AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org
* Craig Sams response to Alex Avery regarding soil erosion
* Patrick Moore
* 'The Greens are hurting the poor in Third World'
* Anti-biotech groups are blamed for holding back Africa's farmers
* Herbicide Use 'Cut By Gene Modified Soybeans'
* Going 'organic' may make meals a lot less pleasant
* GM Food Labelling Laws Will Stymie Producers And Confuse Consumers
* UK Magistrates acquit GM crop protesters
* Scientists call biotech tool for development
* Sri Lanka defers GM food ban
Subject: Re: AGBIOVIEW: Science, MAS, Allergies, What's Organic?, Sri
Lanka, Skptical Environmenalist, Singapore,
Just over a week ago I found myself unable to respond to Alex Avery's
powerful statements regarding soil erosion. Avery's claim that the
typical 4 tons per year of what the USDA describes as 'soil loss' is
really just movement of soil between farms and that there is no real
net loss of soil in all that tonnage left me gasping for air. Having seen
the Missouri and Mississippi rivers running thick and muddy, having seen
photos of Jurassic fossils emerging from Iowa farmland, having heard my
mother coughing in the night because she grew up in the Dirty Thirties
when Oklahoma took to the air and then settled in Nebraska and the
Dakotas, and having seen the gullies of Iceland's once forested hills, it
has taken me some time to get my head around Alex Avery's allegation that
all this soil that I thought was going missing is really just an interfere
fertility transfer. In vain I looked for a posting from one of the many
scientists who regularly contribute to the AgBioView site, but nobody
seems to question Avery's
claim that, (in the absence of evidence to the contrary) he is sticking to
his claim that modern no-till agriculture is actually building up new
soil. Soil erosion was a secondary point in my
unchallenged statement that, with or without GM, modern American
agriculture can't compete without massive and increasing government
subsidies because it is fundamentally inefficient and inflexible. It is
these subsidies, their distorting effects on world trade and the resultant
poverty in developing countries that were the target of my submission.
But the erosion question is one that concerns us all deeply.
However, because of Avery's bold claim and because of the persistent
misdescribing of 'organic' (the latest offering being from Terry Hopkin) I
would like to iterate the longstanding reasoning behind the proposition
that organic farming is a preferred route towards stopping and reversing
the soil erosion that makes so much agriculture essentially unsustainable.
In a nutshell it is that a humus-rich living soil acquires a cohesive
energy of its own that makes it far more absorbent of moisture and far
less prone to erosion than soils that have lost their population of
colloid-bound tiny organisms and are more easily carried away to either
the sea or (if you buy into Avery's proposition) onto the farms of some
I append herewith the Soil Association's recent submission to the Ministry
of Agriculture and the Dept of the Environment, Transport and Regions in
response for a request for policy suggestions in regard to a strategy for
soil in England. I realise it's quite long, but it will help to clarify
the science behind the organic approach and I hope lead to enhanced
understanding of soil matters.
MAFF/DETR CONSULTATION ON DRAFT SOIL STRATEGY FOR ENGLAND
RESPONSE FROM THE SOIL ASSOCIATION, JUNE 2001
* The Soil Association welcomes the MAFF/DETR proposal to develop a soil
strategy and considers that the draft correctly identifies most of the
important functions of the soil.
* It is important, however, that the biological life of the soil is
identified as a key component of the soil and an ultimate factor in the
soilís many functions.
* It is the soil biological life which delivers the soilís main functions:
- Soil micro-organisms create the soilís structure: they convert organic
matter into humus which gives soil its physical properties of particle
aggregation, protection against erosion, water retention, good drainage,
aeration, and compaction resistance.
- Biological activity is responsible for soil fertility: it mediates the
organic nutrient cycle, releases minerals from the sub-soil, fixes
nutrients from the air, makes nutrients accessible and transports
nutrients directly into roots.
- A rich soil microbial life substantially contributes to the health and
nutrient levels of crops, an important soil function not identified in the
- Soil microbes also add to the capacity of the soil to combat climate
change by oxidising methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon
* Soil microbial life is encouraged by the addition of organic matter,
particularly composts, and suppressed by the use of artificial fertilisers
*A strategy to maintain and improve the functions of Englandís soils
should therefore be based on:
- measurements of soil micro-biological activity; and
- farming practices which develop soil biological activity, improve
organic matter levels and develop, rather than exploit, soil fertility.
*The draft also needs to explicitly link soil erosion and soil quality.
Erosion is the final result of a degradation of soil biological health;
unless soil has a healthy structure it will
always be prone to the erosive effects of wind and water.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR A SOIL STRATEGY
1) We recommend the adoption of a strategic objective of increasing the
biological activity of soils and the levels of organic matter.
2) We recommend that indicators of soil micro-biological activity are
3) To achieve the objectives, we propose the use of new guiding principles
for agricultural soil protection, including:
- greater reliance for crop nutrition on the maintenance of inherent soil
fertility (the organic nutrient cycle) than the use of inorganic
- significant reduction in use of inorganic agro-chemicals
- regular addition of organic matter to the soil, especially composts
- non exploitation of soil nutrient content by the avoidance of intensive
cropping or grazing of land
- practices to reduce soil exposure to wind and water (eg. hedgerows, less
autumn sowing, overwintering cover crops and green manures)
4) As organic farming is a system which uses all of the above, we
recommend that greater conversion to organic farming methods be a key
proposal of the agricultural part of the strategy. We suggest:
- proposal for substantial investment in the wider adoption of organic
- targeting of conversion to organic farming particularly at vulnerable
areas: where erosion, run-off, leaching and flooding potential are high.
5) We recommend that research and new projects are commissioned that:
- build on the work of the organic movement in understanding the role of
soil life and the organic nutrient cycle in plant nutrition and plant
- quantifies the extent to which organic farming can build up soil carbon
levels and improve soil methane oxidation rates in comparison to other
6) We ask that the organic movement be recognised as a key stakeholder
with experience and expertise relevant to the successful development and
implementation of this strategy.
ANSWERS TO SPECIFIC QUESTIONS
1. Do you agree that Government should have an overall soil policy? Is
the preparation of a soil strategyí the right approach for developing this
policy, or should there be some other approach?
