Growing together

By Rob Symons

This is my 39th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement. This article also appeared on the site, Verdant Life

Organic farming in KwaZulu-Natal and indeed in South Africa has been fragmented for a long time. There have been attempts to organise the sector but all seem to have imploded. When I first started out as a organic farmer I felt very alone as there seemed to be no network to plug into. Fortunately the organisation I had approached to do my organic certification, the BDOCA, were very helpful and full of advice. The inspection process, in addition to the audit, was very helpful and informative.


Deep digging with a ripper

Unfortunately this organisation is no more and although there are other alternatives, the cost of third party certification has become prohibitive for smaller farms. Given that most local organic farms are on the smaller side this has resulted in many being uncertified and limiting their marketing options.

In an earlier column I discussed the concept of a PGS or participatory guarantee system. This is an internationally recognized certification system that uses both peer review and public and consumer participation in the inspection process. The certification costs are significantly lowered, thus enabling the smaller organic farmers to obtain organic certification for their operations.

I am pleased to announce the formation of the Midlands Organic Association which will incorporate the Midlands PGS. This is the result of a collaboration between four Midlands farmers and the intention is to extend the membership to all interested farmers and distributors in the Midlands and the coast.The association will be able to represent the interests of the organic sector in this area and also encourage the free flow of information between members.

There is also the intention to initiate a joint marketing scheme between members which will pool logistics and marketing functions. Cost of transport and access to markets are major headaches for a small or emerging organic farmer. For instance the KZN North coast is a major growth area for organic produce, but due to distance is out of reach to say an emerging grower in the Midlands. The association could facilitate the sharing of transport amongst its members to solve this problem. The opportunity to obtain organic certification will also open up markets with major retailers.

The vision of the organisation is a growing organic farming sector in Kzn with high quality certified produce available in markets and shops.
The core values of the Midlands Organic Association are articulated in the four principles of organic farming: health, ecology, fairness and care. It is hoped that this initiative will result in more farmers being drawn into the organic fold and that this in turn will give the consumer a healthier, more ethical choice in food, and also result in healthier soils and farms.

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Paucity of Choice

By Rob Symons

This is my 38th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement. This article also appeared on the site, Verdant Life


I cannot help noticing whenever I go shopping or eat out, the steadily diminishing variety and diversity of food. Everything has become generic, homogenised, standardised and franchised.

I still have a memory from my school days of being taken by my parents to the old Roma restaurant. The menu was of biblical proportions compared to today’s average. I still remember all the various national restaurants with their wide range of cuisines and ingredients.

Seafood featured strongly on all menus and I remember the seafood grills on Durban beachfront. There was a wonderful diversity of fish to choose from. Now you are lucky to get Norwegian farmed salmon as your fish of the day.

I am also seeing decreasing diversity in the stores. Vegetables are being reduced in variety to a few generic potatoes, tomatoes and cabbages. The desired characteristics in a vegetable are no longer those of taste and nutrition, but rather those that suite the distribution chain, such as tough skins and resistance to bruising. This has resulted in an increase of tasteless conformity on the shelves.

As a farmer I see another threat to the diversity of our food choices. The availability of seed is now being threatened. Lettuce is a case in point. Not so long ago there was a healthy variety of seed to choose from, but now our choices are limited. Many varieties have simply been discontinued while most lettuce seed is now processed into a pelleted form that is unsuitable for organic farming.

The rationale for this homogenisation and simplification is one of efficiency. Under the present industrial paradigm this makes sense, but it leaves us poorer and results in a more vulnerable food system. Bananas these days are mostly a single variety and this lack of genetic diversity is starting to be problematic. Viral diseases and pests are starting to have significant impacts on banana farmers worldwide. Costa Rica has declared a national emergency as its bananas are devastated by disease.

Organic farmers are now responding to the lack of seed varieties by starting their own seed saving schemes. The older crop varieties are open pollinated and therefore viable for seed saving. Newer varieties are increasingly being protected under intellectual property rights and cannot be resown by farmers.

If we can protect the diversity of our seed stocks we will be able ensure a richer and more varied harvest. Hopefully this will result in more interesting and diverse shop shelves and restaurant menus.

