The number of farmers moving to ecological agriculture in its various forms — agroecology, organic, biological, biodynamic, regenerative — continues to grow as farmers and consumers become more aware of the harm pesticides and synthetic fertilisers cause to health and the environment.
Alan Broughton takes a look at this phenomenon and asks why the majority of farmers are still holding on to chemical methods and what can be done to increase the ecological uptake.
At an organic soil management class that I taught in Shepparton, Victoria, I asked each of the dozen participants why they were interested in organics. Everyone of them told me their prime motivating factor was personal and family health.
Secondary reasons included concern for the environment, animal health, the high cost of inputs and a desire to be proud of their produce.
Each of the three organic farmers I recently visited in the Riverina, in south-western New South Wales, had suffered chemical poisoning and contracted cancers. One spent two years in hospital after a sprayer fitting burst and covered him with the insecticide dimethoate. They all now refuse to have any contact with chemicals.
In his book, Call of the Reed Warbler, Charlie Massy found that 60% of farmers who had changed methods did so after some major crisis: health, drought, fire, bankruptcy.
Many farmers, though, who convert do not go through some crisis. A significant proportion of organic farmers started farming that way, while others have changed for other reasons. I hear farmers say that superphosphate does not work anymore, that the earthworms have disappeared, that rain water does not stay in the soil.
Herbicides are also fast losing their effectiveness. Agricultural advisors tell farmers they must rotate their herbicides to try to stave off genetic resistance.
For other farmers, it is a case of wanting to get off the treadmill of ever-increasing inputs.
These are some of the motivations for change.
There are complex reasons why farmers keep on the chemical pathway, but all come down to either lack of motivation or confidence.
Farmers often say they feel crook for a few days after spraying, but put it down to being just a normal part of farming. Normality is constantly reinforced by farming publications, consultants, government and researchers.
A former hydroponic tomato grower in one of my classes said there was no way he would eat the tomatoes he produced because he knew what had been used on them. Some vegetable growers maintain a family garden fertilised by compost and free of chemical use because they do not want to consume the farm produce.
These are people who recognise the danger but feel unable to do much about it.
Agriculture is controlled by vested interests — the input suppliers — who strongly influence government policy, research priorities and agricultural education.
Even for those researchers who recognise the benefits of soil biology and advocate methods for farmers to capture these benefits, eliminating chemical usage does not come into consideration.
Yet it is synthetic fertilisers and pesticides that are the greatest suppressors of soil biology.
Ecological agriculture is not as easy as chemical agriculture. Instead of reaching for the appropriate chemical to solve a problem, ecological farmers have to find ways of preventing the problem from developing.
Ecological farming is far more knowledge intensive. It is holistic.
Those who have changed say the greatest change necessary was “between the ears”. Gaining that confidence — once there is sufficient motivation to change — can take many years and much effort seeking out information.
For some farmers battling to survive, that is not easy. They feel they cannot afford increased risk in the conversion period.
It takes considerable confidence to put up with derision from neighbours. In some regions, ecological farmers are regarded as crazy, doomed to failure and providing a reservoir of pests, diseases and weeds that will attack the neighbouring farms.
In other regions, however, there are sufficient numbers of ecological farmers to mean that ridicule is not an issue and moral support is more forthcoming.
There are also many farmers who see nothing wrong with their system.
Help in short supply
Help for farmers to convert is not in short supply. There are many publications, conferences, websites and ecological farming organisations.
Most regions have an organic and/or permaculture association to support farmers. National organisations include: Carbon Farmers of Australia; Healthy Soils Australia; Australian Institute of Ecological Agriculture; and Soils for Life, which details case studies of more than 100 ecological farms.
Ecological farmers are usually very willing to assist others with practical information.
Some companies also provide assistance: Resource Consultancy Services, which runs courses around Australia; Farming Secrets, which operates an online soil management course; Nutrisoil, a worm fertiliser producer that hosts a biological farming conference at Wodonga every year; and the national newspaper Acres Australia.
Some organic certification organisations also run conferences and are able to call on a growing number of ecological agriculture speakers: Graham Hand; Charlie Massy; Christine Jones; André Leu; Maarten Stapper; Colin Seis; Charlie Maslin; and international experts, particularly from New Zealand and the United States. These speakers draw large enthusiastic audiences, for example, 360 farmers attended the biological farming conference at Coolangatta last year.
Some semi-government organisations are becoming more involved. An organic research centre was recently established at Southern Cross University (SCU).
The National Environment Centre attached to Riverina TAFE at Albury runs a model agroecological farm open to the public and teaches organic farming and permaculture.
The standout though is Landcare.
When Landcare was first established, its chief focus was on tree planting and weed control. Herbicide sales boomed because of the subsidies for control of blackberry, gorse, African love grass and other weeds.
Tree planting subsidies continue, but as a local Landcare coordinator told a farmer who came for his annual herbicide subsidy: “Obviously herbicides are not solving the problem. You have to find other ways”.
Some Landcare networks are taking sustainability seriously and are now organising workshops on regenerative agriculture. The impetus comes synergistically from the farmer members of Landcare and the network coordinators.
I am particularly familiar with my region — Gippsland in eastern Victoria — where each of the several Landcare networks has become enthusiastic about regenerative farming. My local Organic Agriculture Association coordinates with Landcare and has organised some joint workshops.