Yes, a soil policy is very important. A strategy seems to be the right
approach. However, it must not be developed in isolation. To identify
the best possible solutions, a joined up approach is needed to link soil
policy issues to other Government concerns. For example, a significant
reduction in agro-chemical use might seem a radical solution for only
meeting soil protection needs, but it is also a solution for addressing a
whole range of other Government
concerns, such as reversing the decline in farmland birds by 2020 and
reducing the impact and cost of agro-chemical pollution of water etc.
Finally, the strategy should be integrated into all Government's policies
that substantially affect soils, eg. the Government's agricultural policy.
2. What can a soil policy contribute to the achievement of sustainable
A suitable policy, properly implemented, can make an enormous contribution
to the following aspects of the environment and society:
- maintenance of the basic resources for food production: soil, clean
water and stable climate
- maintenance of terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity (from increase in
soil life, and reduction in agro-chemical pollution and nutrient
- reduction in nutrient leaching and thus water clean up costs
- reduction in climate change (reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide and
- reduction in flooding potential
- reduction in need for water for irrigation in agriculture
- improvement in health through increase in the nutrient content of food
and reduction in pesticide residues
3. Do the three key objectives provide the right framework for achieving
the sustainable use of soil? Are there other aspects that should be
considered, or should any aspects not form part of the overall policy
The draft only provide the objectives, not a framework for achieving them.
Please see our proposed principles for agriculture. The draft also needs
to recognise the important fact that soil loss and soil quality are
largely the same subject: soil loss following exposure to wind or water is
simply the end result of a process of progressive degradation of soil
quality. The quality objective should be much stronger: quality should be
at a level where the soil functions
are optimised, not simply "not impaired".
4. Do these chapters identify the right pressures ? are all important
pressures identified, or are some of those identified not important? Is
information on the state of soil appropriate and accurate? Are the
responses identified appropriate?; are the actions sufficient?
The chapters do not go far enough in identifying the basic problems and
thus the solutions. In particular, a reduction in soil biological life
and organic matter are the ultimate factors behind most of the problems
but not identified as such, eg. for erosion. We attach an annex
explaining how soil biological life addresses the strategy objectives and
how this key soil component can be positively managed. This factor need
to be reflected throughout the strategy
if the strategy is to have a significant practical effect on the state of
Information on the state of soils therefore needs to cover biological
activity. We find it hard to believe that the average loss of carbon in
arable soils has been only 0.49% - this does not, for example, appear to
match the table on page 34.
5. Do you agree with the proposal to establish a new soil monitoring
framework? Are there particular aspects that you consider it should focus
on? What should be the priorities for research?
Monitoring should focus on biological activity.
A priority for research should be to build on the findings of the organic
movement in understanding the role of the soil life and the organic
nutrient cycle in plant health and nutrient levels, including the
implications for human nutrition. Another important area is to
quantify the extent to which the soil has lost carbon as a result of the
adoption of artificial fertilisers and the abandonment of agricultural
reliance on soil humus levels. More work could also be undertaken on the
activity of methane oxidising bacteria.
6. Do you agree that the Government should develop a set of key soil
indicators? Do you have any recommendations ? What targets should be set?
Is five years the right length of time before a formal review of the
An indicator of soil micro-biological activity is the most important
indicator that this strategy should propose. This would then serve as a
key measure for progress towards the soil strategy objectives.
Annex BIOLOGICALLY HEALTHY SOIL:
FUNCTIONS AND MANAGEMENT
The Soil Association was founded in 1946. As indicated by its name, we
believe that the soil is of fundamental importance to man, and that its
sound management is the basis for sustainable and healthy food production.
Organic farming is founded on good soil management, through treating and
nurturing the soil as a biologically active entity. This approach is
based on pioneering research carried out by the founders of the organic
movement early last century. Unfortunately, although of great significance
to soil protection, agriculture and health, these findings are not yet
been widely recognised. Our aim is to address this.
The Soil Association is the main certifier and promoter of organic farming
in the UK. Certified organic farming accounts for only about 3% of UK
agricultural land today. Current Government funding plans will take it to
about 6% in England by c. 2006.
2. The findings of the organic movement
Early last century, the founders of the organic movement made several
important discoveries about the role of soil biological life in plant
* global soil erosion and the steady desertification of agricultural soils
was noticeable already in the 1940s. The rate of change was due to manís
* the key to a healthy soil, both its structure and fertility is humus.
This is created as a result of the activities of soil biological life on
* nutrients are not simply held in solution in the soil in an inorganic
form, but are bound up in organic complexes in the various stages of
breakdown of organic matter and in the soil organisms.
* plants do not simply absorb nutrients into their roots by diffusion but
naturally rely heavily on a close association with soil micro organisms
for the breakdown and absorption of nutrients.
* soil life is encouraged by the addition of composted organic matter
* there is a direct relationship between the vigour and health of plants
and animals which feed on them, and the management of the soil for its
These findings led to the development of principles and practices for the
maintenance of a biologically rich soil and the harnessing of the organic
nutrient cycle for crop nutrition, ie. organic farming. Further research
and development has taken place since then, but this remains the basis of
organic farming today.
3. Soil biological life
Soil is not simply the physical material on the earthís surface: probably
the most important component is the living organisms. A healthy soil has
extremely large numbers: typically 600 million bacteria per gram (as long
as no agro-chemicals are applied). In contrast a desert soil, ie. a soil
with little structure and fertility, has onlyí c.1 million bacteria per
gram. At the other end of the scale, the rhizosphere, the thin layer
immediately next to a plant root, typically has 1 million, million
bacteria per gram. Diversity is also important: in 1g of healthy soil
there can be 15-20,000 different species of bacteria, compared to only
5-8000 in a
desert soil. While bacteria are the dominant microbial group in terms of
numbers, fungi are also very important, in particular mycorrhiza which
form close associations with plant roots. Much remains to be understood of
the soilís biological life. However, contrary to the impression given in
the draft strategy, several key aspects are already known and show that
the soil life plays a fundamental role in the soilís many functions. It
is vital that this
knowledge is applied from the outset in this strategy.
4. Soil biological life and soil structure
Good soil structure is essential for the objectives of the strategy. If
soil has a healthy structure, the likelihood of erosion, compaction,
run-off, flooding and leaching are low; its drainage, aeration and water
retention are good; and its fertility is enhanced. The draft strategy,
however, is weak in identifying how these functions can be addressed.
