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intercropping in organic agricultural systems

organic farming

Genuine organic agriculture is rooted in four  main principles:

  1. ecology: both ecological systems and cycles should be supported
  2.  health: the well-being of both flora and fauna should be sustained
  3. fairness: providing common and just environment and life opportunities
  4. care: the management of natural resources that is both precautionary and responsible for the benefit of current and future generations, as well as the environment

These four principles are directly applicable to intercropping for many reasons. For instance, intercropping supports healthy ecological systems as it is based inherently on the incorporation of multiple species or varieties into a single system with various motivations for specific pairings or groupings. In this sense, biodiversity is encouraged in two ways. The first being that it prevents one particular variety of pest from aggregating by limiting their food source and ultimately reducing the risk of excessive loss due to one specific pest. The second is that more pollinators and predatory species are present as a result of a more diverse system that provides a habitat for pollinators and predatory species. This is accomplished by the relatively simple act of diversifying the crops grown. Similar benefits can be seen in reductions in total weed biomass. Further, intercropping supports the goal of closed-system production, i.e. nutrient cycling within a system, via the use of nitrogen-fixing legumes as component crops that benefit from their symbiotic relationship with Rhizobia.

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nitrogen-fixing nodules from Rhizobia bacteria

The use of these crops also organically increases the soil nitrogen content, which encourages mycorrhizal fungus development, which can also improve phosphorus, copper, zinc, and molybdenum uptake. However, it is worth mentioning that these objectives may be best realized by polyculture farms that incorporate livestock manure as legume fatigue may occur if the soil becomes overly infested with pathogens caused by the over-cultivation of legumes.

When accounting for the above-mentioned factors, it may be supposed that intercropping is best suited for organic production systems because it serves to circumvent the need for synthetic, mineral and chemical inputs, i.e. fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, that are commonplaces in conventional agriculture and restricted from use in organic agriculture. In a sense, this means that although intercropping is more closely related to historical approaches to agriculture, it is being adapted to modern circumstances that include a rising demand for organic food, increasing environmental stresses, and a growing societal awareness of food and food production processes. Concurrently, conventional agriculture is becoming increasingly cost-inefficient, both economically and environmentally speaking. This has the potential to support an agricultural transition towards organic production methods, especially if evidence substantiating assertions about the efficacy of intercropping continue to emerge. Moreover, the growing body of proof that demonstrates total system improvements in output produced by intercropped systems may help to counter the argument that organic production cannot be as productive as conventional agriculture, especially when comparing it to sole cropping systems. In turn, intercropping may enable organic production to become more competitive with conventional production and ultimately provide an opportunity for further organic market expansion through the establishment of a fairer economic playing field. Ultimately, these factors allow for the creation of more resilient food systems that provide modern day benefits that serve as the groundwork for a more sustainable future. Consequently, this element of foresight has the potential to benefit a wide variety of both human and non-human stakeholders.

sources:

photo credit:

  • geneticliteracyproject.org
  • commons.wikipedia.org

crop quality – when better is better

apple

There is no doubt about it – we like a shiny apple. It just looks so much more appealing than the odd, misshapen apple that has already been sampled by the local fauna. After all, we humans are visual creatures and the appearance of our food is what peaks our initial interest. Besides looking great, we want the apple to taste good and provide us with wholesome nutrition. After all, looks aren’t everything. Sellers also want a product that looks good, but their version of attractiveness comes from uniformity and bright colors that attract customers to their shelves. Just in case the product isn’t purchased right away, the product should also have a long shelf life. Producers, on the other hand, have completely different demands. They need a product that can travel from point A to point B [often thousands of miles] and not be bruised and mushy upon arrival. They want the apple to be dense so that they are paid the most for their wares.

In the end, beauty, i.e. quality, is in the eye of the beholder. In the case of crops, this generally means a favorable mix of appearance, texture, flavor, safety, and nutrition [see the table below]. To produce a crop more likely to please all parties involved, it must be of high quality. To grow a crop of high quality, it must have been produced with care, which means that a number of factors need to be considered during each phase of the production cycle.

Planning Phase

It is first important to understand your growing space. How much sunlight will it get? How much precipitation does your area receive? What are the average temperatures? What is the soil type? How big of an area will you be planting? Will you practice intercropping? How many seasons of the year are suitable for growing? Are you planning to grow annuals or perennials? Once these questions have been answered, a plan for the growing season can be made.