While there is hope in fresh produce production there is sadly not much hope with seafood. A combination of environmental mismanagement and overfishing has resulted in our fish stocks being depleted. Conventional farming has been one of the main culprits in polluting our rivers and and affecting fish breeding in our estuaries.

Opting for more sustainable farming and food production could turn this bleak situation around. Diverse shelves and menus will be an indicator of a healthier environment.

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Supply and Demand

This is my 37th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement. This article also appeared on the site, Verdant Life

At this time of the year the farm routine shifts up a gear. As we approach mid-summer; the newly emerged green of spring becomes the rampant and vigorous growth of summer. Our workload is doubled as the weeds gain vigour and threaten to overwhelm our more sedate crops.

Apart from the constant weeding, our planting and harvesting is doubled as demand increases. Summer also brings what I call the paradox of lettuce to this part of the world. It is summer; so salad is increasingly the dish of choice. Stores and restaurants clamour for more lettuce, but the lettuce will not play ball.


This is the most difficult time to grow lettuce. Not only have the weeds to be kept at bay but the rising temperatures induce bolting in lettuce. As soon as a lettuce bolts the chemistry in the leaves changes, making them bitter. Whole fields can be lost in one day. So we have a drop in lettuce production and a rise in demand.

In winter it is the other way around. Lettuce grows best in the cooler weather; but no one thinks of a salad on a chilly winter day.

My favourite vegetables at this time are the squash family. This year we tried out some Patty Pans. The plants reward you each morning with a fresh crop of exquisite yellow fruits, and if you do not pick them each morning will double in size by the next day.


Last year we grew Atlantic Giant pumpkins for a competition. My largest pumpkin weighed in at about 45kg, but was small fry compared to the National champion of 500kg. That was eclipsed by the world champ of 1000kg. What is incredible about the squashes is that those exquisite fruits are created from just air and sunshine. Good soil and water play their part too, but it is the energy of the summer sun and the carbon in the air that work the magic.

Summer, of course,is the time of celebration and of family and friends. Food is the central glue to all the festivities and there is nothing better than local, fresh ingredients. This is the time to visit your local Farmers market. It is encouraging to see how markets have grown in the variety and quality of produce available. There are also some very competent bakers and chefs selling their wares.

Last week I bought some incredible mince pies from a neighbouring stall at the Karkloof market. Better than I have had for a long time.

I wish all our readers a very meaningful and festive holiday season and an abundance of good food and great wine.

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Wooing the naysayers

This is my 36th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement. This article also appeared on the site, Verdant Life


Mangetout peas

In a recent letter to the editor of a local newspaper, the correspondent referred to organic vegetables as new age “woo”, as opposed to “scientific”, conventional vegetables. The implication was that organic was a waste of money.

I will readily admit that I suffer from confirmation bias, as I am passionate about the organic movement and so like to hear positive views that reinforce my thinking. However if I am to see myself as rational, I also need to face negative criticism head on.

Is organic a waste of money? I will try and briefly answer this question. A fellow farmer recently visited the US and and while he was there attempted to find out what the American public thought of organic produce. Interestingly he found that most preferred organic for environmental rather than health reasons.

This seems to be in contrast to most South Africans who seem to purchase organic for personal health reasons. What the American organic consumer seems to have grasped is that organic agriculture has a positive impact on the global environment compared to conventional agriculture.

A few studies have been done to establish whether organic vegetables are more nutritious than conventional. I have touched on this subject in previous articles. The consensus is that organic vegetables tend to have higher concentrations of phytonutrients than conventional. It’s what organic vegetables don’t have that is conclusive. Conventional vegetables have a much higher toxic load than organic due to pesticide and herbicide applications.So yes, I would say that organic is healthier and well worth the money. However, in this age of climate change, chemical pollution, and mass extinctions, the environmental advantages of organic are important.

