Chiu-Nan Lai, Ph.D.
Many years ago, at an agricultural academic conference, a medical doctor was invited to be the plenary speaker. He looked at the agricultural researchers participating in the conference, and made this admonishment: “Do not forget that agricultural products are meant to be consumed by humans. Many experts generally care about increasing crop yield and reducing costs, but forget that the products grown are meant for human consumption!”
Improving output is the major consideration in the modern agricultural industry. In the U.S., 99.5% of the agricultural products are grown from chemical fertilizers, and only 0.5% of the products are organically grown. In the past 30 years, many countries have followed the U.S. approach by abandoning traditional farming methods and converting to methods using chemical fertilizers. Perhaps, crop yield would improve in the beginning. However, chemical fertilizers damage the PH level of the soil, kill microorganisms and earthworms in the soil, and in the long run, reduce the fertility and the humic acid of the soil. In turn, this causes plants to have poorer immune system in the future, increases their susceptibility to harm from diseases and insects, and reduces production output. Humans and animals that eat such unhealthy plants and food polluted by chemicals will also become less healthy, and there will be a marked rise in various kinds of chronic ailments, immune system problems, and cancer. We only need to observe how, in the past twenty years, cancer has become the major cause of death in countries that have converted from traditional farming methods to “scientific” farming methods. The most recent addition to this group of countries is China, which follows the footsteps of Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, U.S., Australia, and New Zealand.
The way to transform this situation and let mankind recover their health is to start from the basics—restoring the health of the soil. The health of humans and the earth are interconnected.
The soil in the U.S. experienced the earliest damage, and also received the earliest attention from concerned parties. Robert Rodale made significant contribution to organic farming. When he was young, he had already made his fortune. Once, he listened to a health talk by Dr. Bragg, and became very inspired. He spoke to Dr. Bragg, and indicated that he was wealthy and desired to engage in some meaningful venture. Dr. Bragg asked about Robert Rodale’s interest, and he replied that it was in horticulture and farming. Dr. Bragg then suggested that he should go into organic farming. These words were to influence Robert Rodale’s life, and provided a major boost to the organic farming industry.
Nowadays, it is not difficult to purchase organic products in the U.S. In California, not only do the health stores carry organic products but the farmers markets are also venues to purchase inexpensive and fresh organic agricultural products. Farmers markets provide a way for small farms to directly sell their fresh healthy products to the consumer. The popularity of farmers markets in California is a result of the effort of many people.
Thirty years ago, California governor, Jerry Brown, was visionary in his promotion of farmers’ market, and many dedicated youths took part in natural farming. Thirty years ago, in Santa Barbara, one person who studied natural farming methods in the U.K started a farm within the city, and also commenced natural farming courses at the same time. The vegetables grown by these students needed retail outlets. At that time, one can easily see these organic farms on the open space at the periphery of the university. After six months of preparation by over twenty of these new natural farmers, they finally obtained the approval of the city council, and also obtained media coverage. The farmers market started at a tourist location next to an old church. Residents of the city and car loads of tourists were very supportive of the re-emergence of the farmers market after thirty years. Because of the limited stock and variety of agricultural products, the farmers market was open only twice a month. In recent years, it has become more regular and is on every Saturday and even almost every day of the week. The farmers market attracts farmers from within a two-hour drive, residents and tourists. Products for sale include vegetables, fruits, walnuts, almonds, dates, mushrooms and fresh flowers, and spices. These products are both fresh, and available at an inexpensive price. Through the years, consumers at the market and the farmers have developed friendship, mutual trust, and mutual support. Everyone is fully aware of whose melons are sweet and whose vegetables have high energy, and there is no deception.
The young farmers thirty years ago are now fifty to sixty years of age. Nevertheless, their joy and interest towards natural farming has not diminished. Land is expensive, and there are very few new young farmers (perhaps one or two) who are in the thirty-years old age range. In the future, when the existing group old farmers retire, our source of clean food will become a problem. At this time, across the Pacific Ocean, China is also facing an agricultural crisis. On the one hand, farm land is contaminated by chemical pollutants. On the other hand, in order to survive, farmers are leaving their villages in droves to work in the city. Furthermore, as the people’s income level improves, they begin to consume large amounts of meat, chicken, eggs, and milk, which exacerbate the rapid decline of grains. The gap between consumption and production is widening, and in the past decade, China has begun to become less self-reliant by importing more grains. The agricultural industry is the key determinant of a country’s rise and fall. How to encourage more farmers to return to the farm? How to counsel them to use a more sustainable approach to farming? How to increase consumers’ trust and confidence in organic and green products? These are questions that require urgent replies.
Perhaps, restoring the farmers market is a possibility. Thirty years ago, Chinese farmers were still preserving the fertile land left by their ancestors from 5000 years back. They used natural farming methods to protect the rice bowl and source of sustenance of their descendents. It is hard to imagine how, in a mere ten to twenty years, the use of chemical fertilizer has led to a precipitous drop in the soil’s fertility, so much so that it is now necessary to use pesticides to control damage by insects. Once the land has been poisoned, plants get poisoned, and so will humans. In the past, cancer was a rarity. Now, it has become widespread. In particular, in the past one to two years, many people have witnessed their friends and relatives around them dying from cancer. To solve this problem, we need to get to its root. We need to purify the contaminated earth, air, and water supply. Natural farming can purify the earth and fertilize the soil.
In the book “The Secret Life of Compost”, Malcolm Beck describes how he successfully developed from organic farming to selling compost. He used his neighbours’ organic waste and transformed them to useful compost. He emphasized that employing chemical fertilizer is not a smart thing to do, and that it is also wasteful. All it takes is to feed the microbes in the soil, and they will create fertilizers akin to nitrogen fertilizer free of charge. 78% of the atmosphere comprises nitrogen, and the microbes in one acre of the land can manufacture an average of 1000 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer in two and a half months. What they need is sufficient decomposed plants or humus. Agricultural experts claim that the nitrogen component in compost is low and of little use. However, all the microbes need is chemically-bound carbon and water (e.g., dry leaves and grass) as food, and they can then extract nitrogen and other nutrients from the air.
Plants or weeds found in the wild are key ingredients that maintain the fertility of the soil. Land that has weeds has energy levels that are several times than those without weeds. Once grass has been pulled out or killed using herbicides, the soil is subject to wind erosion, deterioration, and desertification. Northern California farmer, Bob Cannard, does not remove the grass on his farm, but merely trims them. The land next to his fruit trees are filled with weeds, but the trees produce the sweetest fruits.
While standing at the farmers market in Santa Barbara, I spoke to the farmer selling oranges. He was one of the founders of this farmers market thirty years ago. I told him that the Chinese agricultural industry use large amounts of chemicals on their farms. He shook his head in disbelief. He could not understand why Chinese farmers, who have over 5000 years of farming wisdom behind them, can still be fooled. Perhaps, the Chinese need to import their traditional wisdom back from the U.S.
Translated by Singapore Lapis Lazuli Light.
Article originally published in Chinese in Lapis Lazuli Light magazine (May 2005 issue); available at http://www.lapislazuli.org/TradCh/magazine/200505/200505.html