Referencing your plan and a guide for plant spacing, select seed varieties suited to the local climate and growing conditions. If possible, opt for local seed banks or nurseries, cooperatives, or reputable seed catalogs that can provide this information or are already adapted to local conditions. If a particular seed variety is particularly successful, consider saving your own seed for future growing seasons.

bean-varieties

Planting and Growth Phase

When planting the crops, make sure to follow the recommended spacing suggestions. By doing so, the plants are sure to get the appropriate amount of light and there is enough space for air to circulate which reduces the likelihood of disease and pest problems.

As the plants are growing, opt for manual methods of weed management and monitor pest populations to help prevent any major infestations. Having healthy soil helps to reduce the likelihood of pest infestations and provide the plants with the nutrients it needs to remain healthy and bear nutritious fruits.

If possible, protect the plants from extreme temperatures to avoid premature flowering, damage from frost or snow, and leaf scorch.

Harvesting & Post-Harvest Phase

The moment a product picked, it begins to deteriorate in quality. Accordingly, it is important to have a plan and system in place for processing the harvest. The essential parts of this process involve cooling, cleaning, sorting, and packaging. How far a product will travel impacts the approach to packaging. Having a system in place for post-harvest handling also contributes to overall food safety.

General Tips

  • Pay attention to the details and to be consistent.
  • Keep track of the growing process to learn from successes and mistakes

At present, the quality of fresh fruits and vegetables is based on the following factors:

crop quality

For more information about the horticultural production system, click here.

additional resources:

photo credit:

  • sknaturalsadoor.com
  • sciencmag.com

question: which factors influence the use of complementary and alternative medicine?

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In the latter part of the 20th century, the validity of social sciences became widely accepted. Some branches of social science researchers researched and documented the role of complementary and alternative medicine [CAM] in society. Their actions helped to address the issues of missing data and evidence to support medical claims, which contributed to a rise in their use. Dr. Ernst, the first professor of CAM credits peoples’ belief that CAM is a safer, natural alternative to traditional medicine and the notion that the constraints of regulations in the allopathic medical field prevent practitioners from treating the whole body and encouraging an overall sense of well-being to an increase in use.

Since that time, there have been a number of studies aimed at understanding why people reject or embrace CAM. At the most basic level, many are looking for a treatment that encompasses the whole body, allows them to feel and look good, and produces a complete idea of self to negotiate their identity in society. It has also been suggested that the conceptualization of health is changing, leading to a shift in preferred treatment methods. For example, patients are seeking out ways to become empowered participants in their health, rather than the passive devalued products of the scientific medical community. As people reject the traditional “sick role”, they feel they are establishing themselves as individuals and “voting with their feet” when they seek out alternative forms of treatment. The sick role is:

  • The medical view of illness as deviance from the biological norm of health
  • The diagnosis of disease results from a correlation of observable symptoms with knowledge about the physiological functioning of the human being
  • Involves a social judgment about what is right and proper behavior

Disposable income appears to be one of the most influential factors in the United States, mostly because alternative medicine is not generally covered by health insurance. Many also view CAM as a luxury, rather than a part of their actual healthcare. Individuals in higher socioeconomic brackets are also used to having more resources and therefore control over their lives, enabling them to be more selective in their approach their healthcare. Those with fewer economic resources have a limited number of choices for their healthcare and are not able to consume luxuries and therefore less likely to report CAM use.

cultural medicine

Conversely, there is some evidence showing that people who cannot access “normal” forms of healthcare must use CAM. Others may also opt to reject allopathic medicine because it does not align with their cultural beliefs or because they wish to maintain their cultural heritage. There is also evidence suggesting that members of the non-dominant culture receive subpar care from the biomedical community so they seek out care elsewhere. Those who cite racial discrimination as a reason for their CAM use report that they seek it out to reassert control and self-direction over their health.

An individual or group’s culture and ethnicity also influence the type of CAM used. For example, Blacks and Hispanics are most likely to engage in prayer, Asians are most likely to engage in the use of mind-body interventions and energy therapies, and Whites are most likely to engage in manipulative and body-based therapies. Again, consumption choices are tied to culture. However, individuals who have immigrated to the United States are less likely to consume CAM. There are a number of potential reasons for this, including a lack of exposure to various CAM treatments in their native countries, the cost associated with CAM use, a lack of ability to communicate with healthcare professionals, low utilization of healthcare in general [either because they are healthier than their American natives (which is generally the case) or because they do not have access to CAM]. Immigrants may also believe that medical treatment in America should be provided by the allopathic medical community, especially if they come from a country where allopathic medicine is also dominant.

gender

Gender also influences the consumption of CAM, with women being more likely to use CAM than men. Their reasons are varied and include personal beliefs [which are influenced by (or a lack of) education and disposable income], a lack of results or undesirable side effects from traditional medicine [patient dissatisfaction], doctor recommendations, social influences, and advertising. Hispanic women cite family recommendations their most influential factor; White women cite personal beliefs [often that CAM is more natural], and Black women cite advertising. The issue of advertising influencing the Black community raises public health issues about the reliability of promotional information. This is of particular concern, not only for the Black community but society as a whole, because advertising and fewer regulations from CAM have contributed to a dangerous rise in use:

 

“The relaxed rules for health claims allowed supplement marketers to target messages to the specific concerns of the 80 million Baby Boomers who, as they reached middle age, became even more interested in self-care, more distrustful of conventional medicine, and more resentful of the increasingly impersonal nature of the managed care health system”. 