Organic techniques sequester more carbon dioxide than what is produced compared with conventional techniques, which are heavy carbon dioxide producers. Conventional fertilisers are responsible for the emission of nitrous oxide which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Organic farming is therefore more climate friendly. Organic farming does not use pesticides and chemical fertilisers. This reduces pollution as these substances are a significant polluter of water and soil. In its promotion of farm bio-diversity and in its ethical standards organic farming significantly reduces its contribution to species extinction.

These environmental effects are very real and in this age of approaching ecological limits this is no small thing. If you are environmentally responsible, and I’m sure most readers of this column are, then buying organic is not a waste of money. Organic farming is not “woo” as it has very real positive effects on both our health and the environment.

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A new transparency

This is my 35th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement. This article also appeared on the site, Verdant Life


The importance of knowing what is in our food and and how it is produced has grown in relevance. There have been the recent issues with mislabelled meats and the fight to have GM foods labelled. In their pursuit of profits many food suppliers seem to have put ethical values on the back burner.

The organic food market place is no exception to this trend.The term “organic” has become a marketing buzzword with some suppliers using it to capitalise on a growing consumer segment that is driven by ethical choice, but without real substance behind their claims. This was one of the main reasons for the development worldwide of an organic standard. This standard was to provide a minimum baseline of compliance to acceptable organic practice.

Organic farmers and processors would have to be audited on an annual basis on their compliance to this standard and receive a certificate to this effect. This system would then reassure consumers that the food they purchased genuinely adhered to the accepted standard. The organic certification system also achieved another important goal, which was to enable the transfer of knowledge and skills to all participants. The inspector, in addition to auditing would also advise the farmer.

In South Africa this system has run into a few problems. The government has not embraced the organic movement and as a result has not gazetted the organic standards, thus giving them force in law. This means that anybody using the label organic without complying with the standards could not be held criminally liable. It also meant that there were no uniform standards for South Africa.

However the majority of third-party certifiers used the EU standards as their baseline, as these were considered to be of the best quality. Recently, two new developments have come about. Firstly there has been an effort to draw up a South African standard and to register a uniquely South African organic labelling system. The standard and labels are being developed through the South African Bureau of Standards. The process is about to enter the public comment phase. The other significant development has been the international adoption of the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS). This is an organic certification system that uses both peer review and public and consumer participation in the inspection process. Under the old third party system, an independent organisation would inspect a farmer and issue a certificate. This system proved costly and was out of reach of smaller farmers. This meant that many small farmers were excluded from the system and had their marketing opportunities limited.

The PGS system uses the farmers themselves, interested members of the public and retailers to carry out the inspections. The same organic standards are used as with third party certification. There is an advantage in it being affordable to the smallest farmer, but by far the greatest advantage the system has is its transparency. Consumers are actively encouraged to participate in the inspection process. The system is suited to a local marketing model and will encourage communication between the farmer and the consumer, which is one of the aims of organic farming.

This is an exciting development and some progress is being made in establishing a PGS for the KZN Midlands and the coast. There needs to be trust between the farmers and those who rely on them for their nourishment, and this will be an excellent way to achieve this.

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Take care of the future (The principle of care)

This is my 34th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement.

One of the great concerns of organic farming has been the proliferation of genetically modified crops. Companies such as Monsanto have been aggressively marketing these crops on the grounds that they are the solution to feeding the planet’s burgeoning population.

By GM crops I am not referring to hybrids, but to crops which have had genetic material added to them in a manner that would not occur in nature. GM crops are forbidden in organic farming and for this it has been criticised. The critics claim that the ban is unscientific and that the organic community is irrational and emotional.

One of the main reasons for the ban on GM crops is the application of the fourth Principle of organic Farming, the principle of care. This principle, as defined by IFOAM (International federation of Organic movements),states that “Organic Agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner, to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment”.

If we wish to exercise care in the way we farm we need to apply the precautionary principle. GM technology at present is too uncertain. There are numerous studies that cast doubt on the safety of the technology. The biotech corporations do not make their research public which frustrates proper scientific enquiry.

GM crops should not be released until we are absolutely certain that there will not be any adverse long or short term effects.

When a farmer relies on farming as his livelihood there is always the desire to increase yield. There is nothing wrong with that if we first take care that the methods used to increase yield do not harm the soil, environment and the health of those who eat the crops.

