Relative Merits

As organic gardeners, we need to challenge attempts to use the growing criticism of organic farming to tarnish our impeccable credentials. 

By John Walker. Published in Organic Gardening, May 2007.

Organic gardening has a problem, and it’s called organic farming. You might think that there is an indisputable and natural synergy between the two, and of course you’d be right. They both work to shared sets of beliefs, principles and practices, and generally there’s a healthy flow of information and knowledge between home gardeners, allotment holders, smallholders and organic farmers. In the days when the bigger commercial growers were dipping their toes in the organic market, I remember being struck by how the wisest words came from those with modest smallholdings and small organic farms. Small was (and still is) beautiful.

“Organic gardening has a problem, and it’s called organic farming”

Now ‘organic’, in all its forms, is big – big business, big profits, big news. The Soil Association (SA) reports a 30% increase in sales of organic goods in 2006, in a UK ‘organic industry’ worth £1.6 billion. We could debate whether industrialisation, and especially the industrialisation of organic farming, is actually good news. But the fact that organic farming now hits the headlines regularly, and not always in a positive light, is turning out to be unequivocally bad news for organic gardeners.

Vegan-organic polytunnel production at Tolhurst Organic Produce.

Although commercial organic growing and farming works to the same values as organic gardening, it attracts criticism that is simply (but conveniently) misplaced in our own gardens and allotments.

Perhaps the most recent example of how we gardeners run the risk of being trashed by association came in February this year. ‘Organic farming ‘no better for the environment’’, cried the headline. The article started, ‘Organic food may be no better for the environment than conventional produce and in some cases is contributing more to global warming than intensive agriculture, according to a government report.’ This was hot on the heels of the suggestion, made a few weeks earlier by the Environment Secretary David Miliband, that organic food was a ‘lifestyle choice’.

On the face of it, neither story was exactly ‘good news’ for organics, although the SA did release an effective rebuttal of the government report’s findings, describing some of its conclusions as ‘irrelevant’. And Miliband did recant, admitting that organic farming was better for the environment, although he maintains there is no proof of health benefits from this ‘choice’. But the damage has been done, giving the pro-chemical harpies circling the ‘o’ word even more to flap about.

Last autumn I took part in a radio phone-in for BBC Radio Kent’s Sunday gardening programme. The focus was organics and, you would have thought, organic gardening in particular. But oh no, we were soon off at a tangent, ably guided by the programme’s resident gardening ‘expert’, with the guest from the SA being grilled over claims that so-called ‘midnight sprayers’ somewhere in Spain were undermining the certification of organic produce, if not the entire organic movement. Claims, incidentally, that the resident expert had ‘heard about’ while in Europe, and which the beleaguered SA person was therefore unable to comment on directly.

“When organic farming is given a pummelling in the media, organic gardening gets a winding as well”

Result? The programme got off to a flying start by giving organics, and by association organic gardening, a good kicking. Impression given? ‘Organics’ is a scam selling overpriced food with meaningless labels, so organic gardening must be part of the con. Sorted. It’s manna for the bashers of organic gardening, who’ll use every trick in the book to undermine what we’re doing out on our plots. This latest rash of ‘bad news days’ for organics must have the pro-chemical crowd drooling some of the 4.5 billion litres of pesticides slopped on to UK crops every year.

But surely people understand the difference between organic farming and organic gardening? I’m not so sure that they do. I think many people don’t see a difference, despite the fact that the term ‘organic’ is lodged in our collective consciousness, regardless of whether or not we choose to eat, wear or grow it. So when organic farming is given a pummelling in the media, organic gardening gets a winding as well.

But to use the apparent ills and inevitable shortcomings of organic farming to smear organic gardening is a travesty. Those who do, and who will continue to try to get us squirming, need a reality check. So, just for them, here’s a potted version of the difference between the two (you can add to my list, ready for the next time you encounter an ill-informed ignoramus on the radio or elsewhere).

“Bashers of organic gardening will use every trick in the book to undermine what we’re doing out on our plots”

Organic gardening incurs minimal or zero ‘food miles’; our growing is as local as it gets. The SA is currently debating whether food grown organically, then shipped in from the far side of the planet, should actually be certified as organic (answer probably no). We gardeners are already well ahead of both organic and conventional farming on that score. Our distance-ometer ranges from food inches as we gather herbs from the window box, to at worst a couple of food miles if our allotments are beyond the range of walking, cycling or public transport.

Organic gardening requires no packaging, and so no energy and raw materials are needed to make, print, transport and dispose of packaging. We don’t even need the ink to print the logos identifying our produce as organic. And we can sleep easy knowing that by eliminating packaging, we’re not helping to build plastic mountains in China, where much of our ‘recycling’ now ends up.

Organic gardening uses no synthetic, energy- and material-hungry artificial fertilisers or pesticides, fungicides or weedkillers. Organic farmers can still use a very restricted range of materials approved for organic use, so we gardeners are ahead of the game here too if we avoid the organic quick fixes and harmonise our garden ecosystems. So we have no need of packaging on this score either, nor of the energy-guzzling transport that would be required to get the stuff to us.

Winter squash ripening at the onset of the first winter frosts.

The odd blemish on our home-grown, ultra-local and residue- and packaging-free food is nothing to fret about.

Organic gardening proudly flaunts the message that ‘small is beautiful’; it works on a relatively small scale, while creating barely any environmental footprint. In contrast, organic farming is, on the whole, becoming ever larger-scale. To keep supermarket shelves stocked, even with organic produce, you need lots of it, and of the specified size, shape and quality. We gardeners can live with things being different in size or misshapen, and we don’t usually mind a blemish here, or an aphid there.

Organic gardening is about creating vibrant, diverse ecosystems which enrich their surroundings. It helps to build soil and, by using the no-dig or minimal cultivation approach, it increases soil carbon content, so helping to check climate change. It improves both our physical and spiritual health, and that of planetary ecosystems. It recaptures a growing sense of self-reliance so frighteningly absent from current generations. When our fingers hit the soil, we reconnect with where we’ve come from.

“It gives me goosebumps every time I think just how many of the ‘sustainable living’ boxes the gentle act of organic gardening actually ticks”

It gives me goosebumps every time I think just how many of the ‘sustainable living’ boxes the gentle act of organic gardening actually ticks. Yet so very often, whenever the organic bashers grab their cudgel, it has the organic farming label dangling from it. There’s no doubt that organic farming has its own demons to face, as growing demand for organic food nudges it towards industrial-scale production, but organic gardening is very different. If we’re ranking on the basis of how environmentally sound and ‘earth-friendly’ something is, I’d say organic gardeners were on the top spot. We should not be tarred with the same brush.

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