– Marion Nestle

In the end, however, the factor most strongly influencing CAM use is when an individual suffers from a chronic disease or ailments like back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, a disability, or HIV. Members of this demographic tend to view CAM as a component of self-management of care, a pragmatic approach to living as well as possible, a means to take responsibility for their well-being, and because they recognize a value in the cognitive and attitudinal approach to wellness. However, those who suffer from chronic illness tend not to perceive CAM as an unrealistic means to a cure or as a rejection of allopathic medicine.

sources:

 

image credit:

  • themedicalportal.com
  • cavsconnect.com
  • mexicolore.com.uk

a history of the clash between conventional and alternative medicine in the united states

Throughout the nineteenth century, a variety of medical sects competed for professional supremacy in the United States. Allopaths used methods like bleeding, blistering or purging.  Homeopaths prescribed “infinitesimal” amounts of substances to provoke symptoms of illness and stimulate the body’s natural defenses. Naturopaths employed botanical remedies. Osteopaths favored bodily manipulation. Other schools of thought, e.g. mesmerism, hydrotherapy, and chiropractic, were established in the later part of the century.

Of the different sects, allopathic medicine claimed to be the most scientific of the group, although at the time each subgroup was equally scientific. As the self-proclaimed winner, allopathic practitioners leveraged their “scientific supremacy” to dominate the medical field in the United States by eliminating the competition and aligning themselves with government organizations which then enacted restrictive legislation to remove licensing opportunities and funding for “irregular” practices.

With the competition removed, allopathic medicine bolstered its forces and built medical schools and hospitals, and established The American Medical Association [AMA] with the financial support of the US government.  During this period, heavy promotion, legislative support, and industry alliances aiming to repurpose wartime technology into technology usable in civilian life provided allopaths with unparalleled influence that enabled them to practically eliminate their competition. They achieved this by either forcing the “alternatives” either join forces, as is the case with osteopaths and homeopaths or legislating them out of existence, as in the case of midwives and hydropaths.

However, complementary and alternative medicines [CAM] remained resilient, even in the most unfavorable of times. Chiropractic sought to offer patients an alternative to allopathic medicine and encouraged those dissatisfied with regular medicine to seek out its services. As their base grew, chiropractic sought licensing rights, a chance to set up its own educational programs and inclusion in government-funded health insurance programs. As chiropractic gained recognition and respect, other CAM groups, such as massage therapy, acupuncturists, naturopaths and homeopaths followed suit. However, allopathic medical groups remain reluctant to concede power and have only recently begun to acknowledge its usefulness.

The gradual acceptance of alternative medicine by the scientific medicinal community began in the 1970s after a period of introspection and the realization that several unaddressed were affecting the medical field. Such issues included poor patient satisfaction, limitations in conventional medicine, and a mounting crisis in health. Likewise, America’s economy shifted towards a more diverse, consumer-centered medical marketplace. These changes were eye-opening to medical professionals because patient satisfaction had previously been an afterthought to the industry which left those in the medical field with unchecked power and influence that often resulted in apathy and disinterest in the patient. Following this enlightenment, the medical community began incorporating journal articles about CAM into prestigious medical journals and began acknowledging the possibility that some alternative medical practices were valid treatment methods.

As CAM’s influence disseminated, demand rapidly accelerated, despite a lack of scientific evidence to support claims made by the practitioners. However, a lack of cohesion, regulation, and structure continues to limit its ability to gain credibility in the scientific medical community. To date, there are issues of credibility with the rise of unregulated supplement and quasi-medical procedures that cloud the more grounded aims of the classic alternatives. For example, after the illness of several people who took unregulated medical supplements, an editorial was posted in the New England Journal of Medicine:

“We have seen see a reversion to irrational approaches to medical practice, even while scientific medicine is making some of its most dramatic advances…Since these products have flooded the market, subject only to the scruples of their manufacturers. They may contain the substances listed on the label in the amounts claimed, but they need not…labeling has risen to an art form of double-speak…It is time for the scientific community to stop giving alternative medicine a free ride. There cannot be two kinds of medicine-conventional and alternative. There is only one medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works and medicine that may or may not work.”

Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler also commented on the lack of regulation for the supplement market:

“The marketplace is awash with unsubstantiated claims….[W]e are literally back at the turn of the century when snake-oil salesman made claims for their products that could not be substantiated.”

However, such broad-stroke statements undermine the strides that CAM medicines have made, especially in terms of treating patients holistically. At present, there are still stigmas surrounding the use of non-conventional medical practices, limiting patient options. Some reason for a lack of collaboration include:

  • Allopaths are not well disposed to co-operation with practitioners of CAM. Their approach has been the “Gold Standard” for decades and conceding power and control is an uninviting prospect.
  • Many CAM modalities have not gone through the same clinical and scientific testing to meet the rigorous standards of bio-medicine so they are implemented based more on patient demand than practitioner recommendation.
  • Many doctors do not believe in the efficacy of CAM on its own, rather they see it as a form of relief that can be used in conjunction with scientific medicine.

However, the varying sectors of the scientific medical community view CAM differently. Senior physicians are less likely to use, accept, or recommend CAM because their work tends to deal with the acute and bio-medical manifestations of a problem more than their community-based counterparts. Senior physicians also spend less time with patients, so they are not as in-tune with the psycho-social aspects of medical problems. This can be a problem because senior physicians are often involved in policy-making decisions.

Primary-care physicians, however, are more likely to treat patients on an ongoing basis.  Therefore, they are more in-tune with the psycho-social needs of their patients which makes them more likely/willing to refer their patients to CAM practitioners. This is often a result of their wish to offer their patients with long-term coping strategies.  This is especially true for sufferers of chronic ailments. Unfortunately, there has been limited research into the views of non-senior hospital physicians.

At present, the following approaches to CAM have established nationally accredited organizations accepted by the United States Department of Education:

Congress has also established the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine [NCCAM] to conduct rigorous research into the efficacy of various CAM treatments to ultimately remove ineffective/unsafe treatment methods from the market and/or encourage the integration of effective CAM practices into the healthcare system. However, the NCCAM is not currently responsible for credentialing CAM practitioners and there are no federal policies in place to regulate CAM practitioners. Instead, regulation varies greatly from state to state.

sources:

header image credit: foodmatters.com

the historical development of organic farming

Organic agriculture, i.e. a method of farming and gardening that relies on natural systems and products and is free of virtually all synthetic and toxic chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides and a holistic, sustainable production management system that promotes and enhances biological cycles and soil biological activity, has a long and interesting history. Its history has four main phases.

Phase I began in 1840 when J. V. Liebig published Agricultural Chemistry which provided evidence that crop yields are affected by mineral plant nutrients. This led to the development of Phosphorus (P) fertilizer. Then in 1910, the Haber-Bosch procedure was developed and subsequently allowed for the industrialized production of Nitrogen (N). With the use of these discoveries, synthetic fertilizers were being used on a large-scale basis by 1918.

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The Haber-Bosch Process, Image Credit: https://physics.org

Also during this time began the mechanization of agricultural production and the introduction of plant protection chemicals. It was also during this period that increased efforts in plant breeding began. These developments resulted in widespread specialization which has paved the way for monoculture. The social constructs of society also began shifting during this time period as the process of urbanization began. As people migrated to urban spaces, their interest in farming dwindled and the consolidation of farming ensued.

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Extreme Erosion during the Dust Bowl, Image Credit: http://s.hswstatic.com

With industrialization and the overwhelming use of synthetic inputs, the quality of land rapidly decreased with many environmental problems resulting, e.g the Dust Bowl (1931-1939) that was caused by drought, overgrazing, and intensive tillage. These problems and a rejection of the industrialization of agriculture spurred Phase II of the organic agricultural movement. This phase, which began in the 20th century, is characterized by counter-movements. Some of the most influential figures from this phase include:

    • Rudolf Steiner: non-material processes in agriculture (Austria)

    • Eve Balfour: the interconnectedness of soil, plant, animal, and human health (UK)

    • Albert Howard: soil fertility and composting (UK)

    • Mueller: advocate for the independence of farmers and nutrient cycling (Switzerland)

  • Rusch: microbial determination of soil fertility (Germany)

Phase III began as the concept of organic was internationalized and merged with the environmental movement. The initial defining moment for this was the release of Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring in 1962 that highlighted the negative environmental impacts of widespread chemical use in agriculture. Then in 1972, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (iFOAM) was founded in order to promote the organic movement. In the same year, the Club of Rome published Limited of Growth that highlighted the flaws and dangers of neoclassical approaches to economic growth, i.e. always needed to grow in order to demonstrate success. Shortly after the oil crisis arose. Then in 1981, the first university program in organic agriculture was implemented.