Soil organisms and humus are the key factors that need to be recognised,
not just organic matter, as it is the humification of organic matter that
creates good soil structure.
A recent MAFF survey suggested that 44% of arable land is prone to erosion
and that total annual losses may be up to 2.3 million tonnes of soil every
year, an average of 1t/ha/year. Probably the largest problem is water
erosion on sloping land during high intensity rainfall. Soil loss is
therefore rightly identified as an important concern in the strategy.
However, the strategy is misleading in stating that erosion occurs
naturally. While the processes involved are clearly natural, the rate and
scale of soil loss in the UK is not natural. Soil would not have built up
in the first place if this was the case.
The strategy presents soil erosion and soil quality as two separate
subjects. But erosion is simply the final stage of the degradation of
soil quality. To reduce the potential for erosion, the particles need to
be aggregated together. This is achieved by the presence of humus and
soil organisms. Humus is made up of organic complexes that result from
the breakdown of solid organic matter (eg. manure, crop remains) by
micro-organisms. It is humus together with polysaccharide gums that are
produced by the soilís micro-organisms that glue the soil particles
together, thus avoiding erosion and forming the soilís crumb structure.
Practices that reduce
water and wind movement at the crop surface are good additional practices.
But unless the basic health of the soil is addressed, soil will remain
prone to erosion.
Other structural functions
Good crumb structure delivers several other important functions. It means
the soil ia able to resist compaction, it improves the ability of roots to
penetrate the soil and it means the soil is well aerated, which is
important for soil fertility and plant health. It also enables the soil
to drain properly which avoids run-off.
Other important physical properties are also related to the level of
humus, and thus dependent on micro-organisms. The ideal soil contains
roughly 45% minerals (particles), 25% water, 25% air, and 5% organic
matter. However, it is the humus in the organic component which gives the
soil its capacity to retain this large percentage of water. Good drainage
and water retention properties reduce the risk of flooding. The recent
flooding incidents showed that poor soil
health carries significant economic consequences for rural areas, both
short-term and long-term. With flooding expected to become an
increasingly regular phenomenon through climate change, the need for
biologically healthy soils in all flood?prone areas should be a high
priority for this strategy. Increased water retention also contributes to
soil fertility and reduces the potential for nutrient leaching.
All the structural functions required of the soil depend on the level and
activity of its biological life, particularly through their role in
decomposing organic matter to humus.
5. Soil biological life and fertility
Fertility is a description of the soilís nutrient content and the level of
nutrient supply to plants. Fertile soils are the basis of sustainable and
healthy food production. Plant nutrition is conventionally considered in
chemical terms alone, ie. simply the level of each nutrient in the soil,
but actually plants rely heavily on soil biological processes for their
nutrition. As with soil structure, fertility depends on the soil
organisms both directly and
indirectly through the formation of humus. While nitrate, phosphate and
potassium are considered to be the major nutrients, no less important are
the trace or micro-nutrients which are used to create plant protein and
In the soil, nutrients are held in both the organic and mineral fractions.
A large amount of nutrients are bound up in the various stages of the
organic cycle. This is the process of decomposition of organic matter
from large complex molecules to smaller, simpler products, carried out by
the soil organisms. Soil micro-organisms themselves provide an essential
reservoir of nutrients. Bacteria and fungi are the most concentrated form
of nutrients of any life form: for example, they have one nitrogen for
every 20 carbons (humans have only one nitrogen for every 30-40 carbons).
They also contain phosphorus, sulphur, magnesium, calcium and iron. The
organisms breakdown organic matter to humus which both contains nutrients
increases the nutrient holding capacity of the soil through its water
retention property. In addition, bacteria produce acids and enzymes which
release minerals from the sub-soil and they fix nitrogen and other
substances (carbon and sulphur) from the air, thus adding to the
nutrients in the system received from organic matter.
Even more important is the availability of nutrients to plants. Without
the activity of micro-organisms, the nutrients in the sub-soil, the
mineral fractions of the top-soil and in organic matter would never become
available to plants. Plants do not have digestive systems; they do not
produce their own enzymes to breakdown substances. Instead they rely on
the diverse range of biological life in the soil for this function.
Larger organisms like worms, snails and small arthropods break up organic
matter into small pieces with a very high surface area and take them below
the soil surface. The various species of bacteria and fungi then secrete
very specific enzymes which ëchop upí long chain molecules at specific
places to form simpler molecules. The specificity of the activity of
these enzymes means that a vast diversity of micro-organisms are required
to completely break down organic matter. In this process, excess
nutrients become available for the plant. Furthermore, the predatory
activity of protozoa on bacteria and fungi releases large quantities of
nutrients from the bacteria and fungi themselves. In particular, protozoa
have a low requirement for nitrogen, so this digestion process releases
large excesses of nitrogen: it has been estimated that the interaction
between protozoa and bacteria in a healthy soil can release 80% of the
nitrogen required by the crop.
Through these processes plant available nutrients collect in the humus and
colloids on surfaces of fine clay particles, where they are held by
chemical attraction. The nutrients are then gradually released for
absorption by two processes: the action of exudates from the plant roots
(organic acids) and the activity of micro-organisms.
Overall, the provision of nutrients by microbes is so important to plants,
that they actively nurture the development of rich microbial communities
around their roots. The energy rich organic acids released by the root
feed the microbial populations, and plants spend from 10-90% of their
energy supporting microbes in this way.
Nutrient and water absorption
Not only do plants have no digestive system, they are also inefficient at
nutrient absorption and, again, they naturally rely heavily on soil
organisms for this. Particularly important is
the intimate symbiotic relationship between a type of soil fungi called
mycorrhiza and plant root cells. Mycorrhizae are composed of long thin
threads called hyphae which both substantially increase the area for
absorption and also transfer nutrients and water directly
into the plant roots.
Mycorrhizae are associated with almost all plant species. They live in
the root cells and send out hyphae up to 4cm into the soil. These act as
a living bridge for transporting water and nutrients into the plant. The
total mass of hyphae connected with a root can increase the surface area
for absorption up to 100,000 times. The end result is that plants are
assured of a much higher level of nutrient supply. This has been
confirmed by analyses, for example of the
mineral content of winter bean shoots: those with mycorrhizae had mineral
levels 36-118% higher than plants without mycorrhizae, depending on the
mineral ("Soil fertility, crop nutrition and
human health", 1997, Neil Fuller).
