This is a big subject but something that is so crucial to our wellness on all levels.It’s a topic worth exploring since all of the areas are interconnected, but one we can take some control of ourselves where possible.
Let’s start with food; why choose organic when possible? Arguments against it are that it’s more expensive. So what do you get that makes it worth the money if you are on a tight budget and a little has to go a long way?
Shopping ethically can add to the cost of our food bills that’s true, and it’s easy to make a comparison shop between supermarket own brand and products from smaller ethical organic sources, but we should also consider that cheaper products actually cost us more both environmentally and also with our health, which is priceless. Greenpeace UK has this to say: ‘’Some products are cheap because the real costs of growing them have been externalised, whether it’s environmental damage from waste and pollution, workers being paid low wages, or more emissions.’’
Much of the lower priced, inorganic foods have been grown and flown in from outside the UK. Great Britain is acknowledged to have the highest standards of farming practice in the world and we should be proud of that. We have become used to eating foods from around the world and foods that are ordinarily are out of season. I think we have all experienced ‘strawberries’ at Christmas, only to find them watery and tasteless. Something we could do is look carefully at the origins of our fresh food choices especially, and try to eat seasonally when the purchase price is often cheapest anyway. In turn this supports more UK and local suppliers and farmers while cutting down on emissions, while we can be more assured of the quality we can get from this country.
It also helps us live in balance and harmony with Nature and with our ‘chi’ energy – from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), – a system that recognises the 4 Seasons and the flow of chi through our Shen and Ko cycles which nurture and control the flow of our chi. According to TCM every season, every meridian, every health system benefits from foods grown and available for that season to maintain a balanced body that can digest, assimilate and eliminate effectively benefiting all our body systems, organs, hormones, enzymes etc. The immune system is particularly susceptible to chemicals and heavy metals which we absorb from crops that have been exposed to chemicals and from animals which have grazed on chemically treated land, and also been subjected to antibiotic use. Some of us are more sensitive than others depending on the state of our immune system.
As a child born shortly after WW2 who had a ration book for the first four years of my life; I have seen huge changes in the way we eat and what we eat. History has reflected that for many we ate the most healthily compared with today, and in the harshest circumstances,with our portion size, nutrient intake, smaller portions of protein,reliance on home grown fruit and vegetables, and low sugar consumption, etc. The home cook had to be inventive to feed her family and took it as normal to prepare organ foods and not the muscle meat of steaks or roasts we might prefer today. This has come full circle again with many top chefs advocating ‘head to toe’ eating, whether that’s animal or vegetable, with no waste. The animal bones that remain, together with vegetable off cuts, are simmered together to make bone broth,which is being heavily advocated by nutritionists and celebrities alike, and with good reason.
Before I return to organic farming and foods lets look at the alternative. Apart from costing less, being available across the seasons, and giving a higher and more predictable yield, whether that is farming crops to the very edges of fields sacrificing hedgerows and the natural habitats of native wildlife and pollinators in non-organic farming, or deforestation in other countries. And apart from the less than humane keeping of livestock and their slaughter when importing meat and chicken from less regulated countries – which a vegan or vegetarian would quite properly argue from his or her perspective, that if we all changed our diet to abstain from meat and all its by products, then wouldn’t be a concern. However Veganism is another topic for another time.
I think organic has as much to do with what you don’t get. For someone to sell their food as organic there are strict guidelines that must be followed starting with soil health.
The definition of organic agriculture can be defined as an integrated farming system that strives for sustainability, the enhancement of soil fertility and biological diversity, whilst with rare exceptions, prohibiting synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic fertilisers, genetically modified organisms, and growth hormones.
With non-organic farming what we get are higher yields, cheaper more available foods that probably look a bit ‘prettier’ than organic. In order to sustain this method we also use non-organic fertilisers, pesticides, synthetic hormones and anti-biotics etc, which our fruits and vegetables take up and then we in turn receive. Animals grazing, or being given additional feed, such as soya and cereals to help bulk them up for sale will also take up these in their diet, and it follows that higher up the chain so will we.
