member of the Organic Council of Ontario, says that by prohibiting the use of synthetic chemicals, organic farmers are doing their part to protect our water bodies, increase air quality, and protect biodiversity for future generations.
“These synthetic chemicals can be damaging for many years,” she says. “We don’t know what chemicals are turning up on our food that could have been from five to 10 years earlier.”
According to Koberinski, synthetic chemicals like neonicotinoids, which have allegedly been connected to the decline of the bee population, can stay in the soil for 1,000 days after its first use.
“We’ve inherited a broken food system,” says Koberinski. “But at least when I choose organic I know the farmers I support are doing their best to ensure there are fewer chemicals in the environment.”