Leaching is highly affected by whether the soilís nutrients are mainly
held in an organic or inorganic form. It so happens that the most
leachable form of nitrogen (N) is inorganic nitrate, ie. the form of N
fertiliser used in non organic farming. The least leachable form is
bacteria and fungi, ie. the soil micro-biological life. In this form, the
nutrients are only gradually released during the life cycles of the
organisms, rather than being all the time in
solution in the soil water and thus prone to leaching. This explains why
in non organic farming systems about 20% of nitrogen applied is lost.
The soil is not simply a "medium" for crop growth but the means by which
plant nutrition is naturally carried out through various stages and
processes. All these depend on the soilís biological activity: soil
nutrient content; soil nutrient availability and efficient plant
6. Soil biological life and plant and human health
Soil biological life is considered to promote plant health in three ways:
(i) through the control of soil pathogens, (ii) through enhanced nutrient
supply, and (iii) indirectly through the creation of a good crumb
structure. These in turn influence animal and human health through the
Plant pathogen control
Soil biological life plays a major role in the control of soil borne
pathogens. The dense and diverse community of micro-organisms around the
root surface acts as a barrier to pathogens, both physically and also by
out competing opportunistic pathogens for resources. The microbial
community also sensitises the immune system of the plant, in a process
similar to vaccination, so that plants are prepared for any pathogenic
attacks. Finally, the micro-organisms are
producing a vast array of chemicals between them and it is possible that
some have an anti-pathogenic effect, though little is known about this as
Good oxygen diffusion through the soil is important and ensured by a good
crumb structure. This is because anaerobic conditions support pathogenic
organisms. Also, decomposition in anaerobic conditions results in plant
toxins such as alcohol.
Nutrition and disease resistance
As the micro-organisms enhance the natural supply of nutrients to plants
from the soil in so many ways, it is not surprising that nutrient levels
in plants can be related to the level of biological activity in the soil.
This is shown by the different results of organic and non organic farming.
Organic farming harnesses the activities of soil biological life. In non
organic farming, soil biological activity is suppressed by agro-chemicals
and plant nutrition relies mainly on artificial, inorganic fertilisers,
mainly N,P,K. For other trace minerals, supplements are added if
deficiencies are identified but aerial deposition and the inherent soil
fertility is relied on for the main supply, though the biological activity
that maintains and supplies nutrients is not nurtured. Plant nutrition is
thus very different from nature and
organic farming, relying largely on the simple absorption of minerals in
solution via the roots.
Clearly non organic systems have surpassed organic systems in total yield
terms. However, the suppression of biological activity appears to have
resulted in important reductions in the levels of nutrients in crops, for
both main nutrients (except nitrates) and trace minerals. As well as the
plant shoot study mentioned above, a study of wheat found that organic
techniques resulted in about 3 times as much potassium and calcium
content, and twice as much iron and
manganese, as conventional techniques ("Soil fertility, crop nutrition and
human health", 1997, Neil Fuller). Furthermore, since the adoption of non
organic practices, there has been a major
reduction in the level of minerals in fruit and vegetables: a UK study
revealed that six minerals have reduced by between 15 and 76% between 1940
and 1991 ("The composition of foods", 1991, MAFF and the Royal Society of
At some stage this reduction in minerals must affect plant health, their
vigour and ability to resist disease. The current dependence on a high
use of pesticides may be partially a function of this occurring already.
It is certainly a concern for the longer term if levels continue to fall.
Even if these trends are not yet affecting plant health or this can be
addressed in other ways, this definitely carries major implications for
human health because of our reliance on
crops for our own nutrition.
The soil life has a major role in the control of soil plant pathogens and
in the maintenance of nutrient levels in crops and thus the human diet.
Nutrient levels in food appear to have significantly fallen in recent
decades suggesting that the current levels of soil biological
activity are already dangerously low. This needs to be recognised and
addressed as a high priority.
7. Soil as a sink for greenhouse gases
Biologically healthy soils have an important role to play in the efforts
to combat climate change.
The soil is a major store of carbon. Apparently, the soils in England
contain twice as much carbon as the atmosphere. This presumably means
that a change in soil carbon content translates
into roughly double this change in the level of atmospheric carbon.
Though agriculture has been slowly releasing soil carbon for a long time,
most of the emissions have occurred over the last 100 years and remain in
the atmosphere. The losses are generally mainly attributed to ploughing.
However, there could be other or more fundamental reasons as to why soil
emissions suddenly increased so much.
Between 1945 and 1986, the amount of carbon being released from the land
tripled, with the most dramatic increase being between the mid ë70s and
mid ë80s ("Carbon flux to the atmosphere from land-use changes: 1850 to
1990", Houghton et al). This coincides with the period of intensification
of crop production. We suggest that the transfer of reliance for crop
nutrition away from the soilís inherent fertility and onto the use of
inorganic fertilisers during this
period may be a major culprit, as maintenance of the soilís organic matter
levels were no longer important to agriculture as they had been throughout
This proposition is confirmed by the proposal that zero tillage and
organic farming techniques have the potential to recapture the carbon
already released from the soil (Rattan Lal, Ohio State University).
Afterall, organic farming includes most traditional practices for the
maintenance of soil fertility. We note that the potential for carbon
sequestration is considered to be highest in humid-temperate areas.
Methane has a warming effect 63 times stronger than carbon dioxide and its
atmospheric concentration has more than doubled over the past 100 years.
It is produced by anaerobic decomposition and ruminants, but is also
destroyed by oxidation. Whilst most oxidation takes
place in the atmosphere (85%), research by the IACR-Rothamsted has
discovered that a significant amount is carried out by soil microbes,
which use it as an energy source. While the application of cattle manure
apparently has little effect, the researchers found that the repeated use
of ammonium based N fertilisers results in a major reduction in soil
The ability of the soil to reduce the level of greenhouse gases depends on
building up soil organic matter levels and maintaining the activity of
methane oxidising bacteria. This could be done through changing reliance
away from artificial fertilisers and onto the maintenance of soil
fertility through organic matter applications.