Scientists are now concerned about the worlds rising health problems and are attributing this to our diets, aside from our air quality and socio-economic circumstances. Glyphosate (Round Up) universally used to prevent weeds has now been banned, this has received due attention but there is more to it and our overall food safety. There are still many more chemicals that can harm us.
The toxic chemicals found in fertilisers can be absorbed into the food chain but by far the largest health risk is when chemicals flow into ground water, which is then extracted for drinking.
In areas where synthetic fertilisers are used, these will remove the nutrients from the soil, damaging the soil and the local environment depending on the amount of fertiliser used. The soil then becomes just dirt and eventually becomes ‘dead’. This is becoming a big concern in America who have vast landscapes of grain farming and an economy that needs their survival.Scientists believe that there are maybe only 50 harvests left – just 50 years – before this can’t be reversed.
Chemicals have been used on fields across the world for almost 100 years, creating a build up of adverse pollution in our environment, which continues to grow with every application.Their adverse effects travel outside the intended area of use via air, soil and water,resulting with the non-intended target of humans.
We now know that glyphosates (Round Up, being one), directly affects our microbiome massively and together with the pharmaceutical chemicals that get evacuated from us (contraceptive pills, Viagra, medications, hormones, etc) that make their way into the water systems affecting us still further.
An impaired microbiome as ongoing research is finding evidence for, leads directly to chronic inflammation resulting in so many of the diseases and conditions in society today that were once far fewer, including the epidemic of obesity because our insulin response is altered.
I have already mentioned that in the UK we have the highest standards of farming practice but given what we know about the farming of foods in some other countries, where its provenance is less regulated, we can make our own choice about the original source we are buying from and attempt to support, buy and eat foods that have not also attracted air miles, whenever possible, and in turn support our health, the cornerstone of our wellbeing and ability to thrive.
When the health of soil is compromised, the nutritional value of the foods it yields is compromised as well. According to US government estimates the levels of trace minerals in fruit and vegetables fell by 76% between 1940 and 1991. That change is tied directly to the widespread increased exposure to pesticides and chemical use. The more the soil becomes ‘dead’, the more chemicals have to be used for the next crop. I have given the US figures as an example because of the scale of their farming and data coming out about the consequences of past practice.
Research has consistently found pesticide residues in approximately a third of the foods in America. When processed foods contain ingredients that have been through a non-organic process, then ‘cleaned’ using chlorides, injected with water to give perceived succulence in meats, or are ‘look alike’ products as in a ‘burger’ made with soya grown from a field where chemicals were used, we are creating ‘Franken foods’.
Towards the end of 2019 we celebrated World Soil Day which highlighted the need for and value of healthy soil to be recognised as of the utmost importance. Statistics given so recently were: A third of global arable soils are degraded with 25% severely degraded. In the UK 84% of topsoil has been lost since 1850, and the UK may only be 30 to 40 years away from eradicating soil fertility. Globally it is predicted that only 60 years of farming are left if this rate of degradation continues.
One could argue that expanding into soil-less agriculture, hydroponic production, and its integration into vertical farming which include heated glasshouses, and indoor grown crops is the 21st century answer. And there is a place for that beyond microgreens but where is the ecology in soil-less agriculture?
‘Soil is a breathing, squirming, thriving, living thing. It gives back to the environment and helps it survive and thrive. The interconnectedness is important in a world where we are increasingly disconnected from nature – a disconnection which threatens our continued existence on this planet’ writes Alicia Miller, Editor of Sustainable Food Trust website.
Going organic allows us to start from scratch with the degraded soil and return it to nature, bringing back nutrients and helpful organisms, and yielding clean, unaltered produce for crops, and pasture for animal grazing.
