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Saturday, February 27, 2010

The anatomy of organic farming

In light of the Whole Foods bashing that OGM doled out last week, I would like to take this opportunity to expand on the subject of organic food. There seems to be a strong and growing perception that organic food is unequivocally better for human health and for the environment. I admit that I am guilty of this assumption. But this weekend I had an opportunity to visit two farms on Maui: one that grows food hydroponically and one that practices organic permaculture. What I learned may surprise you.

Hydroponic agriculture is an innovative technology that has eliminated the need for soil. Instead, water is mixed with a cocktail of nutrients consisting of nitrogen, phosphorous, and trace minerals such as molybdenum and circulated through a network of PVC storm drains, delivering water and nutrients to the plants. This aqueous solution is then returned to a storage tank where the mixture is re-calibrated using sensitive technology to measure its pH before it is re-circulated. Inasmuch, hydroponic gardening not only uses no soil, it uses very little water as well.

That’s not to say that the hydroponic process is without its flaws. Bisphenol A, commonly abbreviated as BPA, is a potentially hazardous compound found in the plastic piping used for hydroponic farming. When this piping gets heated, BPA is released. A slew of health experts and scientists have recently spoken out about this issue, urging people to not use plastic bottles and to never drink from them if they have been sitting in a hot car. Presumably, plant uptake of BPA could occur and could be passed on to the consumer. Whether plants are capable of BPA uptake is a serious concern that warrants further research.

The permaculture farm I visited is located in a tropical area of northeast Maui. The first issue I took to was the fact that this particular farm was created by clearing virgin rainforest. Big no-no. Further, as any soil expert will tell you, rainforest ecosystems return very little organic matter into the soil, and once it is cleared, it can be very difficult to get anything to grow. For this reason, remediating the soil to grow food crops is an incredibly daunting challenge for these farmers. And while they have made every effort to deliver an eco-conscious, healthful product, their methods raise a number of serious concerns.

Azomite and peat moss, two primary additive constituents of their soil, are non-renewable resources that literally took thousands – even millions – of years to develop. I personally know several people that do not buy hydroponic lettuce because of a perception that the use of synthesized nutrients is unhealthy or bad for the planet. I will admit that I have not done my due diligence on the environmental impact of the synthesizing process of nutrient compounds, but any chemist will tell you an element is an element; identical no matter what its constituent source. This organic farm’s practice of extracting non-renewable resources from the ground to remediate its soil strikes me as much less sustainable than mixing a couple of elements together to produce the exact same thing. Further, azomite and peat moss must be imported from the mainland and could carry any number of alien or invasive species inside of it.

And then there were the worms. Vermicomposting is a commonly utilized practice in organic farming that employs the help of earthworms to decompose organic matter and produce worm castings, which can be used as fertilizer. The farm manager at the permaculture farm stressed the environmentally benign nature of these worms and repeatedly stated that they posed zero threat to Hawaii’s fragile ecosystem. He did so by pointing out that 1) red wiggler worms do not eat living plant matter (only the dead stuff) and 2) the ambient temperature outside of their compost heap is too cold for these worms and they would not be able to survive.

Whoa. Where do I begin? Am I truly expected to believe that a hungry little red wiggler would not mao down on a live plant if it had nothing else to eat?

Consider this: this farm’s red wigglers, a vegetarian earthworm species, have been raised to compost meat. It strikes me as rather preposterous to claim that they cannot adapt to eat live vegetation, such as grass, but meat is just fine and dandy. And even if they eat other things, it can still be harmful. The Minnesota Worm Watch says of the non-native red wiggler:

…These earthworms that are sold and shipped all over the country for home compost piles and vermicomposting operations…. are not known to survive Minnesota winters. However, if they or other species are able to survive winter and escape from compost piles they could further harm native forests. If you have a compost pile in a forested area, do not introduce additional non-native earthworms.

While there are particular differences between Minnesota’s native forests and ours regarding detritus and other decaying organic matter that blanket Minnesota’s forest floor, does anyone really know what would happen if some of these worms got out of their compost and into our delicate native ecosystems? Until there is conclusive evidence documenting their safety, the risk to our ecosystem certainly warrants further examination. Also, while they may not be able to survive the Minnesota cold, I left a Ziploc bagful of these worms outside of my house in Kula, where temperatures get down to the low 50s, for two nights. And when I came back, those worms were very much alive and well.

One more thing. A main component of the red wiggler’s diet is newspaper. Is newsprint organic? I’d have to check with the Maui News, but black ink is usually petroleum based. Also, the fountain solution that is used to wash/condition and prepare the paper for printing is highly chemically treated and is not recommend for garden use. So this organic farm feeds their potentially invasive worm species chemically processed newspaper that is stamped edge to edge with petroleum based ink. Huh. I have a sneaky suspicion that these chemicals are traveling right through those worms, into their castings, and straight into the so-called “organic” food that is grown at this farm.

I do not mean to dismiss the benefit of organic farming – and there are many. Overall, I do believe that organic permaculture is the more holistic approach. The point of what I am saying is that there are benefits and trade-offs to everything, and organic farming is no exception to the rule. As a community, the success or failure of cultivating sustainability on Maui demands meticulous analysis of these benefits and trade-offs, so that we can successfully identify the better option and make the right choices.

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