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Image Credit: http://environmentandsociety.org

We are currently in Phase IV, which includes the professionalization, market expansion, and legal regulation of organics. In Europe, the first legislation was introduced in 1991 and in 1990 in the United States. In 2005, an international agreement on the principles of organic agriculture as instated. Progress during this phase has been challenging as organic production methods continue to be looked down upon by mainstream agriculture and it is often criticized as being incapable of producing enough food for the growing world. However, studies continue to emerge disproving this criticism and demonstrating the sustainability of organic production.

Moving beyond Phase IV will be difficult, but is arguably necessary based on the current environmental challenges caused by monoculture and chemical-based production. Success in this respect will involve both bottom-up and top-down approaches as well as a decrease in the stringency of regulation in order to be inclusive of a variety of farming approaches. These are the goals of Organic 3.0 in order to provide the greatest number of the earth’s citizens – both human and non-human – with the best benefits possible.

the 15 principles of organic farming

Organic agriculture is the counter movement to conventional agriculture that supports a more natural relationship between production and the environment in which production takes place. In order to support this relationship and reduce the negative impact of horticulture and agriculture, 15 main principles rooted in common sense have been established. Any plant practitioner can choose to adhere to these standards regardless of certification. They are as follows:

  1. Avoid all synthetically-produced chemicals, including supposedly organic “icides” like pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides [they might be made with organic ingredients but they don’t really support soil health]
  2. Cultivate crop varieties with natural resistances and tolerances in suitable crop rotations
  3. Use beneficials for pest control
  4. Control weeds via mechanical [rather than chemical] methods
  5. Avoid the use of easily soluble mineral fertilizers
  6. Utilize nitrogen from manure and manure compost
  7. Practice green manuring with nitrogen-fixing plants [Leguminosae]
  8. Use slow-acting, natural fertilizers
  9. Preserve soil fertility via humus management
  10. Rotate crops with diverse varieties and long crop rotations 
  11. Abstain from the application of synthetically-produced chemical growth regulators
  12. Limit stocking density to improve animal welfare and reduce damaging effects to the soil, water, and air
  13. Restrict the use of purchased feed and focus on creating an on-farm or in-community production circle
  14. Use antibiotics on an as-needed basis
  15. Support biodiversity by embracing polyculture and intercropping 

Header Image Credit: Agrilicous.org

question: what does organic really mean?

The word organic is popping up everywhere. Organic milk, strawberries, and tomatoes. Organic cotton and organic pet food. These items are undoubtedly more expensive than their conventional counterparts and they are often stigmatized as being yuppie products or just another marketing scheme. Organic products have also been recognized as being healthier and more environmentally-friendly. But what is not often discussed is what organic means and what is different about organic agricultural techniques. So, what does organic really mean?

According to the USDA, organic operations are those that protect natural resources, conserve biodiversity, and use only approved substances. 

The EU states that organic agriculture is method of farming and gardening that relies on natural systems and products and is free of virtually all synthetic and toxic chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides.

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture (IFOAM), provides a more comprehensive definition: A production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity, and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. It combines traditions, innovations, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved. 

IFOAM’s definition differs from the others in that it is not only about the practices, rather it denotes the process as a holistic in that it focuses not only on the inputs and outputs but also the complex interworkings between different components of the system. Likewise, it demonstrates that farming practices should fit the environmental system rather than attempting to manipulate ecosystems for agriculture. In doing so, it is expected that organic agriculture is an integrated, sustainable production management system that promotes and enhances biological cycles and soil biological activity.

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A comparison of conventional and organic agriculture Image Credit: http://blog.ucsusa.org

In order to achieve these goals, organic production practices are shaped by four supporting principles:

  1. Health: sustain the health of soil, plant, animal, human, and planet as a complex and indivisible system
  2. Ecology: support and promotion of ecological systems and cycles
  3. Fairness: provide common and just environment and life opportunities
  4. Care: management in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect for the benefit of current and future generations as well as the environment

In light of these principles and the impact that they are intended to provide, the term organic can therefore also be considered a part of a lifestyle that promotes a more harmonious relationship with the natural systems that support us.

Criticisms of organic, e.g. the cost, exclusionary nature, and focus on labeling and certification, are being addressed by the organic 3.0 movement, which is focusing on the mainstreaming and normalization of organic in order to better disseminate the benefits it provides.

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Image Credit: food.blog.de

Header Image Credit: http://drivedeschamps.fr