Organic farming can bring soil back to full vibrancy and life after just 5 years of renewal, complete with all the nutrients we can take in from the produce. It reduces pollution, conserves water, reduces soil erosion – we have seen the consequences of flooding in England year on year. It increases soil fertility and uses less energy. Farming without pesticides is also better for nearby birds and animals as well as people who live close to farms. We also know now that the bacteria growing in ‘living’ soil is also of equal benefit to our health as the produce it yields.
Soil microbes are fantastic, they are far more numerous and diverse than all the human population on the planet. Microbes play an essential role in the nutrient cycles of soil, to humanity’s great benefit. Soil microbes have produced some of our greatest lines of defence including ivermectin, a medication to treat parasites, and M. vaccae which has been shown to help our mental health.Research on antibiotics has indicated that the earth’s soils might be the best place to look for new strains of antibiotics as we are at crisis point now, with no further defence left against new virus. It’s unlikely that inorganic nutrient solution used in hydroponic farming will ever give us what soil can.
Within all our cells we have mitochondria, and these are akin to tiny energy batteries that power our cells. They are actually ancient bacteria of the friendly kind and essential to health. Chemical ingestion will disrupt and kill these necessary bacteria considerably. One of the best ways to up our friendly and diverse bacteria and fungi is to take a walk in woodland, or any rich soil, and the action of treading the ground will cause these invisible to the eye bacteria, to be taken ingested by us to be utilised. Gardening and working close to the ground of a chemical free garden will do the same, likewise playing on grass. Sometimes we can be a little ‘too clean’ and especially with our children who need to build up their mitochondria in their growing years, and encourage them to make mud pies and play in the garden.
As a short aside from this topic you might like to know that B vitamins, glutathione, Q10, carnitine and magnesium are all good for our mitochondria. Do search out foods that provide some of these and make these organic where possible for the best source, but these supplements can be a support.
What are the benefits of organic farming taken as a whole then?
Organic farming means working with nature. Overall it delivers the highest levels of animal welfare, far more farm wildlife, severely restricted use of pesticides, no manufactured fertilisers and lower greenhouse gases.Organic certification is different from other farm assurance schemes in the UK because:
Trees and tree planting has become the ‘hot topic’ of capturing carbon dioxide and a single tree can absorb as much as 48lbs per year and sequester 1 ton of carbon dioxide by the time it reaches 40 years old. Oaks and horse chestnut trees absorb the most. Soil is still a much faster medium given we are so time-critical to halt and reduce our global emissions taking only 5 years to be a useful carbon capture.
While tree plantations can store carbon, they don’t support much wildlife such as natural pollinators, whose decline is another worry. Maybe you have taken part in a Bug Watch from your garden or park to identify and count species seen over a period of time? This helps scientists to identify how species number and diversity are faring across the country, comparing year on year, and as such are valuable resource, we can all help with. Without pollinators we will have a food emergency.
Grass absorbs carbon dioxide too but on a smaller scale. The more fertile the grassland the more effective it is. As it happens growing grass is the one ‘crop’ that we are ideally suited for in the UK, given our soil and weather conditions, so that does lend added support for having animal grazing in the mix. The oceans are the major carbon storage system.
As recently as the reign of King Henry the Eighth, large parts of our country were forested and wooded, and our idea of the ‘countryside’ was very different as trees were felled to make way for fields. Forests and woods were also managed to allow light to enter the canopy and selective felling is practised. All plant life needs air and sunlight to thrive and in doing so through its life cycle builds a healthy and diverse soil base – ‘living, bacteria rich’ soil – rich in humid acid, rich in healthy microbes to support us and all we grow in the soil.
I’ll finish off with a quote from Wendell Berry, American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic and farmer, recipient of The National Humanities Medal.
‘If we lose soil, we ultimately lose ourselves. The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer, and resurrect or, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without care for it we can have no life.’I’ll list a few websites that may be of interest and/or you could sign up for an allotment if you need space to ‘grow your own’ at