Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Food systems course: a typology of organic agriculture

For my Comparative Farming and Sustainable Food Systems class, we were given an assignment in which we were to either a) examine USDA organic certification, or b) create a typology of organic agriculture. I chose the latter.

Organic agriculture comes in many stripes and emphases. There's agroecological farming, agroforestry and forest gardening (slightly different), biodynamics, permaculture, certified organic (several countries and international certifications), Natural Farming, Nayakrishi, wildculturing. Some of these don't have to be strictly organic (that "strictly" really being a broad range). So, what is organic agriculture, exactly? Here's the Wikipedia definition, which basically captures it:
Organic farming is the form of agriculture that relies on techniques such as crop rotation, green manure, compost and biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and control pests on a farm. Organic farming excludes or strictly limits the use of manufactured fertilizers, pesticides (which include herbicides, insecticides and fungicides), plant growth regulators such as hormones, livestock antibiotics, food additives, and genetically modified organisms.
Wikipedia also quotes the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, which goes further than the techniques and technologies required or limited by organic agriculture, to include the human element:
Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.
The thing that is nice about this second definition is that it gets to one aspect of organic agriculture that is very important in many of its genres: the ethics of growing organic.

The essential point is that not all organic farming is the same; not all farmers who grow organic use the same methods. Organic agriculture can vary by quite a bit; for example, organic agriculture is not necessarily sustainable agriculture. Organic agriculture need not necessarily integrate crop and livestock production; some organic farmers do one or the other but not both.

Agroecology, or the science and application of ecological principles to the production of food, fuel, fiber, and pharmaceuticals, is not exactly a type of organic agriculture. Wikipedia describes several different approaches: ecosystems agroecology, agronomic ecology, ecological political economy, agro-population ecology, integrated assessment of multifunctional agricultural systems (the landscape and agriculture as part of a wider, integrated set of social institutions), and holon agroecology (an apparently huge topic in itself, the ecology of contexts).

According to the Agroecology Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agroecology is, among other things, "beneficent agriculture.'

The University of California-Berkeley calls it "a scientific discipline that uses ecological theory to study, design, manage and evaluate agricultural systems that are productive but also resource conserving." This is essentially the same description given by UC Santa Cruz' Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems.

ATTRA has a bunch of information on USDA certified organic and what that all means, with pages on livestock, pests, crops, regulation & history, marketing, fertilizer and soils. Farm Direct has a bunch of US links on organic farming; Organic-World.net has tons of info by country, statistics of all sorts, and news. And the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations also has a bunch of information on organic agriculture. The FAO describes organic agriculture as:
a holistic production management system that avoids use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms, minimizes pollution of air, soil and water, and optimizes the health and productivity of interdependent communities of plants, animals and people. The non-use of external agriculture inputs which results in natural resources degradation (e.g. soil nutrient mining) does not qualify as "organic". On the other hand, farming systems which do not use external inputs but actively follow organic agriculture principles of health and care are considered organic, even if the agro-ecosystem is not certified organic.
An article in CounterPunch by Heather Gray and K. Rashid Nuri called "How Organic Agriculture Can Feed the World" talks about this, and the persistent idea that currently exists—but is changing—that "Green Revolution," industrial techniques (and attitudes, although that's usually unspoken) in agriculture are all that can stave off mass starvation. The Worldwatch Institute also discusses these stereotypes of industrial vs. organic agriculture, in an article titled "Can Organic Farming Feed Us All?" These articles touch on both technique and attitudes, but not so much on what David Korten calls the Great Turning, or a philosophical, spiritual, and cultural revolution in attitude that he (and others) believe is essential for survival.

Sustainable Table has a nice distinction between sustainable and organic agriculture:
Organic farming generally falls within the accepted definition of sustainable agriculture. However, it is important to distinguish between the two, since organic products can be (unsustainably) produced on large industrial farms, and farms that are not certified organic can produce food using methods that will sustain the farm's productivity for generations. Some organic dairy farms, for example, raise cows in large confinement facilities but are able to meet the bare minimum requirements for organic certification, while a non-organic certified small farm could use organic guidelines and be self-sufficient by recycling all the farm's waste to meet its fertility needs.
What intrigues me most, however, are the organic farming systems that focus on sustainability, ethics, and fundamental shifts in world view.

Here's a few of them:


I've written about this type of agriculture elsewhere. It's sort of the Gaia approach: in biodynamics, the farm is treated as a single, unified organism. Wikipedia again proves a good source for succinctly describing what differentiates this type of agriculture from other organic approaches:
Regarded by some as the first modern ecological farming system and one of the most sustainable, biodynamic farming has much in common with other organic approaches, such as emphasizing the use of manures and composts and excluding of the use of artificial chemicals on soil and plants. Methods unique to the biodynamic approach include the use of fermented herbal and mineral preparations as compost additives and field sprays and the use of an astronomical sowing and planting calendar. Biodynamics originated out of the work of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy.
The local example of a biodynamic farm is Wild Rose Farm, owned by Eric Mayo and Susan Kerndt. My comment to Eric about it was that it seemed like a method of staying in touch with the Earth and its rhythms. Of particular note to me is the use of astronomical conditions, such as phases of the moon or planetary or stellar positions as guides to timing of planting, etc. One must be aware of the world and the skies to plant or harvest on such a schedule. ATTRA has a detailed description of the method on its website, and of course the Demeter Association, which certifies biodynamic farms through its various national chapters, does also.


According to the Permaculture Institute, this is more than an agricultural method:
Permaculture is an ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor. It teaches us how build natural homes, grow our own food, restore diminished landscapes and ecosystems, catch rainwater, build communities and much more.
Permaculture is a portmanteau word, originating from permanent agriculture/culture. It takes an agroecological approach to food. An interesting feature of permaculture is the design element: the design of a system is approached both from a methodological and a structural viewpoint.

