To understand why organic agriculture is so critically important today, it helps to look back at the history of organic farming and how “conventional” agriculture got to be so non-organic.
Ever since the first hunter-gatherer chased away a flock of hungry birds that were eating something she wanted to harvest herself, humans have been competing with other organisms for food. Agriculture is about beating the odds by giving desirable plants what they need to thrive while avoiding or fighting off everything else that wants to eat them – animals, birds, insects, and plant diseases. Farmers have always looked for the most efficient ways of doing those things, but until the last couple of hundred years, they had to make due with things they could produce themselves or find locally.
The Beginning of the Fall (18th & 19th Centuries)
A wide variety of forces and discoveries have led us down the garden path and away from farming methods that relied on natural systems. I can’t cover them all here, but here are a few significant ones:
- Increased movement of goods. As transport systems improved, farmers could ship their products to more distant markets to get a better price. Increased income allowed them to buy things such as nitrogen-rich bat guano and potassium- and phosphorus-rich rock dusts that would help them produce more abundant yields. Unfortunately, the lush plants the added fertilizers created were not just more productive, they were also more attractive to pests and diseases than smaller, more thrifty plants that relied on cover crops and animal manure.
- New machinery. Wonderful inventions that allowed farmers to farm more land more easily were being introduced at the same time. They tended to work most efficiently on uninterrupted swaths of the same crop, so fields got larger, hedgerows and strips of woodland were ripped out (removing reservoirs of beneficial insects and birds), and the large new fields were planted with a single ever-more-uniform crop each year. Efficient perhaps, but these larger, less diverse fields also provided the perfect conditions for plant diseases to spread and for insects to thrive. Ever-larger machinery also led to soil compaction; and cheap fuel led to excessive plowing and cultivation, leading to accelerated soil erosion.
The combination of better transportation (for both moving products to market and fertilizers to the farm) and better machinery radically increased demand for products that would fight off plant diseases and insect pests, and the science of pesticides was born.
Fungicides – Wave 1
The first widely used fungicides were moderately effective at controlling many serious plant diseases and were reasonably safe for the environment and the farmer (they are used by today’s organic farmers). Sulfur – by itself and in combination with lime – came into use in the very early 1800’s and both proved quite effective against many plant diseases. Copper sulfate proved even more effective when it was introduced in the late 1800’s.
Insecticides – Wave 1
The first insecticides to enter widespread use, however, were not so nice. Based on toxic metals and minerals (such as arsenic, copper, lead, mercury) and other poisons (nicotine) they sickened or killed almost everything that ate or came into contact with them, including beneficial insects, pollinators, animals, and humans.
Copper acetoarsenite (arsenic) was first used in the late 1860’s to control Colorado potato beetle in the USA and was quickly adopted by orchardists for controlling codling moths. It was soon replaced by the, perhaps even nastier compound, lead arsenate, which proved less harmful to the plants and remained effective against pests for longer.
Many of the compounds were not only toxic when they were applied, but they built up in the soil, making them unsafe long after the farm itself had disappeared (land where orchards once were can still have dangerously high levels). Farming (and eating) started to get rather dangerous at this point and researchers began looking hard for more effective insecticides with fewer unintended side effects.
Better Living through Chemistry (Early 20th Century)
Thankfully, imported fertilizers and pesticides remained relatively expensive and tended to be used only on high value crops, so most farms and foods were “organic” through the 1920’s. However, cheap petroleum, and the rapid advancements in science fueled by two World Wars, led to huge changes in farming in developed countries over the next couple of decades. Two of the most important forces unleashed were the sudden availability of seemingly limitless amounts of cheap nitrogen fertilizer and the rebranding of nerve gas as an insecticide.
The Rise of Nitrogen Fertilizers
Until just over a century ago the only ways to get nitrogen that plants could use was to return as much manure and plant residue to the fields as possible and to grow plants like beans that form associations with bacteria that can “fix” nitrogen out of the air. However, in 1909, a German chemist discovered a way to make nitrates using high temperature and lots of petroleum. Plants can use nitrate as a source of nitrogen, but you can also make jolly good bombs and ammunition with it. By the end of WWII, there were huge factories cranking out tons of nitrate. When the war ended, they suddenly had almost no customers, so the marketing departments printed up new labels and started marketing it as a fertilizer.
What’s wrong with using nitrates and other man-made nitrogen fertilizers? Plants love ‘em, but it’s like only feeding a kid candy. Yields go up sharply for the first few years, but as soil organic matter is used and not replaced (and soil microorganisms die off), you need to add more and more to get the same effect. Additionally, farmers tend to believe if some is good, then more must be better. All that excess nitrogen washes down into the ground water (making water potentially toxic to drink) and into surface water where it disrupts the natural ecosystem. Plants fed lots of nitrogen are also lush and attractive to pests and diseases.
Insecticides – Wave 2
During WWI and WWII, chemists were hard at work creating chemicals that could be used as weapons. For our discussion, the most important were the nerve agents, which kill by disrupting the normal activity of nerves. Insects are different enough from humans and other animals that, once the demand for weapons was over, chemists could turn their efforts on creating nerve agents that killed insects effectively, but had little immediate effect on humans at low doses. Many common insecticides used today, including carbamates and organiophosphates, are nerve agents.
And the problem? Sadly, these second-wave insecticides were not and are not as benign as researchers and marketers would have us believe. Some have effects on animals and humans that don’t show up for years or even generations (as with DDT, which builds up in mud, then in fish and nearly exterminated the bald eagle and other fish-eating raptors by making their eggshells so thin that they broke before they could be hatched). And sometimes combining two or more reasonably benign compounds creates a witch’s brew with far worse effects on humans and animals (research and testing in this area is sadly lacking even today). In addition, most insects are not at all harmful to crops and even the harmful ones may not decrease yields when present in low numbers. Powerful insecticides fuel the mindset that farms should have zero insects, which has serious consequences. Without bees and other pollinators, you have no fruits, and without a healthy supply of caterpillars, you have no songbirds.
The Green Revolution: A Final Nail in the Coffin (1950-1970)
Massive plant breeding programs in the middle of the 20th century created marvelous new varieties, most of which were selected because they produced prodigious yields. They helped feed a rapidly expanding population (which may or may not have been good) and made farms more productive, so fewer farms were needed (ditto). Unfortunately, what at first seemed like the salvation of mankind turned out to be a Ponzi scheme that is continuing to unravel today.
Many of the high-yielding varieties require massive amounts of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides to perform well, tying farmers to their fertilizer, pesticide, and equipment dealers. Seeds of high-yielding hybrids must be purchased each year, tying farmers to the increasingly powerful seed companies. Green revolution agriculture was never a good fit for farmers in developing countries, and as petroleum prices have risen and we increasingly understand the long-term effects of synthetic chemicals on soil and human health, it is increasingly unsustainable in the developed world as well.
So, in a rather large nutshell, this is a quick overview of agriculture’s fall from grace. Next time I will trace agriculture’s climb back toward Eden and the rebirth (and invention) of farming methods and tools that seek to work with nature, rather than override it – which together make up what we now call “organic” agriculture.