On GMO and Organic Crops

Having been told for the umpteenth time that GMO crops outyield conventional hybrids by 30% The Git went looking for independent studies to either confirm or disconfirm the claim. Such studies are extremely rare; not surprising when you understand that Monsanto et alia “own” the genes in the seeds they sell you. If you upset them, you might see your seed supply cut off. Monsanto can be vicious as the Percy Schmeiser story revealed. Schmeiser’s neighbour grew Roundup Ready (RR) canola, that is canola resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup (glyphosate), the bees cross-pollinated Schmeiser’s crop and the neighbour’s, thus Schmeiser was found to be illegally in possession of Monsanto’s property (the genes in his crop). He was successfully sued by Monsanto despite having never benefited from the RR genes in the seed he saved since he never sprayed the crop with herbicide.

Schmeiser’s experience played a pivotal role in Tasmania’s farmers’ insistence that the government put in place a moratorium on GMO crops. Tasmania’s major markets demand GMO-free produce. GMO-contamination would eliminate those markets and necessitate finding new markets, a far from trivial exercise. For example, Tasmanian fruit-grower Tim Reid spent six years to establish permission for exporting a single variety of apple (Fuji) to Japan despite Tasmania’s excellent reputation overseas for not just being “clean and green”, but also mercifully free of many pests and diseases rampant overseas. And of course we can sell GMO-free into markets that would happily accept GMO produce. There are no markets demanding GMO to be found.

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What is This Thing Called Climate?

One of the oddest things about the debate (that’s supposedly over) regarding climate is how very little of the discussion is actually about climate. Let’s start by defining what is generally meant by the term. From the OED:

3. a. Condition (of a region or country) in relation to prevailing atmospheric phenomena, as temperature, dryness or humidity, wind, clearness or dullness of sky, etc., esp. as these affect human, animal, or vegetable life.

Originally, climate meant a region, inclination or slope. “The meaning passed in Greek through the senses of ‘slope of ground, e.g. of a mountain range’, the supposed ‘slope or inclination of the earth and sky from the equator to the poles’, ‘the zone or region of the earth occupying a particular elevation on this slope, i.e. lying in the same parallel of latitude’, ‘a clime’, in which sense it was adopted in late Latin.” Aristotle identified three climates, the Northern frigid zone, a Torrid zone to the South and the region between was Temperate as that’s where all the civilised people lived. He also believed that there was a corresponding temperate and frigid zone South of the torrid zone, but that we would never be able to confirm this since, by extrapolation, life could not exist in the torrid zone. Ah, the perils of extrapolation from what is known to what is not yet known!

Moving forward in time a couple of millennia, Russian German climatologist Wladimir Köppen devised  the most widely used climate classification system. He first published his system in 1884 and it underwent several modifications, by himself and his collaborator, Rudolf Geiger. Quoting from the wiki-bloody-pedia:

The system is based on the concept that native vegetation is the best expression of climate. Thus, climate zone boundaries have been selected with vegetation distribution in mind. It combines average annual and monthly temperatures and precipitation, and the seasonality of precipitation.

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Farming for Fertility

This short book was written some years ago and is therefore somewhat out of date. My intended readership was mainly farmers looking at the potential of farming more organically, not necessarily converting their production system to a fully certified organic one. It was only partially completed and never proofread by others and so will contain inevitable errors. Nevertheless it may contain something of interest to the reader. I invite comment now as I anticipate finishing the book in the not too distant future.

Introduction

Market Potential for Organic Produce

In the late 1980s, the demand for organically grown food in Australia was accelerating dramatically. In Melbourne the market doubled in a period of twelve months. The recession hit the organic food industry later than most and had a less severe impact. As we are slowly leaving the recession behind, demand is once again strengthening. Domestic prices are predicted to remain firm for a long time as European, Asian and North American demand for Australian organic produce is strong. Current organic production is estimated to be worth around $168 million annually. This compares with the stone fruit industry ($168 million), the rice industry ($183 million) and the egg industry ($278 million).

Opposite are the contents of a fax received from Ian Diamond of the organic export company, The Organic Connection. Note that these are existing customers. Tasmanian cherry grower, Peter Windhurst and Victorian garlic grower, Phil Ward, travelled to Asia in 1993 to assess markets there. It appears likely that demand for organically grown produce will outstrip supply for the foreseeable future.

Many farmers have looked with envy at these sorts of figures, but it must be realised that the higher prices received for organic produce do not necessarily translate into higher incomes. Organic farmers often claim that they are justified in charging a healthy premium as their costs are high. There is precious little information on income from organic farming versus conventional, but it is significant that farmers who convert to organic almost never go back to conventional farming. I know of only one. Els Wynen and ? Edwards’ study of sheep/wheat farms in South Eastern Australia showed that there was no statistical difference between conventional and organic farm incomes. Many organic farmers have sold their produce into the conventional market for decades.

One of New Zealand’s largest companies, Watties Frozen Foods, is one of only three certified organic frozen vegetable producers in the world. Their technical specialist in organics, Alec McErlich, agrees that despite the premiums of 20 to 310% that they are paying growers, the farmers’ incomes are on a par with conventional growers. After only three years, they have 30 farmers under contract, 20 of them new to organic production. Even though it is early days, the company expects to process several thousand tonnes of organic peas, beans, sweet corn and carrots for export in 1993/4.

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