When I first began researching agriculture, I had no idea how organic farming worked. I saw it as a somewhat backward yet non-toxic and desirable way to grow food.
Organic farmers didn’t use fertilizer, I figured, so maybe the plants would be smaller. And they didn’t use pesticides, so I’d have to settle for some damage to my food — and I’d pay more for the privilege.
As for the people who thought organic agriculture produced better, healthier food than conventional farming, I figured they were nuts. That sounded like magical thinking to me. Did organic farmers grow food using fairies and rainbows?
The notion that organic farming is at odds with modern science is an attitude I’ve heard repeated many times, even by organic activists. “We just need to go back and grow food how we used to,” they’ll say.
Today, I fundamentally disagree. Organic agriculture is best achieved using cutting-edge science and technology.
Take for example, the discovery that plants actually detect pests — or even just the eggs of a pest about to hatch — and then actively attract the predators of their pests.
It’s true. And all plants do it, to varying degrees. Scientists are now harnessing this power to help farmers develop crop varieties that are particularly skilled at alerting the “good guys” to come eat the “bad guys.”
In Kenya, they’ve created a pest control system using nothing more than native plants. Tens of thousands of Kenyan farmers put the system into practice, at no cost and with massive success in eliminating a major corn pest.
That’s just one example of the amazing powers of nature we’re only now learning about.
In another case, David Crowley, an environmental microbiologist at the University of California-Riverside, found that growth-promoting bacteria had helped a creosote bush survive for 11,700 years — more than twice as long as all of recorded history — in the Mojave Desert. Could those same bacteria help crops, too? It’s possible.
It’s true that our ancestors discovered many ways to grow food without synthetic chemicals or modern science. But that doesn’t mean science doesn’t validate those farming methods — or that we can’t use new research to keep improving.
Those who make their fortunes selling toxic chemicals love perpetuating the myth that organic farming is anti-science.
But at its best, organic farming is holistic in its understanding of the natural world — not mechanistic, like conventional agriculture. It works best when you harness the power of the microbes in the soil, a topic experts in conventional methods remain woefully ignorant about.
Organic farmers take a systemic approach to farming. They get that when a horde of pests attacks a crop, the answer isn’t to just kill the pests but to ask what’s going on in the soil or the environment that makes that plant unable to defend itself.
Organic agriculture isn’t always done this way. But it can be.
It’s time for organic advocates to stop selling themselves short. Until we all get on the same page about the science of growing food the organic way, we’re only helping the purveyors of toxic chemicals to poison our food and our planet. And there’s nothing scientific about that.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.