I see Landcare as a very well-placed medium for promoting better farming methods.
Some Catchment Management Authorities have also begun promoting regenerative agriculture.
What more can be done?
Apart from Landcare coordinators, the ecological agriculture movement depends on volunteers and always has in Australia, though not in most other countries. There are benefits in being independent of governments – no interference, for instance.
The drawback is limited time and financial resources.
Most governments around the world have some sort of program to assist the development of ecological farming. These include: payments for ecosystem services and organic certification costs; subsidies for ecological farming production and education; procurement rules for public institutions like hospitals and schools; and dedicated research and teaching institutes.
European countries provide the highest level of support and, consequently, have the greatest percentage of agricultural land under organic certification.
Some countries have policies for the total transformation of agriculture to ecological methods: Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Cook Islands, Bhutan and several states in India.
The Indian state of Sikkim, in the north east, does not permit pesticide and synthetic fertiliser use. This was not difficult because the Green Revolution technologies that started in the 1960s, did not reach this isolated region, or neighbouring Bhutan.
Cuba became almost fully organic when it could no longer import chemicals after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
For some other countries, agroecology is more of a long-term goal.
Australia is one of the very few countries that gives no government support to ecological agriculture in any of its forms. The government believes farm production should be determined by the market, so no assistance to ecological methods is warranted.
Some recognition from the government that Australian agriculture is not “clean and green” would help break the chemical hold in this country.
To advocate subsidies for production and ecosystem services, as happens in Europe, is risky because it always comes with increasing control that might not be of benefit to farmers or consumers.
There are other ways governments can assist.
Australia severely lacks formal education in ecological agriculture, something that is available in most other countries including the developed countries of Europe and North America and the developing countries of Asia, South America and Africa.
A Bachelor of Ecological Agriculture proposal for NSW TAFE was rejected by its hierarchy. Charles Sturt University dropped its Bachelor of Sustainable Agriculture course.
Riverina TAFE is one of the few institutes to offer a Diploma of Organic Farming, after Federation Training in Gippsland dropped the course that I taught in 2016.
There is the possibility that SCU might consider the Ecological Agriculture degree that is all ready to go.
While community organisations, Landcare and some private companies are doing an excellent job in providing education for farmers, formal qualifications are also important.
Farmbis, a federally-funded scheme to provide subsidised training for farmers that was abandoned in about 2007, should be restored. It was widely used and of great advantage in reducing costs for landholders.
Research facilities dedicated to ecological agriculture are needed. Last year, SCU established the first, at Lismore.
Government policy towards the CSIRO needs to change so that the current focus on developing saleable products and technologies to help fund the organisation no longer applies.
Ecological agriculture is not a saleable technology because it aims to reduce reliance on inputs, not create more.
The Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation used to have a small organic research component but that ended several years ago.
Some governments around the world are taking action to restrict or phase out the most damaging pesticides, particularly glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup and many other herbicide brands. Australian regulators continue to maintain the myth that glyphosate is safe, based on company reports and not peer-reviewed science.
Immediate steps to phase out glyphosate and other health- and environment-destroying chemicals would boost the uptake of ecological methods.
Priority must be given to getting rid of herbicides such as 2,4-D, dicamba and atrazine; and the insecticides dimethoate, chlorpyrifos and all the neo-nicotinoids. This would force major change.
Most countries have agricultural extension officers to provide assistance to farmers, even in small villages in Tanzania and Vietnam (the countries I know best).
Australia abandoned the policy a couple of decades ago. They need to be reinstated to help farmers convert from chemical agriculture.
Public procurement for schools and hospitals of ecologically-produced food is normal in some European countries. This provides healthy food for those who need it most and assures sales for farmers, stimulating ecological production.
The question of imposing pesticide and chemical fertiliser taxes is sometimes raised.
If the true costs of chemicals were included in the sale price of food, it would make organic food a much cheaper option for consumers.
Another suggestion is the labelling of all products to indicate what chemicals have been used in their production — though the labels would have to be huge to list them all.
Such policies should be considered even though they would be actively resisted by the agribusiness lobby and cause increased stress for farmers.
Other policies should be prioritised and would be easier to implement.
Agriculture needs to move away from chemicals.
The result of chemicals is clear: food lacks essential minerals and contains health-destroying residues; insect numbers including bees are declining; soil blows and washes away; soil carbon is lost to the atmosphere; nitrous oxide from nitrate fertilisers is a major greenhouse gas; and farmers are increasingly indebted to pay for inputs.
Despite governments’ reluctance to change, the ecological farming movement is advancing rapidly due to health, environment and economic concerns of farmers and consumers, and through the admirable efforts of community and private organisations and Landcare.
The farmer health issue is very serious, but we cannot wait for farmers to arrive at death’s door before individuals take action.
Australian governments committed to high input agriculture under the influence of the powerful agribusiness lobby are a major barrier to the adoption of regenerative methods.
Sustainability declarations are a farce without positive action.
Change will continue to come but could be substantially speeded up with government assistance.
[Alan Broughton is co-editor with Elena Garcia of Sustainable Agriculture vs Corporate Greed: Small farmers, food security & big business available via Resistance Books.] https://www.resistancebooks.com/