8. Maintaining/developing a healthy, biologically active soil
Hopefully, it is clear from the preceding text that a strategy to reduce
erosion and improve agricultural soil quality must be based on addressing
the biological activity in the soil. While we can recommend specific
practices, the overall approach of the agricultural industry to the soil
should also be reviewed.
Approaches to agricultural soil management
Organic and non organic farming are two very different approaches with
important implications for soil protection. Modern farming has lost touch
with the concept of a healthy soil: the soil has been increasingly seen
simply as a substrate for the receipt of synthetic chemicals, and the
structure and inherent fertility of the soil has been neglected.
Agro-chemicals suppress soil life and thus directly suppress all the
functions of the soil. Ironically, the resulting
physical and biological deterioration is usually addressed by the addition
of more fertilisers and pesticides to make up for the failure of the soil
in these aspects, only exacerbating the
Organic farming is based on good soil management with its practices
founded on the fact that soils are a biological system. Organic farming
uses traditional techniques and new practices derived from the discoveries
about soil life to nurture the soil for long term productivity and
stability. As a result, organic farming effectively delivers the
objectives of the draft strategy.
For example, during the compilation of a 1980 report on organic farming,
the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found little evidence
of soil erosion on organic farms and noted that many of the practices were
those highly recommended by the USDA for soil
productivity. The risk of nutrient leaching has been shown to be less: in
all published calculations in Europe, the N,P,K surpluses of organic farms
are significantly lower than conventional farms. For N leaching, several
farm comparisons show that rates are 40-57% lower
per hectare ("Environmental and resources use impacts of organic farming
in Europe", 1999, Stolze et al). A 21 year Swiss trial (by the Research
Institute of Organic Agriculture) comparing organic, integrated management
and conventional systems found that soil microbial biomass was far higher
under the organic system: up to 85% higher than the conventional fields
and 40% higher than the integrated management fields .
The following are some of the main practices used in organic farming for
the maintenance of a healthy, biologically active soil, and which we
recommend for use in all UK farming. We can provide further details of
organic farming on request.
(i) Avoidance of artificial fertilisers and pesticides
* This is of great importance. Nematicides are among the most toxic to
soil organsims, but fungicides, insecticides and inorganic fertilisers all
have negative effects on microbial populations, including the development
The draft incorrectly states that the Governmentís current policy is to
limit pesticide use to the minimum necessary for the effective control of
pests. Organic farming avoids pesticide use as far as possible, replacing
all possible uses with alternative approaches (particularly prevention
through good plant health). Conventional farming or integrated farming
methods (which only reduce use by, say, 30%) do not genuinely minimise
pesticide use. The strategy should be amended to reflect this.
(ii) Feeding soil biological life
* Populations of soil organisms depend on adequate levels of organic
matter. The use of grass leys, green and farmyard manures all add organic
matter to the system in organic farming.
* Research has found that the development of mycorrhiza is especially
encouraged by the addition of composted organic matter. Composting kills
pathogens and creates a stable microbial community and composition.
After addressing agro-chemical use, the draft strategy should focus
strongly on improving organic matter levels and the use of composting.
The section on composting needs to be extended to cover agricultural
wastes and a major proposal should be investment in the widespread
introduction of composting in agriculture, including greater use in
(iii) Maintaining nutrient levels
The application of composted manures and other organic agricultural wastes
in organic farming helps the recycling of nutrients, a key principle in
organic farming. Other nutrients are added in an organic form:
* Legumes in the crop rotation provide the main supply of nitrogen to the
* Manures and slurry are mainly used for the supply of phosphorus and
potassium, but provide additional nitrogen.
* Green manures are used
* In these ways, organic farming optimises the supply of nutrients that is
available via the organic nutrient cycle. Only if there are
deficiencies, for example if the sub-soil is particularly low in certain
minerals, are inorganic minerals allowed.
(iv) Not exploiting fertility
Great efforts are made to maintain, even improve, fertility and not
exploit it, ie. not to cash in on the soils reserves simply for short term
gain. The aim is to keep nutrient input and nutrient utilisation in
* Mono-cropping is prohibited (grassland and glasshouses excepted): all
organic farmers have to submit their crop rotations to the organic
* Grazing levels are lower than in non organic systems.
* Nutrient budgeting is often used to verify the nutrient balance.
The strategy could propose the prohibition of mono-cropping.
(v) Reducing wind and water exposure
In addition to the creation of a healthy soil, erosion is further avoided
by practices which reduce exposure to the wind or the flow of water at the
* Hedges and trees at the field margins are used by organic farmers as
habitats for the natural predators that control crop pests, with limits on
field sizes to ensure predators can access the whole crop. This also
provides good wind breaks.
* High percentage of grassland. Grassland avoids the ploughing and
exposure to the wind that occurs in cropping. Organic farming rotations
include about 50-60% of grassland on the farm at any one time.
* Reductions in autumn sowing. The use of crop rotations and the greater
diversity of crops grown results in less autumn sowing.
* Overwintering cover crops and the use of green manures also help.
All of the soilís main functions can be related to the level of biological
activity in the soil. Organic matter levels are important but without
soil organisms to break down the organic matter to humus, there is little
point increasing organic matter levels alone. The draft soil strategy
therefore needs to be amended to reflect the role of soil biological life,
both in its analysis of the causes of the loss of key soil properties and
in its recommendations. This
requires the introduction of measurements of micro-biological activity and
also some radical decisions, such as recognition of the need to
significantly reduce the use of pesticides and inorganic fertilisers in
agriculture and the wider adoption of organic farming techniques. However,
the economic and social benefits of such decisions are clearly enormous:
sustainable and nutritious food production, reduction in flooding and a
major contribution to the halting of climate change and to the reversal of
the decline in farmland biodiversity.
Date: 13 Jun 2001 09:34:11 -0000
From: Beant Ahloowalia
Subject: Precision agriculture
Increasing food production for an increasing population is regarded as
the key solution to the alleviation of poverty and health associated
problems. This is only one side of the coin. A country like India need
to spend as much resources on controlling its population as on food
production technology. Currently, India has more than 45 million
tonnes of food grains which it cannot manage either in storage, and its
distribution to the poor. Policy of food for work would be helpful.
