The Principle of Health

This is my 32nd article for the Mercury Food and Wine supplement.

In previous articles I have always emphasised the differences that distinguish organic farming from the conventional and especially the industrial farming model. A strong distinguishing feature of organic farming is its emphasis on ethical principles. These principles inform us as organic farmers, on our methodology and practices, the way we live and do business, and the way we interact with the human and the natural world.

There are four principles as laid out by the International federation of organic agriculture movements (IFOAM), namely that of health, ecology, fairness and care. In this and in future columns I would like to expand on these principles starting with that of health.

For most of us organic farming is associated with health. It is probably the primary reason we buy organic. However the growing of healthy food is only part of the health principle. The formal statement of this principle is as follows, “Organic Agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible”.

As farmers our primary concern is the soil. As organic farmers we recognise that the soil is not just dirt but a complex living ecosystem and that we need to farm in a way that contributes to its health. Healthy soil results in healthy plants and it follows that this leads to healthy animals and humans. One of the reasons why synthetic fertilisers are not allowed is that they tend to kill soil life due to their chemical action. The organic way is to rely on soil organisms to convert minerals  into forms usable by plants. The conventional way is quicker in the short term but eventually destroys the soil. Organic farming relies heavily on the services that beneficial fungi perform in sustaining soil and plant health. For example the mycorrhizal fungi that colonize the roots of some plants are symbiotic and help the plant absorb nutrients from the soil in return for the sugars the plant provides. These fungi can be killed off by the application of fungicides.

Of course fungicide’s, pesticide’s, and herbicides are harmful to the ecology as well as to animals and humans and are absolutely prohibited in organic farming.

Organic farmers aim to grow crops that are of high quality and are nutrient dense. That is our primary aim rather than just purely yield. It’s great when we get a good yield but we cannot sacrifice quality to get it. The principle of health informs this objective.

Organic farming is value driven rather than purely profit driven. Our business models must conform with the principles. This is not easy. That is why there are a very few commercially viable organic farms. However it is certainly possible. It would be wonderful if more conventional farmers were to embrace this principle. Most farmers have a love for the land and the soil, and desire to change their methodology, but are caught in an economic system that traps them. It is through the support of those who are not prepared to accept second best on their plates and who value these principles that we can achieve this goal.

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About Rob Symons

My name is Rob Symons. I live in Pietermaritzburg, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. MuthiMuthi is my Zulu nickname which means tall tree. I am an Organic Farmer and an environmentalist. I live and work on Broadleaze Farm in the Mkondeni valley on the eastern outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.
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