Our understanding of health and the complexities of the ecosystem are incomplete. It is very easy to cause harm out of sheer ignorance, so we must tread carefully. The technology we use must be appropriate and we must avoid being seduced by the ambitious promise of a new technology. We might solve a short term problem only to cause a major headache for the next generation.

An example of this is the use of herbicide resistant GM crops. This technology has enabled farmers to control weed infestation by the liberal spraying of herbicides. Unfortunately it has caused the emergence of herbicide resistant weeds known as the “superweeds”. This is a major concern for farmers down the line as further control options become more limited.

If our goal is to be sustainable we have to be careful. The principle of care is a very important guideline to prevent us from being seduced by short term gain and to ensure we can maintain a resilient path through a very uncertain future.

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A Fair Deal (the principle of fairness)

This is my 34th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement.

Most of us think of organic farming in terms of healthy, pesticide free food. However there is another critical, ethical component of Organic farming, The principle of Fairness.

Organic agriculture is all about relationships, whether it be with the land, people, plants and animals. This principle implies an that our relationships must be respectful, fair and equitable.

Land is a contentious issue in South Africa. We have to seek a fair use for the land we farm. We need to take into account the needs of communities and of the natural world and balance them with the needs of the farmer. This is no easy task, but much can be accomplished if we conduct our business in a spirit of sharing and co-operation.

Social and ecological justice should be at the forefront of our management practices. Fairness applies to our relationships with other farmers. While competition keeps our hoe sharp, it is co-operation that will ensure the growth of the organic sector. Farmers must help each other and help emergent farmers find their feet.

This principle insists on a fair labour policy. Farm workers must be paid fairly and must be made to feel valued. Farmers and suppliers need to be treated well and paid a fair price on time. There is an imbalance in the relationship between farmers and the food industry when it comes to price margins.

A retailer selling organic food must have a fair relationship with its farmers. The principle of fairness also applies to our relationships with both domestic and wild animals. Farm animals must be allowed to express there innate natures and behaviour. Adequate space must be provided and feed should be appropriate for the species and not just dictated by economic rationale.

Cruelty of any sort is ruled out. The organic regulations do not allow the sourcing of manure from factory farms mainly because of ethical reasons.Wild animals must be treated fairly too.

At Broadleaze Farm we lose crops to antelope during the dry season. They are a bigger problem than insects. The reaction from most people is that we should turn them into biltong and increase profits all round. The fairness principle demands that we find ways to mitigate the damage by looking to the needs of the animals. They are only feeding on our crops because there is little to eat in winter and their space to migrate has been restricted by development. The answer is to fence and to provide an irrigated pasture that they can feed from.

Fairness also implies stewardship of the land and the ecosystem so that future generations may have a share. Organic farming is truly “farming for the future” as the techniques we use to build soil and biodiversity improve the long term sustainability of our farmlands.

Most conventional farms these days are following the dictum of maximising short term profits. This leads to soil degradation and destruction of valuable farmland over time.This concept of fairness in farming may seem a bit over the top for some, especially to those who put money and profits first, but it is important to guide our method and practice as organic farmers. It is not easy but well worth the effort.

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Unlocking secrets of the soil… (The Principle of Ecology)

This is my 33rd article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement.

The second principle of Organic farming is that of ecology. This means that Organic farmers must base our method on living ecological systems and cycles. We must work with them, emulate them, and help sustain them. This to me is one of the most exciting aspects of Organic farming.

The primary ecosystem that we work with is that of the soil. To most people soil is just dirt. True its base material is composed of sand and clay but its real mass is composed of teeming trillions of microbes. On top of that are the larger animals such as various insects, nematodes and earthworms.

Fungi are an important member of this soil community. The longest organisms known are the mycorrhiza fungi, which can form a continuous individual over a couple of kilometres in length. These fungi form a symbiotic arrangement within the roots of plants and aid the plant in its absorption of nutrients.

This community, this ecosystem produces a rich humus that provides all the nutrients a healthy plant will need. Our aim as organic farmers is to work with this system and to sustain it, as this will result in long term fertility and health. There is a lot to learn about the soil and I think it still relevant to quote Leonardo da Vinci when he said,”We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.”