India should also promote every third or fifth year as an year of No-
Child Birth, spend more on primary education, sanitation of the inner
cities, improve drinking water quality and invest into infrastructure
of roads. Most of the technology to solve these problems is already there.
With all the resources of water, soil, climate, minerals, and trained
workforce, India remains among the most mismanaged and corrupt
European Network on Genetically Modified (GM) Food Crops; "ENTRANSFOOD"
An European Network on genetically modified (GM) food crops has been
installed which will deal with the problems related to food safety and
market introduction of GM-food crops. This Thematic Network project
"ENTRANSFOOD" is financed by the European Commission within the 5th frame
work programme and is co-ordinated by the State Institute for Quality
Control of Agricultural Products (RIKILT), the Netherlands.
FORMER GREENPEACER'S WEB SITE UPSETS B.C. ENVIRONMENTALISTS
June 12, 2001
VANCOUVER -- Patrick Moore, an ecologist who helped found Greenpeace in
British Columbia was cited as saying that North America's forests are
green and growing, and he launched a Web site Tuesday touting the
abundance of trees in Canada and the United States, but his former
environmentalist friends say tree farms are not forests.
Moore was quoted as saying, "The good news is that here in Canada and the
United States our forests are healthy, abundant and growing. It's
unfortunate, though, that the public in general has the opinion that the
forests are shrinking...."
There is as much forest today as there was 100 years ago, he said.
At www.forestinformation.com, Moore cites a report on the state of the
world's forests by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
The report released in January found that North American forest area is
increasing while forests were disappearing more rapidly in Africa and
Moore was cited as saying that forest coverage expanded more than four
million hectares over the last decade.
Much of the land that was once cleared has been reforested, he said. In
Canada, southern Ontario has seen a tremendous amount of such
reforestation. Greenpeace forest campaigner Catherine Stewart was quoted
as saying, "Sure, we can increase the number of trees but we are still
facing significant loss of ancient forest habitat," and that planted
forests rely on chemical fungicides, the species composition is unnatural
and the habitat is lost. Once the original forest canopy has been cut down
many species don't return, even if an area is replanted. Moore and the
United Nations report look solely at the volume of trees and not the
function of an ecosystem, Stewart said.
'The Greens are hurting the poor in Third World'
The Daily Telegraph
By Roger Highfield
June 13, 2001
Green activists may do more harm than good in the developing world by
focusing on "phantom problems" at the expense of real ones, according to a
The White House, taken aback by the global outcry at Bush's rejection of
the Kyoto treaty on greenhouse gas emissions, is developing a new strategy
to present at the July climate negotiations in Bonn.
But in The Skeptical Environmentalist, Dr Bjrn Lomborg of Aarhus
University, Denmark, points out that the treaty will, at best, delay
warming by a few years by the admission of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, IPCC.
Dr Lomborg accepts that global warming is real, but says that the marginal
benefits of the Kyoto Treaty would cost around pounds 100 billion
annually, possibly twice as much, when half this sum could give all Third
World inhabitants access to the basics of health, education, water and
For all the talk of global warming as a catastrophe by green groups, "the
catastrophe seems rather in spending our resources unwisely on curbing
present carbon emissions at high costs instead of helping the developing
countries and increasing the use of non-fossil fuel," said Dr Lomborg.
Global warming will mostly harm the Third World, while an initial warming
of a few degrees would probably benefit the First World. "Kyoto makes us
feel good, but if we really want to do good, we would do better to give
the money Kyoto would cost to the Third World," he said.
Calculations by the IPCC show that the cost of the cure is much greater
than the illness, he said. "If the world focuses on economics alone, it
will make around pounds 600 trillion (thousand billion) in the 21st
"If it focuses on environmental considerations, that profit will fall by
pounds 67 trillion. But the total cost of global warming is estimated to
be only about pounds 3.3 trillion, with or without Kyoto, said Dr Lomborg,
whose views have triggered a national debate in Denmark about the
widely-held beliefs that the environment is in a state of terminal
In The Skeptical Environmentalist, which will be published by Cambridge
University Press in the autumn, the lecturer in statistics is critical of
the way in which many environmental organisations make selective and
misleading use of scientific evidence to portray an ecological
"An old Left-wing Greenpeace member", Dr Lomborg was provoked to look into
the state of the planet by the claim by an American economist, Julian
Simon, that many doomsday predictions were false.
But his follow-up investigation provided support for Simon's scepticism
over "the Litany" preached by organisations such as Greenpeace and the
World Wide Fund for Nature: the environment is in poor shape; resources
are running out; we kill off more than 40,000 species every year.
"We know the Litany and have heard it so often that yet another repetition
is, well, almost reassuring," said Dr Lomborg. "There is just one problem:
it does not seem to be backed up by the available evidence."
Dr Lomborg said the Worldwatch Institute, which annually reports on the
state of the world, makes "blatant errors with unfortunate frequency."
Studying specific cases, such as GM crops and pesticides, Dr Lomborg shows
how many central arguments used by green groups "are based on myths".
Well meaning and compassionate environmentalists are convinced that
pesticides cause cancer. Yet the link is tenuous and these chemicals may
well have decreased the incidence of cancer by boosting production of
fruit and vegetables, the consumption of which cut cancer risk.
Rather than lose between a quarter and a half of all species in our
lifetime, the real figure is closer to one per cent, Dr Lomborg
calculates; acid rain has not destroyed our forests, as was often
predicted two decades ago; poverty has declined more in the last 50 years
than in the preceding 500; 35 per cent of people in developing countries
were starving in 1970 and that percentage fell by half by 1996; in 1900 we
lived for an average of 30 years and today we live for 67; and "infants no
longer die like flies".
"Mankind's lot has actually improved in terms of practically every
measurable indicator," said Dr Lomborg, though he stresses that "this does
not, however, mean that everything is good enough," citing how in 2010
there will still be 680 million people starving, even though more will be
adequately fed than ever before.
Stein Bie, director general of the International Service for National
Agricultural Research in The Hague, said: "Lomborg suggests that there is
growing evidence that we may not have got our priorities right and that
poor people may suffer." We are morally on thin ice, he said, if the
flawed analysis used by Greens leads to the world's rich becoming more
concerned about butterflies than they are about the world's poor.
