Why I do it organically, a blog by Guy Watson

I admit it; I farm organically largely because it just feels right. Is that an admission of weakness? I have a science degree, my tractors are guided by GPS, I wholeheartedly embrace the IT revolution, I hate woolly thinking and I avoid hippies. But I still find that what feels right is a good aid to making good decisions.

The kiss of death

Over the last month, while most fields in Devon assumed the deep green lushness of spring growth, some have developed a different tinge. It starts with a shade or two off the surrounding green, as if the crop is suffering disease or nutrient deficiency, but over a week, as the pale green turns yellow and then brown, the tell-tale slow kiss of death from the herbicide glyphosate becomes unmistakable.

“I admit it; I farm organically largely because it just feels right.”

Travelling through this landscape patchworked with unnatural death disturbs my vision of what it is to be a farmer: a custodian of nature and the land. I do not expect my unease to be shared by many hard-pressed farmers struggling to make a living in commodity markets; I acknowledge that it has an emotional element, rooted in the same ground that has sustained my determination to farm organically through 30 years of trial and tribulation. There is nothing wrong with emotion as a guide for personal behaviour, but it can be unhelpful or even dangerous when used as a tool for persuading others, forming policy or running a business. Some condemn following your gut outright as weak-minded, muddled thinking - which it sometimes is. But over those 30 years, much of what felt wrong in farming has turned out to be wrong for very tangible, logical and scientific reasons.

Decisions that don’t use what feels right as a sanity check can be just as dangerous as emotional decisions made without checking the measurable evidence. After 30 years of farming organically, I still have concerns about selecting evidence to support a predetermined emotional bias. What brings me back to the debate and makes me such a big mouth is frustration with the far more pervasive tendency to select evidence to support a commercial bias; something our agrochemical industry are masters of.

Glyphosate; usage & price

At about £5 per acre for a 2 litre dose, the cost of the “world’s favourite herbicide” has fallen hugely since first being patented by Monsanto in 1974. Back then it was too expensive to use unless you had a very serious problem with invasive, perennial weeds like couch grass, docks, creeping nettle and creeping thistle, which would require exhaustive cultivation and a “bastard” (a three-month summer fallow period followed by ploughing). Not all tradition is good; excessive cultivation and the associated lack of ground cover is bad for the soil, disrupting the delicate ecosystem, increasing erosion and releasing carbon dioxide. The wonderful thing about glyphosate is that it kills parts other herbicides don’t reach: over ten to fourteen days, the chemical is translocated to every active part of the plant, including the roots, where it disrupts protein synthesis, leading to death without the need for cultivation.

In the 1970s (my teens) glyphosate was twice the cost of ploughing. Today, with the patent expired and large-scale manufacture in China, the cost has fallen to about a fifth of the cost of ploughing; it has become a commercial “no brainer” for a farmer wanting to sow into a weed-free seedbed. Maize needs a deep, fine, but loose seedbed, so those yellowing fields, dying in preparation for farmers to sow maize in late April or May, will almost all be ploughed as well anyway. If done well, ploughing can give good control of most weeds in a crop as vigorous as maize. But why take the trouble and risk? While glyphosate is so cheap, why not be sure, especially when half the country’s dairy farmers seem to be doing it?

“I am retrospectively grateful for what seemed like an illogical, perhaps emotionally-driven restraint at the time.”

In my early days as an organic grower I really missed glyphosate. All my training as a modern farmer suggested that burning up diesel as I dragged weeds around the field while repeatedly beating up my soil in a war of attrition with perennial weeds was stupid, and possibly worse for the environment than the chemical alterative. I have always subscribed to the principle of working with and learning from nature, but I am not a dogmatist or a luddite; based on what I was told at the time, the selective use of glyphosate seemed a pragmatic and sensible compromise. Given a free rein to write my own standards they would have included the occasional use of glyphosate, had I not been restrained by organic rules.

But I would have been wrong, in most instances at least. I am retrospectively grateful for what seemed like an illogical, perhaps emotionally-driven restraint at the time. 40 years on from my days at agricultural college, it turns out that my lecturers and the chemical salesman’s patter were not strictly correct. There is now strong evidence that glyphosate is neither safe for users nor for the environment (see references below)… and a debate is raging in Europe over whether it should be banned.

“Time will reveal the ‘extremists’ are not the organic farmers, but those who use mindbogglingly toxic chemicals with such casual abandon.”

History has told this story again and again – so-called ‘safe’ pesticides are later banned. To be organic sometimes feels extreme, even provocative to chemical-using neighbouring farmers. Yet I am completely confident that time, and the benefit of hindsight, will reveal the ‘extremists’ are not the organic farmers, but those who use mind-bogglingly toxic chemicals with such casual abandon; that science will justify those who embraced ecology, rather than those who exploited incomplete knowledge of how to disrupt life without the humility to appreciate the risks. The true cost of 2 litres of glyphosate simply isn’t reflected in that £5 price tag.

Guy Watson

Suggested reading if you have the time and interest
This report is a sober and well thought through analysis of how we balance the risks and benefits of new technologies, based on experience from the European Environment Agency.

Glyphosate - the facts

  • Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world, and is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup.
  • Glyphosate’s use in UK farming has increased by 400% in the last 20 years.
  • The DEFRA committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF) found glyphosate in over 60% of wholemeal bread. As well as using it as a weed killer, many non-organic farmers spray glyphosate onto wheat to dry the crop out before harvesting. Applying it so close to harvest makes it more likely that glyphosate will end up in our food.
  • In 2015, glyphosate was identified as a ‘probable human carcinogen’ by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organisation). The animals in their lab tests had developed ‘excesses of rare tumours.’ In human studies, a strong link was found between ‘people who used or were around glyphosate, and an increased risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.’
  • Although the IARC is considered a gold standard for cancer research, their verdict on glyphosate has proven controversial. Other scientists and international agencies have produced their own assessments concluding that glyphosate should not be classified as a carcinogen.
  • However, environmental NGOs including Greenpeace have accused these assessments of ‘sweeping glyphosate cancer evidence under the carpet’, several EU states refused to support the assessment of glyphosate as harmless, and two-thirds of European citizens want to see glyphosate banned.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that glyphosate has ‘low toxicity’. But doubt has been cast on this assessment by the accusation that Monsanto ghost-wrote research on glyphosate which was later attributed to independent academics, and worked with a senior official at the EPA to quash a review of the chemical.
  • In California, Monsanto is required by law to label its popular glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup as a possible cancer threat.
  • To find out more, visit the Soil Association’s Not In Our Bread campaign, and Pesticide Action Network’s report on pesticides in bread.

Does organic farming just feel right to you?
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