An organic farm is an ecosystem itself in that we emulate natural ecosystems. The term “organic’ is used in its holistic sense meaning a “farm as an organism”. Plant, animal and mineral interact in a sustainable system. The soil sustains grass, which feeds the animals, whose manure is then returned to the soil where the soil life break it down so that the plants will be nourished.

Pest management on an organic farm is dependent on a rich biodiversity of plants and animals which interact in a balanced way to prevent infestation. We encourage plants which provide a haven for predatory insects such as ladybirds. Frog ponds are provided so frogs can breed and help in insect predation. Similarly bat houses are placed between the fields to encourage bats which feed on night flying insects.

One of the projects I am keen on is creating hedgerows to border fields as this will create a bio-diverse buffer zone. When we plant our fields we emulate nature in that crops are never planted as a large expanse of mono-crop. Instead we inter-crop by planting different crops side by side. This confuses insect pests and also minimises the spread of diseases.

We aim to increase the bio-diversity on our farms, both that of wild and domestic species, because natural ecosystems teach us that the more diverse a system is, the more resilient it will be.The tendency of conventional farming is that of simplification and efficiency as opposed to diversity and resilience. To do that requires energy and the application of chemicals which are toxic to the soil and to the larger ecosystem.

This is not sustainable and in this age of approaching limits is both foolhardy and short sighted. It is essential to observe the principle of ecology if we are to ensure food security in the future.

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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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Fighting GM controls

This is my 31st article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement

This past Saturday, a worldwide day of action against the bio-tech company Monsanto took place, with marches taking place in all of South Africa’s major cities. What was it all about? Why has so much anger been displayed against one corporation in particular and how does this relate to food?

Monsanto is synonymous with GM (genetically modified) crops. It is at the centre of the debate on the safety and desirability of GM crops and their presence in our food. As an Organic farmer I am opposed to GM crops for the reasons I will give below.

In a nutshell the concept of genetic modification means the insertion of genes from other species into the genetic make-up of a particular crop to develop certain traits. It is done through direct human intervention and not by natural breeding.

My main objections to the use of GM crops fall into two areas. Firstly there is concern over safety and health, human and animal and ecological. Secondly there is the problem over control of seeds due to patent rights held by the bio-tech companies.

If there is the smallest doubt as to the safety of any any product one must first apply the precautionary principle. This means that the agency introducing the GM crop to the environment and for human consumption must bear full responsibility for the consequences of that action.

To date that is not being done. There are studies that have shown that GM crops can be harmful to health and the environment, yet these crops are still marketed. The bio-tech corporations insist that they have proved the safety of these crops but these studies are hidden behind a firewall of proprietary confidentiality.

Every farmer should have the right to save and to share seed taken from his own crops. As an organic farmer I try to only use open pollinated varieties which invariably are also heirloom varieties. This means they have a lineage far older than the seed companies that sell them and as such should be “open source” and free for all to use. For instance one of my lettuce varieties, “Lolla biondo”, dates back to Roman times.

In order to fund their research the bio-tech corporations such as Monsanto have resorted to strict patenting of their intellectual property. This has now become a general trend and seed companies are starting to claim proprietary rights over even the open pollinated varieties.

Governments are being lobbied to restrict farmers rights to save their own seeds and to increase bureaucratic control to make it difficult for small vendors of heirloom seeds to do business. What this ultimatly means is that control over seed will be concentrated in the hands of a few profit centred corporations and, as a result our food sovereignty will be threatened. Not just the farmers, but everyone rich or poor will have the source of their sustenance under the control of a monopoly.

Monsanto is now the worlds largest seed company.

There is a lot more to this controversy than can be fitted into this article. The bottom line is that we have a right to food that is safe. We have a right to choose what food we eat and we have a right to food itself. We also have a right to an environment that is not detrimental to our well-being.

These rights are being eroded by the dominance of the big bio-tech companies. Monsanto is most aggressive of these corporations and has attracted the most anger but it is not the only one.

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