Anti-biotech groups are blamed for holding back Africa's farmers
By Andy Coghlan
Misleading propaganda about biotechnology from green organisations in
Europe is obstructing Africa's attempts to combat hunger, claims a Kenyan
"We don't get data, we get opinions," says Margaret Karembu of the
Department of Environmental Sciences at Kenyatta University in Nairobi.
She delivered a scathing attack on the greens at a conference in London
Greenpeace responded by saying biotech companies are as guilty as any
green group of spreading value-laden propaganda. It says it opposes the
release of any genetically modified organisms anywhere in the world,
whatever the benefits.
But Karembu says green propaganda has so alarmed some farmers that they
are reluctant to adopt any new technologies - even if they don't involve
genetic engineering. For example, Faith Nguthi of the Kenyan Agricultural
Research Institute and Florence Wambugu of the Nairobi-based charity
AfriCenter have developed a method of tissue-culturing bananas to ensure
seedlings are free of harmful fungi and bacteria.
"The seedlings have improved vigour and grow very fast," says Karembu.
"The yield differences are amazing." The bunches of bananas weigh twice as
much as normal and are of much higher quality, she says.
That means a farmer can break even with just 80 of the new plants,
compared with 200 normal plants. The technique also allows farmers to get
the same yield in a fraction of the normal area, Karembu says. That means
it could have big environmental benefits, reducing the need to clear
virgin land for farming.
Yet persuading farmers to buy the seedlings, which cost just 80 US cents,
has been difficult. "We find that when we talk to farmers, they've already
been poisoned (with propaganda) about the dangers of biotechnology," said
Karembu. "Because there's so much negative publicity about biotechnology,
even tissue culture is confused with genetic engineering."
She is calling on green organisations to be more responsible. "Greenpeace
has a very loud voice, but most of what they say is not factual, and they
don't provide alternatives. We can't make policy based on people's
Greenpeace claims that Karembu's views are shaped by the work that she and
Wambugu do at the AgriCenter, which is part-funded by biotech
multinationals as well as charitable organisations such as the Rockefeller
Foundation. But Karembu says she is an independent academic motivated by
the desire to combat hunger.
Third-world charity Oxfam says that it supports the use of GM technology
developed in Africa for poor farmers, provided that it is proven to be
safe for humans and the environment, and provided the farmers give full,
Herbicide Use 'Cut By Gene Modified Soybeans'
By John Mason
June 13, 2001
The growing of genetically modified soybeans in the US has led to a
reduction of up to 10 per cent in the use of herbicides, according to a
Dutch study published yesterday.
However, increases in crop yields from the use of the technology have been
small, while it is still too early to make accurate forecasts of the
impact on wildlife and biodiversity, it concludes.
The report, produced jointly by the Dutch Centre for Agriculture and the
Environment and independent consultants, is an attempt to assess the bulk
of often-contradictory published scientific papers on GM-soybeans
production in the US. No original research was conducted.
The working group directing the study involved representatives from across
the GM debate, including the biotech industries, the Dutch agriculture
ministry and environmental groups including Greenpeace.
However, the report's conclusions on the reductions in herbicide usage led
Greenpeace to distance itself from the study, arguing that some of its
conclusions were flawed.
The report backed figures produced by the US Department of Agriculture,
that the reduction in the use of glyphosate chemical weedkillers was
between zero and 10 per cent. Piet Schenkelaars, the biotechnology
consultant responsible for the research, said these figures remained the
most reliable and transparent available.
Monsanto, the producer of the Round-up Ready herbicide used alongside its
GM beans, has claimed reductions of up to 40 per cent. Increases in yields
were "insignificant to small", the report said.
Its conclusion on the possible long-term environmental threats posed by GM
technology is in line with many scientists in the field: that it is too
early to tell. The lack of monitoring of the effects of GM crops on
biodiversity and "baseline" information on the damage done by conventional
agriculture makes it impossible to reach any firm conclusions, it said.
A Monsanto spokesman said: "After five years it is really refreshing to
see a report drawn up by an independent group, which included
environmentalists, which concluded that GM technology reduces chemical
Going 'organic' may make meals a lot less pleasant
By Jim Suber
June 7, 2001
So this well-dressed fellow --- not old and not young --- comes up to my
booth where I am selling broccoli at the Farmers Market in the state
parking lot at S.W. 10th and Topeka Boulevard, and he demands to know "Is
I paused just a moment to fight back a smart, sarcastic answer along the
lines of "No, these are really made of rocks painted green to make them
look like the finest broccoli ever produced."
Instead, I just said, "No."
"At least you're honest," he answered. Several intimidated customers gave
us space. I was very tired, and I thought he was giving me the needle.
A number of thoughts passed through my mind in a hurry, but my answer was
dull and pleading. "If these were organic, they wouldn't be here, buddy. I
mean, if you can tell me how to kill the bugs, the loopers, without using
something, I wish you would. I mean that."
He didn't have a good answer for the loopers, so he attacked me. "I've
read your articles that are negative on organic, and I don't agree," he
said, indicating that I, the peasant, should turn out bricks without straw
or overhaul engines using no more tools than an adjustable wrench and a
pocketknife screwdriver just because he mandated it to be that way as more
pleasurable to his sensibilities.
I was beginning to really burn. I said I would be glad not to use a
chemical if he really could tell me how to raise broccoli without its
being infested. Loopers are the disgusting cabbage loopers, which are the
caterpillar or larva stage of a geometrid moth closely related to the
nasty caterpillars that get into sweet corn ears and sometimes consume or
ruin 30 percent of an ear.
In broccoli, they climb in about where the stems leave off and the
immature flowers begin. They look just like the stems and hide in there
until you steam the plants. That is when the loopers change color and
become kind of brittle, and sometimes you don't see them until they are
impaled on your fork.
He just moved away, saying he heard me, but he still didn't agree. Well,
that wasn't any help or resolution.
Quite frankly, he made me angry --- not just for me but for all the people
who have struggled to put flawless, good and bountiful food on the
American tables for many decades.
In the Navy in several ports in the Far East and South America, I watched
people eat from garbage cans we filled on the piers. I had stunted beggar
children tug at my pant legs and ask for food and money in India and
Ethiopia and Somalia and Mozambique and Kenya. They practiced organic
farming in those places, sometimes using human feces for fertilizer. They
would have been glad to eat either my flawless broccoli or the worms off
someone's organic broccoli. Or most anything else. Yes, this
holier-than-thou attitude by the guy in the market makes me want to tell
him about wasting land and resources on organic methods. Stick farming is
a great way to starve if you are depending on it.
