Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Organic vs Inorganic

This piece is an attempt to make sense of the organic vs inorganic approaches to gardening. In one sense it’s an opinion piece because, it is my opinion. But I grew up on a farm, and have been a gardener for many years. There are many theories and practices being applied to gardening these days. Nearly everyone employs some practices from a variety of these approaches to gardening. Organic gardening, like many terms today, is a bit deceitful, because it assumes that only it (organic gardening) employs the principles they espouse. In fact, all gardening, and agriculture in general, employs elements of organic and inorganic agriculture.

Organic horticulture is the science and art of growing fruits, vegetables, or ornamental plants by following the essential principles of organic agriculture in soil building and conservation, pest management, and heirloom variety preservation.
I believe organic gardening has been oversold and under-delivered. I also believe commercial agriculture has been unfairly demonized. Many false claims and accusations have been made with regard to this debate. I won’t go into all of them, but will touch on a few.

First, organic purists now declare that in order to be an “organic gardener,” you cannot use pesticides, herbicides, commercial fertilizer, or human waste.

Second, consider the fact that without commercial fertilizer, worldwide food production would be cut nearly in half; the ensuing result would be mass starvation. So can commercial fertilizer be all that evil?

Third, if you also eliminate chemical pesticides and herbicides, worldwide food production would fall by another fifty percent, relegating most of the world’s population to perpetual starvation. There is a reason commercial fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides exist, and mankind is the beneficiary.

Fourth, commercial fertilizer is not “synthetic” nor is composed of “poisons” and “harmful” stuff.
This is not to say that as a home gardener you must use commercial fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides—it isn’t necessary. But if you don’t use commercial fertilizer you must be very smart and active about replenishing your soil with manure, compost, green manure or some form of crop rotation.

Pesticides: If you don’t use some pesticides, you must accept the fact that peaches, pears, cherries, and apples will all be worm filled. Dormant oil, and other oils are effective pesticides, and they are not poison or harmful to humans or the environment. Pesticides are designed with just enough poison to kill a tiny bug. Check the percentages of active ingredients on the label, they are miniscule; meaning if the pesticide is only potent enough to kill a bug weighing less than a milligram, you could likely drink the entire bottle and it would have no effect on a human being.

But in the home garden, little if any pesticides are necessary, except on some fruit. No cool weather crops need pesticides (broccoli, onions, beets, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, etc). And melons and all cucurbits can be managed without pesticides. However, the corn borer or earworm must be dealt with or much of your corn will be ruined by worms. A little oil on the silk is effective against the earworm, or a mild pesticide is effective, and harmless to humans. It is the silk that needs the pesticide, and that pesticide never gets to the kernels we eat.
Home gardening can be successful without the use of herbicides, however; but you will have to put in a little extra time and labor in order to keep your garden from being taken over by weeds.

Fertilizer: It is important to understand that nitrogen is nitrogen, and it really does not matter where you get it. If “religiously” you refuse to use commercial fertilizer, then you must get it from some other source or accept small, spindly plant growth with reduced production. Where it rains a lot, nitrogen is not an issue because the rain pulls nitrogen out of the air and provides adequate amounts of nitrogen, in places like Washington and Oregon. But we don’t get enough rain here to even consider that option.

The next best source of nitrogen is manure, cow, horse, chicken or turkey; or any other animal manure. But most home gardeners do not have enough animals to provide enough nitrogen for their own gardens, so it must be obtained elsewhere. Throughout most of Asia, human waste is the primary source of crop fertilizer. Organic purists in the U.S. would be horrified to use human waste, but in most of the world, it is the primary source of nitrogen. Most of the rice grown in Asia is fertilized with human waste.

Commercial fertilizer is often called “synthetic” fertilizer, but that is a false characterization. There is nothing synthetic about commercial fertilizer. Is not nitrogen and phosphorus organic? Nitrogen is everywhere. Potash is mined; it’s a naturally occurring mineral. Phosphate is mined; it is a naturally occurring element—not to mention steer manure is loaded with both. “Chemically, these nutrients are identical to nutrients derived from an organic source.” (from organicauthority.com).

Commercial fertilizer is also demonized by environmentalists because, they say, it leaches into the ground water and into rivers and lakes and poisons or contaminates them. This is blatantly untrue. It is true that all fertilizer, commercial, natural, organic, or otherwise, leach into ground water; but so what? What is the difference of nitrogen leaching into the streams and lakes, and rain dropping tons of nitrogen into rivers and lakes? Nitrogen is not a poison, and neither is phosphorous or potash, they are everywhere in the earth and they end up in the water whether man has anything to do with it or not.

Environmentalists are now attempting to demonize carbon…of all things. Carbon is essential to life; it is not a poison, or a pollutant. Increase the amount of carbon in the air and all plants will have more growth, and food crops will have greater production—why is that bad? And for that matter, raise the overall temperature of the earth, and food production goes up, disease goes down, and people are healthier and happier. And some people are freaking out because the earth’s temperature might be rising? We should hope it is.

Not too much goes to waste in today’s world, almond hulls are made into feed for animals, cottonseed is processed for feed for dairy cattle; and…the contents of sewer sludge is used in a variety of ways, including making commercial fertilizer—all organic stuff.

Plowing and tilling: Plants need air to grow, above ground, and below ground. The notion that plowing or tilling the soil is destructive or “kills the soil” is nonsense. If soil is never turned or plowed or tilled, it becomes so compact the roots get no air, bacteria do poorly, the soil becomes sluggish or dead (sterile), and plants don’t grow or produce well. The notion that soil should not be disturbed, that farming damages the soil and the environment is a false environmental notion driven by another false notion that we would all be better if man was not here at all.

No comments: