Organic, My Arse!

This is the label for the products. The stuff that’s in this very bottle would kill these African Monarch butterflies stone dead on contact. Misleading advertising?

There’s a wave of enthusiasm sweeping the Western world for organically produced foods. Unfortunately the new age consumer is not as well informed on many matters as some may think. One day historians may look back at today’s age of information and call it the age of misinformation. Admittedly there’s a lot of crap out there that’s very convincing and difficult to discerne from the truth. I don’t profess to know it all, but I certainly ask a lot more questions than the average person out there and so I tend to be very skeptical of any information I come across. 

 Today Jenny came back from town proudly showing off her new organic pesticides for her garden. Jenny is a smart girl, very smart actually. She has an MSc in ruminant nutrition which is a little more than I can say for my own qualifications. Anyway today she bought this tiny bottle of organic pesticide, some organic snail bait, and an organic fungicide. R150 to R200 or so for these tiny little bottles that would probably last a few sprays. I think she bought stuff as a joke to get a rise out of me. Sure enough she got a rise, but the joke could have been cheaper! Anyway I had to check out her products and read up how they work.

Let’s start with the snail bait. This stuff seems to be some form of Iron Phosphate.  Yes, you read that correctly, Iron Phosphate. They don’t tell you what else is in the product but they claim that Iron Phosphate is the active ingredient. What on earth makes Iron Phosphate an organic pesticide is beyond me. Yes it occurs naturally in the soil but Iron Phosphate is as much of a chemical as is any of the plant fertilizers that I use on my farm. 

The Iron Phosphate makes snails loose their appetite and stop eating. They go on to say that the snails then either move away or start to die. They warn you that you need to keep applying the stuff because they may return. That’s right, they eat the stuff, feel nauseous, then hide under a bush for a few days untill they either die or come out again and look for the next meal. Presumably they are now starving and if they find your vulnerable plant then they absolutely devour it like there’s no tomorrow. I’m sorry but a snail bait that suppresses the snails appetite and may kill the pest doesn’t sound like the right thing to sort out a snail problem, especially when a tiny little box costs R 140. It’s a good business model for the manufacturer, because you have to keep applying the stuff so as to keep the snails subdued. If you are anything like my wife then you will very shortly have toxic levels of Iron in your soil and then nothing will grow there at all.

If you want to control snails organically then I suggest a flock of ducks. They have the benefit of being cute, a juicy meal and an endless source of fly tying materials. Alternatively a chemical product called Moer-tu works very well and a 25kg bag costs the same as a 1kg bag of Biogrow and probably does a much better job. Earthworms are a great indicator of a healthy soil. I used moer-tu several times on my Cabbage crop and the earthworms are still teaming in my soil, so it can’t be that bad. 

Next we have an organic Fungicide. This too has exactly the same active ingredient as the commonly used copper based fungicides that conventional farmers use. It’s called a”Copper Soap” solution. So this stuff would likely work pretty well. We conventional farmers add a surfactant to most of our sprays. This helps with better coverage of the plants and soap is also a surfactant. So basically Organic farmers are using exactly the same chemical as we use but in a slightly different form. Organic farmers run the risk of resistance build up to the copper sprays, as they don’t have as many options as a conventional farmers has and could easily overuse the product. They also run the  risk of copper building up in the soil to toxic levels due overuse. Once this occurs it’s very difficult to fix those soils. 

The next product that Jen bought was a pesticide to kill insects. It boldly states that it kills all all stages of all insects upon contact. It goes on to say that it’s an organic plant extract. Look I don’t care what type of extract it is, if it kills all insects on contact then how on earth is that good for any farming system. We may as well go back to DDT or use Oganophosphates. The active ingredient in this Biogrow pesticide is Pyrethrin. It’s a Chysanthenam plant extract. It’s a highly toxic compound, organic or not. It so happens that scientists have found ways how to synthetically produce pyrethrins in a laboratory. These synthetic Pyrethrins are called Pyrethroids which are probably the most commonly used pesticide in conventional agriculture today. The laboratory products are longer lasting in the environment but more effective. However you can bet your bottom dollar that the organic farmers with a pest problem will use many times more the recommended dose to get the required control and possibly do as much damage to the environment as the conventional farmer.

There are many alternative products to the commonly used and cheaper Pyrethroids. Many of them have much shorter witholding periods and are far more selective. The products I have been using on my cabbages are ones that need to be ingested to kill the insect. That means the innocent honey bee is not harmed, and neither are the natural enemies of the pests harmed. It only kills whatever is eating the crop. This allows the natural enemy population to build up and start contributing to controlling the crop pests. It sure isn’t organic, but it’s a hell of a lot more environmentally friendly than using a broad spectrum insecticide, all be it an organic one. 

Farming profitably in the long term requires farmers to improve their soils, to reduce chemical use, and to work with nature where practically possible. I am fascinated by farming methods that are more sustainable and that work with nature, but it need not be organic to be sustainable. In fact organic farming may be the method that’s unsustainable in the long term. Organic farming is a farse as it is currently legeslated, but that’s not to say that the methods used have no place in farming. Imagine farming using sensible farming methods (many of which are considered organic), and having the use of specially formulated chemicals that target only specific pests. Now that is the future of farming and the future is here. 

  • Please note that these are my own logically derived opinions. I am no expert in the field off organic farming, just an enthusiastic farmer with a blog.  I also have nothing against the company Biogrow, it’s just what happened to be in Jenny’s shopping basket. They are selling the same stuff as other organic companies. I’m also sure their products work really well, it’s just I can’t understand how they are classified as organic and environmentally friendly. 
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2 Comments

  1. I agree with you about not contaminating the soil with copper (or excessive iron). That violates one of the four fundamental pillars of sustainability – we should not create excessive artificial concentrations of scarce metals in the earths’ crust.

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