Methodology: The method used to design a permaculture system involves the following aspects in sequence: observation, boundaries, resources, evaluation, design, implementation and maintenance. Site observation, often for a full year, allows the designer to consider the seasonal changes and existing interrelationships of a given site as well as its physical characteristics. Boundaries include both physical limits and social ones. Resources include human and cultural ones (money, for example) as well as natural ones. Evaluation of these allows for preparation for the design, implementaion, and maintenance of the (in this case) agricultural system.

Structure: The patterns of the physical elements of a permaculture system echo naturally occuring ones. For example, I have two herb beds in my back yard which, I discovered in researching this article, reflect principles of permaculture design. The beds are in the shape of spirals, with a high peak in the center of the roughly circular bed that slopes downward in a spiral form, resulting in a single, roughly round bed with small microclimates: high and dry to lower, cooler, and damper soil. Different herbs grow better in different spots along this spiral structure, according to whether they prefer warmer or cooler soil, quicker drainage or slower-draining, shadier spots. Permaculture's physical structure is also viewed in terms of layers, as in a forest: the canopy, low tree layer, shrub layer, herbaceous plant layer, rhizosphere (root crops), the soil surface (cover crops), the vertical layer (climbing plants that grow through the various other layers), and the mycosphere or subsurface/surface layer of fungi.

Another element of permaculture is both structural and methodological: zones of intensity of human involvement and/or manipulation. These range from zone 0, the most intimately involved with human beings (our homes) to zone 5, utter wilderness, or no human intervention. Interestingly, this seems to exclude humanity as part of the system—as though we cannot be part of wilderness (zones 00, the human self, and 6, the wider world, are included in some reckonings of permaculture).

ATTRA also has a thorough description of permaculture, and calls it "unique among alternative farming systems (e.g., organic, sustainable, eco-agriculture, biodynamic) in that it works with a set of ethics that suggest we think and act responsibly in relation to each other and the earth." It describes these ethical principles as including a life ethic that recognizes the intrinsic worth of every living thing, and calls for care of the earth, caring for people, and setting limits to population growth and consumption. I disagree that permaculture is unique in this aspect; other farming systems also have an explicit ethical component.

Alaska has a few permaculture groups and blogs: Alaska Permaculture Community, the Alaska Permaculture Guild, and the Alaskan Eco Escape Educational Center (see also the Facebook page).

Nature or Natural Farming

This is the shizen nōhō that professor Gerlach refers to in the syllabus for the class. Also known as do-nothing farming, from the permaculturist's point of view, it is a type of permaculture. Developed by Masanobu Fukuoka and Mokichi Okada, it uses five guiding principles (as described on Wikipedia):

• human cultivation of soil, plowing or tilling are unnecessary, as is the use of powered machines
• prepared fertilizers are unnecessary, as is the process of preparing compost
• weeding, either by cultivation or by herbicides, is unnecessary
• applications of pesticides or herbicides are unnecessary
• pruning of fruit trees is unnecessary

Fukuoka popularized shizen nōhō in his book, The One-Straw Revolution, translated into English with the help of his disciple, Larry Korn.

Nayakrishi Andolon

Nayakrishi Andolon translates as New Agriculture Movement, and according to Wikipedia "is an agricultural movement in Bangladesh that opposes the use of Western pesticides and genetically altered seeds." It is a philosophy of agriculture that sees human beings as an intrinsic part of the natural world. It is about happiness:
[Nayakrishi Andolon] is the movement of the farming communities to cultivate happy relations of life and environment and new ways to build up communities. It is a way to creatively relate with Nature or "Praliriti" as is called in bangla language.

But Nayakrishi does not assume Nature or "Praliriti" as an external object outside the living human beings, or do not believe that a sharp margin can be drawn between human beings and external world without falling into illusions and contradictions. We are all Nature as well, and Nature or "Praliriti" exists through us.
The organization UBINIG has more information on the approach.
In bangla the word krishi, means the act of cultivation, but not in the conventional sense as we understand cultivation now, which is as an act to produce consumer needs for the human beings using earth as merely means of production. The word 'krishi is rather cultivation of the relation between human beings and nature that transforms both and functions as an integral whole, as the single organism. In this relation human beings are not the supreme agent possessing, commanding and controlling the object of production, i.e.,nature. The nature also transforms the human beings. It is an act of reciprocal nurturing. There is no outside and inside of human existence, since we are both thinking beings and nature.

Andolon is movement -- movement at various levels: cultural, mobilisational, political and organisational. It is also a movement at the site of ideology, discourse and power. At the margins of imagination and determination Nayakrishi is also about promise of future. But most importantly Nayakrishi Andolon is the movement to change our destructive lifestyles, it is a lifestyle movement that is proper for human beings endowed with the capacity to act politically and spiritually against the destruction of conditions of life and livelihood. Nayakrishi is a movement to move from drstructive and preadatory stage of civilisation to creative and joyful lifestyles.
This is a level of ethics that moves into spirituality and an entire way of life, a long remove from the USDA National Organic Program certification of a technique applied on one part of a given farm.

Note: posts in this series are the personal reflections and observations of Deirdre Helfferich about the class.

Previous posts in this series:

Food systems course week six: soil, tillage, and more books
Food systems course week five: seven industrial agriculture myths
Food systems course week four: Food Inc.
Food systems course: week three
Food systems course: week two
Food systems course: week one
Food systems course: the booklist
New course: sustainable food systems

Cross posted at Ester Republic blog.

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