Republic of Moreland

May 3, 2007

Another reason the State should support home vegie patches

Oh, Bettina, Bettina. In your plagiarised article, syndicated in newspapers Australia-wide, you claimed that organic food was more dangerous than factory-farmed food. There are too many outright lies in this copied-and-pasted industry spin article to unpack here, but they have been adequately discredited elsewhere.

But you got me thinking about the ongoing lobbying efforts to discredit organic food — even in our suburban vegie patches. Recently, our own Melbourne Times printed some typesetting claiming the answer for home vegie gardeners could be genetically modified crops.

“Efforts to grow drought-resistant crops,” typed Kirsten Alexander, “could extend to the garden… Once crops have been created to cope with drought there’s surely an opportunity to offer genetically modified, drought-tolerant plants to the gardening public.”

This is WAY unlikely, Kirsten. For a start, no such GM commercial crops exist, or have been field-trialled. And repeatedly, industry and independent polling shows that the overwhelming majority of Australians don’t want GM. And a poll by the South Australian Farmers’ Federation revealed 80 per cent of farmers didn’t want it, either, and supported a moratorium on it. There’s no reason to suppose we urban farmers will feel any differently.

And the rhetoric of drought-tolerance coming from industry isn’t matched by peer-review studies. The promises of (patented, monopoly-owned) GM crops — lower yields, drought tolerance, pesticide tolerance, save the third world — look good, but are simply not backed by evidence.

Back to sexologist-turned-industry-lobbyist Bettina’s campaign. I’m reading Michael Pollan’s magnificent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Did I mention that this book is stupendous? Part history, part gastronomy, part biology and politics and philosophy and intrigue, it’s so elegantly researched and written that even those not interested in food production would love it, I swear. It reads as a giant literary essay, and as Penelope Hobhouse said, it’s “as compelling as a detective thriller.” Buy this book: it’s peerless. Really. (If you want examples of Michael Pollan’s writings, they’re here.)

Something I’m learning about from this book is how the by-products of war became integral in industrialised agriculture. In particular, the introduction of petroleum-nitrogen fertilisers meant farmers no longer had to rotate their crops (for example, with legumes, which fix nitrogen in the soil, or livestock, whose poo also adds nitrogen). Using nitrogen fertilizers derived from fossil-fuels, farmers could now plant monocrops repeatedly in the one space:

Liberated from the old biological constraints, the farm could now be managed on industrial principles, as a factory transforming inputs of raw material–chemical fertilizer–into outputs of corn. Since the farm no longer needs to generate and conserve its own fertility by maintaining a diversity of species, synthetic fertilizer opens the way to monoculture, allowing the farmer to bring the factory’s economics of scale and the mechanical efficiency to nature.

… From the standpoint of industrial efficiency, it’s too bad we can’t simply drink petroleum directly, because there’s a lot less energy in a bushel of corn (measured in calories) than there is in the half-gallon of oil required to produce it. Ecologically, this is a fabulously expensive way to produce food…

Put another way, he writes, “it takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of food.” The traditional farm, on the other hand, “produced more than two calories of food energy for every calorie of energy invested.”

More than this. Nitrogen fertilizers decrease our food’s nutrient content. Graham Harvey has documented the ways nitrogen fertilisers don’t stimulate nutrient density, but they do cause excess growth of sappy tissue within plant cell walls. Repeated studies show animals and plants fed chemical fertilisers are lower in the essential vitamins and minerals than organically-fed animals and organically-grown food. Although Bettina’s plagiarised article reckons the opposite.

We home gardeners, even those who buy our fertilizer from Bunnings, tend not to pullute river systems with petroleum fertilizer run-off. And we use far less water and energy to make our food.

Even if you do believe Bettina’s claims that organic food isn’t tastier (it is), and isn’t more nutritious (empirical studies show it is), for these reasons alone we should be encouraged by the state to grow the stuff. If the State is really interested in sustainability and public health, that is. And there’s no better place to grow it than in our fertile, intensive backyards, where we can use much less water and energy than broadacre farmers.



  1. HEY GOTA, finished reading that about 4 weeks ago. What a great read. I love the way Pollan writes.

    I started writing a huge novella here, then realised that it won’t make sense without boring the pants off of your readers. So suffice to say, we now have 3 large vegie patches in our backyard, and are getting some chooks soon.

    And where possible we’ve managed to decrease our production of waste from the household, and are re-using where we can. It is not an easy or quick process, but I am seeing the benefits already.

    If only I could home-grow my own Bacon without these evil bastards claiming that MY pig is actually THEIR pig. Bacon is the ONLY setback!

    Comment by Marty — May 3, 2007 @ 6:42 pm | Reply

  2. Oh, yes, Marty. THOSE evil bastards. Don’t get me started.

    But please do write your novella here. I’m sick of the sound of my own voice.

    Comment by Girl on The Avenue — May 3, 2007 @ 7:31 pm | Reply

  3. Oranic food DOES taste better, even my cranky-rather-die-than-say-something-positive-mother was forced to admit that when pushed. And no number of ‘scientific tests’ will ever convince me it isn’t more nutritious, I mean, do the maths! And there’s also that liberating feeling of being outside the commercial-loop. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE a good shop, but I like to choose who I’m beholden too.

    When it all comes together and the chicken poo goes into the cow-poo-tea drum with the compost and comes out the other end onto the garden and the vegies and fruit end up on our table after being watered by rainwater from the tanks I get enormous satisfaction out of knowing just how little satisfaction is being delivered to some huge agri-business who couldn’t give a damn about our health and happiness. Lets see them try and deliver that with GM!

    Comment by faith — May 5, 2007 @ 3:05 pm | Reply

  4. Hey, faith, I’ve been trying to post a comment on your blog for ever, and it won’t let me…

    Comment by Girl on The Avenue — May 5, 2007 @ 7:40 pm | Reply

  5. Umm, yes, sorry about that. Its a long story. I turned off comments for a while because of all the comment spam and then briefly turned them back on to see what would happen before quickly turning them back off again under a deluge of viagra and horny hot poker-playing grandma ads and then deleted heaps of code from my templates (but not everything that I should have)in the deluded belief that I would soon get around to re-building my blog with a spam-ed-up version of the software any day now and that was mmmmmmm……… maybe about a year ago? Si I have a weblog that APPEARS to be comment-friendly but isn’t. I call it ‘John Howard’ but thats just me. Hopefully it will be fixed soon.

    Oh and that goes for my weblog as well. You can email me at dougiedehondAThotmailDOTcom

    Comment by faith — May 5, 2007 @ 8:29 pm | Reply

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