For me, as an organic farmer, I am concerned with this ambiguous word as it is synonymous with “life” - of or relating to carbon based compounds that have an intricate relationship with water, depending upon the unique properties of H2O to organize and create synergistic energies. There is a lot more going on beneath the soil surface that we can only imagine-- and then we must attempt to cultivate and manage it in a way that is ecologically responsible and results in a food crop that is healthy for us to eat.
The GMO issue is simple for us. We are not allowed to use genetically modified seed to grow our crops. When we got inspected in 2014, our organic inspector was very thorough in looking through all of our seed inventory and purchases to be sure that we were compliant with the federal organic regulations. Not only are we not allowed to grow crops from GMO seed, we are required to purchase organically raised seed whenever possible. This part is difficult. We have limited options for purchasing organic seed, and it is often many times more expensive than uncertified seed. There are few breeding programs that are working to create varieties that are suited for an organic production system, so we are often growing crops that have a genetic make-up that is built to respond to the synthetically derived inputs developed by conventional systems.
The pesticide use issue is often misconceived. Yes, we are organic, but yes, we use pesticides. Whereas synthetically produced pesticides can often persist in the environment, and on and in our food, organic pesticides largely degrade in a matter of hours. We use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies to monitor the pressure of the targeted pest, and use different products in a rotation to mitigate the impacts on beneficials and prevent the development of pest resistance
When it comes to fungicides, we are limited in our options. Instead of using products that are harsh enough to kill the targeted organism, we often introduce beneficial microbes that will compete with the pathogen and colonize the environment so that pathogens don’t have space to set up camp. We make sure to manage the way we plant and cultivate so that we are not creating an environment that is favorable for harmful organisms.
Okay, so what about nutrition? Like us, the plants and animals we grow require a balance of nutrients and a favorable environment to be healthy and happy. Some are more high maintenance than others, but we use these differences as an advantage by rotating crops from year to year. This gives the soil time to recuperate and build a resilient network of biochemical reactions that sustain crops.
We can’t spoon feed specific synthetically produced nutrients. In an organic system, we are dependent upon microbial activity to modify organic compounds into forms that are available for plants to take up, create energy and build their own cells. In turn, the plants feed the microbes by providing carbohydrates and other nutrients.
The poultry manure that we use has some plant available nutrients to begin with, but much of its value to our crops must be unlocked by the work of the microbes that we cultivate in our soil. Likewise, the slow conversion of organic matter (the very old decaying remains of living things) to plant available nutrients would not be possible without the work of bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, worms, and arthropods.
The complexity is mind boggling, overwhelming, and incredibly exciting all at the same time. What is not so exciting would be to buy into a prescriptive mandate of crops, seeds, pesticides, fumigants, and fertilizers that are meant for a computerized, homogenized, and largely lifeless landscape. This is why I am an organic farmer.