I love going to Manna, my local organic store where I have access to fresh organically grown produce. Manna, owned by Claire and Thomas O Connor is stocked with produce from their own farm in Gleann Na nGealt near Camp and from other organic suppliers. Their premises exudes light and life.
Claire and Thomas O Connor,pioneers of organic farming did what many farmers would have baulked at- they have created an organic mixed farm from 25 acres of land they bought in 2007 and brought the soil back to life using nettles, comfrey liquid and sea minerals combined with hard work and dedication. Their farm is home to a selection of animals such as pigs, ducks and hens, all of whom have access to plenty of open space. It’s a working haven of health and happiness.
Organics, regarded as a trend by some, was the norm prior to the 1940’s. My great great- grandparents tilled the soil on their farm In Waterville using local seaweed to remineralise the land to provide healthy food for their large family and also for their local market. They were strong healthy people who lived well. My great- grandparents who moved into the town also grew their own vegetables organically in their back garden, growing their own apples, strawberries, carrots, onions, cabbage and potatoes. By the time it came to my grandparents, the bulk of their food came from supermarkets although I do recall my grandfather growing some potatoes and lettuce in a plot of land behind their shop.
Origins of chemical farming
The switch over to chemical farming began after World War 2 when profit and production saw the introduction of pesticides such as DDT. Hailed as a miracle by some, its use soon spread to farms globally including Ireland. However in 1962 the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson questioned the effect that synthetic chemicals were having on the environment. Rachel noted that DDT and its metabolites were making bird eggshells thinner causing egg breakages and embryo death. Rachel also implied that DDT was a human carcinogen. Although DDT was subsequently banned, it has been replaced by numerous other pesticides, organophosphates, herbicides and fungicides. Soils are fertilized and enhanced using chemical fertilisers that favour maximum growth and yield.
Effects of chemical farming
The health of the soil depends upon a delicate balance of micronutrients, macronutrients and microbes. Adding chemical fertilisers such as NPK(nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) to increase growth and yield does not come without side effects both for the environment and for us. This overuse of nitrogen depletes soil nutrients and contaminates our drinking water. Excess nitrogen coming through our water can lead to respiratory issues and cancers. Coming through the air it can increase one’s allergic response to pollen. A study from the University of Wisconsin, showed that artificial fertilisers used in combination with pesticides altered the immune, endocrine and the nervous systems in mice. Authors Colborn et al in their book Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival outline the effects of the breakdown of pesticides on the soil. Organophosphates such as Diazinon become even more toxic as they break down, leading to reproductive problems. There are 7,200 registered biocides in the EU. Pesticides are toxic to all living organisms and aren’t we all living organisms? A July 2007 study conducted by researchers at the Public Health Institute, the California Department of Health Services, and the UC Berkeley School of Public Health found a six fold increase in risk factor for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) for children of women who were exposed to organochlorine pesticides.
Pesticides affect our endocrine system, hormonal regulation and embryo development. Pregnant women are particularly at risk as they have to detox pesticides at a time when their organs are already being overtaxed with their growing foetus.
In May 2010, scientists from the University of Montreal and Harvard University released a study that found exposure to pesticide residues on vegetables and fruit may double a child’s risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition that can cause inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity in children.
Studies by the National Cancer Institute found that American farmers, had startling incidences of leukaemia, Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and many other forms of cancer.
What is the solution?
The solution is to buy organic produce as much as we can. Less pesticide use ensures that the fruits and vegetables are healthier.Organic food is often fresher as it's produced on smaller nearby farms so it’s not being transported for miles. The growing of organic food is better for the environment as it reduces pollution, conserves water, increases soil fertility. Organically raised animals are not fed antibiotics, growth hormones or fed animal by- products. Organic meat and milk are richer in certain nutrients such as omega 3 oils.
What if I can't buy organic?
If you cannot buy organic food then be careful to wash all fruits and vegetables before consumption. For some people a barrier to buying organic can be cost or availability. Organic food is more expensive as it is more labor intensive as farmers are farming without chemical fertilisers. Also it's expensive to get organic certification and organic food for animals is more expensive. Many supermarkets however, due to demand, have increased their range of organic produce. Supermarkets such as Aldi have announced that they, removed certain pesticides from their foods, have expanded their organic range of vegetables and fruits and have meats that contain no antibiotics or hormones.
If you cannot buy organic the next best thing to do is to buy local products. I always buy locally grown carrots as they taste delicious. I also buy free range local eggs and meats that come from a reputable butcher. There is also the option of growing your own food in your garden and even if you don’t have access to a garden you can grow herbs in pots and lettuces in troughs. I have a large garden with a few raised beds that I use to grow onions (super easy to grow), lettuces, peas, beans, beetroots (easy) and spinach. The satisfaction I get from growing these is great. You can start small and build up every year.
As consciousness rises people are turning away from practices that are ruinous to the environment, to people and to aquatic life. People lead by example. Thomas and Claire are an example of what can be done. Their life’s work is an inspiration to other farmers to want to make the switch to organic farming. Some farmers are still on the fence, but they are watching and waiting until they too are inspired to make the switch over to the organic way of living.
Farmers are becoming interested partly because there is a growing consumer demand for organically grown food and for organic milk and meat. Thomas is their role model. This is very important as one of the barriers to organics is simply a lack of understanding and education on how to go about making the switch from a conventional farm to an organic farm.