Have you ever heard organic-agriculture trumpeted as ‘farming as nature intended’? At first glance, the phrase ‘farming as nature intended’ sounds like good old common sense. It conjures up images of brown bread and green and pleasant lands. However, a moment’s thought, and the idea that farming in any shape or form can be described as ‘natural’ is clearly nonsensical. Furthermore, one is left thinking, what is nature anyway? And if it can be defined – can it have intentions? Does nature desire more fields of wheat than it does oil-seed rape? Does nature prefer cute Jersey cows with long eyelashes or black and white Holsteins? Or perhaps nature is more concerned at the loss of our primeval oak woodlands, with squirrels crossing from coast to coast without touching the ground. Does nature still mourn the human inflicted extinction of the wolf and pine for the woolly mammoth? Does nature not curse the day that the first farmer cut down the first tree? In short does another mantra of the organic movement that of ‘farming in balance with nature’ have any more meaning than farming as nature intended?
What is the balance of nature? Modern ecological understanding rather shies away from the Victorian idea of balance and harmony in favour of dynamic ecosystems with multiple unstable equilibria. Today, most scientific ecologists run a mile when asked ‘what is the right number of skylarks?’ or ‘how many wild-flower meadows is enough?’ But such questions are real and are now constantly being asked by the politicians and policy makers around the globe. At one level, of course, there is no correct number of skylarks or wild-flower meadows, because the question does not ask enough for what? What the policy makers are really asking is can we live in balance with nature – given the fact we have 7 billion humans living on this little planet of ours. The balancing act is tricky because most people want/need is a reliable supply of cheap, safe food as much, if not more than they want skylarks, rainforests, or wild flower meadows. In reality the question should be – is it possible to balance: the production of enough safe, cheap food, to feed 7 billion humans with maintaining viable populations of skylarks and wild-flower meadows? Or how much biodiversity is required to maintain the other ecosystem services that, humans need such as: clear air, drinkable water, decomposition, functioning nutrient cycling……?
In the purest of definitions, what agriculture does is to capture sunlight and convert it into food for humans. Over the past 70 or so years modern agriculture (both conventional and organic) has become increasingly efficient at capturing sunlight and directing it into the human food-chain and away from the rest of nature. Where nature is defined as biodiversity or what used to be called pests and weeds. In great part this redirection of food production was achieved by the speed, size and efficiency of modern farm machinery. Harvesting a field of wheat, by horsepower or even with primitive tractors, took a long time. The result was that much grain was never harvested at all and became bird food. Similarly mechanisation allowed the change from hay to silage to occur. Vast acres of grass can now be cut in a single day – even organic farms, rarely allow time for wild-flowers to set seed, or birds to nest. Organic and conventional agriculture are united in their struggle to divert production in the direction of humans, and both have embraced farm mechanisation. Indeed many organic farmers boast that their yields/prices are comparable with those of conventional farmers. Here lies the rub. Only so much sunlight falls on each plot of land, the plants that grow there can only produce so much food for species further up the food-chain, thus if organic and conventional systems manage to be almost equally efficient in diverting this production into the human food-chain, then neither leaves very much for nature. Of course the two approaches differ in the amount damage inflicted on the co-occurring species in the process, and this explains why overall organic is slightly better for the environment (by which I mean, helps to maintain populations of species that have declined so dramatically over the last 50 years). However, in many ways it matters not if a bug has been killed by a toxic pesticide or been killed by the hand of a willing worker on an organic farm, the bug is still dead. The farm bird the next step up the food chain is still hungry, and we are not. Thus, the bottom line is the environmental benefits of organic farming have proved subtle and illusive, because in the one factor that matters most, the amount of captured sunlight diverted into the human food-chain, organic food production strives to be as efficient as conventional agriculture. Thus, if we really want to return to the numbers of farm birds found 100 years ago, then its tractor free food not GM free food we should be campaigning for.