Just before he came up, a woman who did buy some asked if there were any
"worms" in it. I said I hoped not. Of about 150 customers, only two asked
if I used pesticides, while the one woman wanted to know if it was
infested by worms. Many remarked on how good the broccoli looked. Others
said what they had bought from the same patch the week before had been
Now, one could make the case that the broccoli I sold, or any other plant,
is organic. Plants are naturally organic, as opposed to things that aren't
plants. Usually, if something contains the carbon atom it is considered to
What that critic was talking about, of course, is that my broccoli was not
organic in the new, American sense of the word, which implies that no
synthetic chemicals or fertilizers were used in its production. Of course,
there is a lot of cheating and a lot of gray area in the production and
labeling of organic foods, but that is another story.
I wanted to smack him (at least figuratively --- I'm getting too old and
crippled up to jump over the table and whip him in a fistfight) because he
probably had no idea of the work and time and care that went into getting
that broccoli to the market just for him to insult.
His question was only semi-legitimate. My produce wasn't labeled organic.
Had it been organic, I would have certified and labeled it as such just to
please the likes of him and his fellow travelers. On the other hand, my
organic produce probably would have been loaded with worms (I have tried
it without spray) and not salable.
One thing organic foods have is less shelf life because all sorts of
insects have invaded the plants. They drill and gnaw holes in the
protective skins, allowing pathogens to enter. They defecate on leaves and
fruits, drawing other bugs --- such as flies --- that have been other
places. They degrade the integrity of the product, which rots quicker and
looks worse than its "inorganic" counterpart.
Of course, in the view of the modern purist who demands "organic" foods,
the use of applied "man-made" or even mined fertilizers is a sin, a
crossing of the line from organic to inorganic.
Well, without those nutrients that are basic to plant growth and
production, our plants will be smaller, fewer and less fruitful.
In other words, it will take much more space and labor to raise even close
to what we do now with fertilizer and pesticides. And we haven't even
approached the topic of irrigation, whether that means hauling sewer water
by bucket or pumping ground water with electricity.
Food will cost much more and be less satisfactory and far less available
in variety and out of season if we have to fall back to not using
pesticides and commercial fertilizers. Plus, we will have more food-borne
illnesses because of the human waste used for nutrients.
Writing about the virtues of fertilization by use of nitrogen and
phosphorus and potassium is not my idea of being negative about organic
foods. It is my idea of being a positive voice for a globally sufficient
supply of food, both in quantity and quality.
The broccoli I raised received specific amounts of phosphate and nitrogen
per plant, each of which had 6 square feet of space.
I wanted to tell the fellow who turned up his nose at my "inorganic"
broccoli crowns that I at least had not used any herbicide other than an
inorganic steel hoe. But it wouldn't have changed his mind about a thing,
A retired farmer taking a break from his wife's booth was catching some
sun at my stall when all of this transpired. He saw and heard the whole
encounter. I muttered some feelings about it to him.
"Well," he said, "at least you know your stuff's being read." Then we had
a big laugh.
Jim Suber is a former staff writer for The Topeka Capital-Journal. He is
an independent regional columnist who writes about rural life and
GM Food Labelling Laws Will Stymie Producers And Confuse Consumers
By Anna Jellie
June 13, 2001
Food producers and consumers are confused by the labelling requirements
for genetically modified foods. On 28 July 2000, the Australia New Zealand
Food Standards Authority (ANZFA) agreed to a standard for the labelling of
GM foods, to take effect in September this year. How will the new
labelling regime stack up against current consumer protection legislation?
Standard 18 of the ANZFA Code will require food or food ingredients which
contain novel DNA or protein to be labelled. Food containing genetically
modified ingredients will have the ingredients labelled in the ingredients
panel while single-ingredient foods will require the words "genetically
modified" to appear against the name of the food on the front display
panel. Foods that will be exempt from these requirements are:
highly-refined foods such as sugars and oils where the effect of the
refining process is to remove novel DNA or protein; processing aids or
food additives such as chymosin, used in cheese manufacture, and vitamin
C, used as an antioxidant in fruit juices. Processing aids/food
additives will not be exempt where novel DNA and/or protein is present in
the food to which it has been added; flavours present in a concentration
less than, or equal to, 0.1% in the final food; foods prepared at point of
sale, for instance all deli, restaurant, cafe and fast foods; and food
where any one ingredient contains up to 1% of genetically modified
material and the presence of that material is unintended. These exemptions
have rattled nerves on both sides of the GM foods debate. Anti-GM
lobbyists see the legislation as a huge compromise for New Zealanders, as
foods containing genetically engineered refined sugars, starches, oils,
canola, potato, corn, sugar beet, soy and cotton will go without any form
of GM label.
Concerns have also been raised at the lack of a GM labelling requirement
where a manufacturing process involves genetically engineered processing
aids or additives or where foods are prepared at the point of sale. The
issue for food producers is how they should label food falling within the
exemptions. This is particularly important to manufacturers of processed
foods, as food of that nature will regularly come within the exemptions to
Many food manufacturers are, understandably, keen to use the phrase "GM
free" wherever possible. However, the Commerce Commission has produced a
guideline on how it intends to play the watchdog under the Fair Trading
Act in relation to the labelling of GM food. That guideline says a person
cannot say or imply that a food product is "GM free" if the product
contains any GM ingredients or if any genetic engineering is part of the
This means that, although food falling within the labelling exemptions
does not have to be labelled as "genetically modified," it cannot
necessarily be labelled as "GM free." It is clear that food manufacturers
using GM ingredients, even if they have been refined to a point where
there is no novel genetic material/protein present, will have to remain
extremely cautious about how they label and promote food products after
standard 18 becomes mandatory in September.
Anna Jellie is a solicitor at Simpson Grierson
Magistrates acquit GM crop protesters
By John Vidal
June 13, 2001
Seven protesters who dressed as grim reapers and cut down and trampled on
a genetically modified maize crop in a protest over government trials were
acquitted yesterday by Weymouth mag