Dr Maarten Stapper FAIA, BioLogic AgFood
PO Box 4209, Weston Creek ACT 2611
World-wide soils are degrading to lower fertility under high-input farming, thus requiring more and more synthetic fertilizers and chemicals which do exacerbate the problem. The outcomes on foods produced are reduced nutrient density and increased presence of chemical residues. Recurring use of more synthetics affects the health of soils, landscapes and people. Food processing and preparation is further reducing the nutrition of food. All these factors increase malnutrition and contribute to obesity and chronic diseases.
Australian farmers have become highly dependent on outside suppliers and advice. To secure income they have to apply synthetic inputs of herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and fertilizers to maintain yields under high risks of weather and markets. Such farming tends to compromise the environment and farmers now also face pressures to reduce associated greenhouse gas emissions.
Australian agriculture is still being promoted as ‘Clean and Green’. However, Australia does not have a pesticide monitoring system. The difficulty in assessing the use of agricultural chemicals led to a 2002 report recommending the establishment of a comprehensive and integrated pesticide use reporting system to assure the integrity of the quality of agricultural produce. However, little has changed as a 2013 report finds very little data on pesticide use and environmental impact. It questions implications for human health and the environment under continued exposure to these toxins.
Possible impacts of diet on human health were assessed in Australian studies by measuring presence in urine of, for example, organophosphates (OP; active ingredient in many insecticides). One study showed that for adults one week on an organic diet reduced OP by 90%. Another study with children showed the OP exposure to be higher than in US studies with no differences between rural and urban kids; thus OP through the food chain.
Producers’ awareness of negative impacts of synthetics may come from direct contact during work, seeing environment degrading or lower returns on inputs. Some producers then become certified Organic, which doesn’t allow the use of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals.
A more recent practice has been reducing the use of synthetics by improving soil carbon through re-activation of soil biology and biodiversity in landscape. Such Biological Farming re-generates soil and soils become healthy. Thresholds are raised in critical soil and plant processes, and plants become resistant to diseases and insects, not needing fungicides and insecticides. Nutrient density of produce is high, and product quality generally not affected by small amounts of synthetics of choice. Farming beyond thresholds, within resilient local ecosystems, is called agroecological farming, which includes Organics.
Agroecological farming is still being treated as ‘alternative’ by government institutions and academia. It receives little R&D as it works against vested interests. It has received, however, in several UN reports science-based endorsement to enable feeding the world. This without a need for Genetically Modified (GM) foods, whose long-term safety hasn’t been proven.
Consumers, supported by nutritionists, are slowly driving this process of change and create a demand for the real ‘Clean and Green’ agroecological foods: healthier with better taste and shelf life.