Varietals of Choice

Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed a lot of articles and blog posts questioning whether organic food is really worth the generally higher cost of the products to the consumer, i.e. whether organic food offers significant health benefits for the person eating it that justify spending more.

The question itself represents part of what I consider our limited perspective when it comes to food production.

Farmers market in France - a single table with 15 tomato varieties from a single organic farmer. All photos: PKR

Farmers market in France – a single table with 15 tomato varieties (plus a couple of eggplant varieties) from a single organic farmer.
All photos: PKR

Food production in all its forms is one of humanity’s key points of influence on our environment. Everything about food production, from land and water use, to the plants and animals we domesticate and cultivate, to the plants, animals and insects we suppress as pests, has a major impact on our surroundings.

We discovered planned agriculture around 10000 years ago, and we’ve been using pesticides in one form or another for over 4500 years. Early pesticides came in the form of using smoke to try and drive away insects, blight and mildew, or sea water to kill weeds.

Mercury, arsenic and lead were introduced in the 15th century, while the dried flowers of Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium have been used in powdered form for two 2(6)

But pesticide use as we understand it today – the industrial-scale production and use of synthetic pesticides – is really a product of the post-1940s era when DDT and a host of other chemical compounds were developed and manufactured on a large scale.

Yields rose, prices went down, and the new pesticides seemed safer for humans than older ones like arsenic.

Until it turned out that some of the new products had a number of wide-ranging and unanticipated effects on the environment and wildlife. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring focused attention on this.

In response to increased evidence of the impact of these products on wildlife and humans,  more refined pesticides were developed, as well as plants which are genetically modified to resist 4(4)

Most of these newer products are currently considered safe for human consumption and for the environment – but then, so was DDT back in the 1940s and 1950s.

Some pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, are suspected of negatively impacting important pollinators around the world, foremost among them honey bees.

And then there’s the issue of pesticides being combined, or misused, with as yet unknown effects.

Broadly speaking, the focus of industrial farming is to produce more food from any given amount of land. Pesticide use, monocrop farming and less produce diversity, GMO development – all target increased agricultural yields, as well as profitability for the companies selling these products.

Broadly speaking, the idea behind organic food production is to promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity while avoiding all use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and to do so in a manner that is sustainable and perhaps profitable.

The focus is on the impact of human food production on the surrounding environment, and on reducing any negative impact of synthetic or harmful products on land, plants and animal life – including 5(1)

Buying organic isn’t simply a choice between healthy and unhealthy produce for human consumption.

Plenty of conventionally grown foods are perfectly healthy to humans.

Some have almost no pesticide residue. Some – at least in the United States – have residue from up to 29 different pesticides.

Those pesticides, sprayed or added to wherever the produce was grown, eventually end up in the water systems, soil, or on the wind and carried to other plants and animals.

I have no problem with buying conventionally-grown produce, and I have no issue with buying organic.

Where I take issue is when the choice is portrayed purely in terms of cost-effectiveness and health benefits for the consumer.

We have so many choices available these days, and the choices we make 2(7)

Spring Song

It’s raining out today, so I don’t feel overly guilty about not being out in the garden after a week of imposed bed rest.

I found these nifty images of lacewing eggs – something I’m hoping to find in our garden when I get back outside.

Green Lacewing eggs Source: GCMG

Green Lacewing eggs
Source: FSG

Lacewing larvae aren’t as pretty as their eggs, nor as their adult form, but they have the healthy appetite of most growing creatures and their favorite food is aphids. Lots of aphids. If lacewing larvae were teens, aphids would be their bowls of pasta and bags of chips.

Lacewing larvae hatching. Photo: Rupert Soskin

Lacewing larvae hatching.
Photo: Rupert Soskin

Lacewings belong to an order of net-winged insects known as Neuroptera, which contains around 6,000 species.

In the course of writing this blog, I came across the delightfully named Lacewing News. This might sound like the weekly journal of the characters in Wind in the Willows, but it is actually the newsletter of the International Association Neuropterology. Lacewings, of course.

Lacewing lifecycle Source: Lydekker, R. (1879) via Wikipedia

Lacewing lifecycle
Source: Lydekker (1879) via Wikipedia

When we first moved here many years ago, I found that our garden had a real problem with aphids. They were on everything. The garden is quite an old one, and a succession of owners had been planting randomly over at least thirty years. We found an assortment of pesticides in the garage when we moved in, and most of our neighbors are happy to spray several times a year.

We didn’t use pesticides, and for a long time, I felt like our little corner was a happy haven for bugs fleeing the spray all around, whether the bugs were good ones or not.

I’ve been re-doing the small garden over the past few years, no pesticides, simplifying the ramshackle flower beds, and over the past couple of years I’ve noticed that we had very few pests. Almost without me noticing.

Strange how we notice the presence of a nuisance but rarely its absence.

Adult green lacewing Source: LIR

Adult green lacewing
Source: LIR

Fingers crossed that this year continues the positive trend.

One last thing: Lacewings species have their own mating songs. Subtle and simple, but still, mating songs. I can’t let this rainy Monday pass without including them. You can listen to a wide variety of songs here, or click the image below.

Images of lacewing songs. Source: PBS

Images of lacewing songs patterns.
Source: PBS