10 08 26 Food Production Without Chemicals

One of the highlights of my summer has been a visit to The University of Manitoba's plots near Carman. I was on a plot tour organized by the Natural Systems Agriculture people from the University. As the name implies, the plots we saw are being treated as naturally as possible, which means that no chemicals are being used: no chemical fertilizer, no chemical weed control, no chemical pest control.

I'm old enough to remember farming in the 1950s before chemical farming became widespread. Nothing I remember of that time was like what I saw on those plots. The 1950s fields I remember always had serious weed problems: wild mustard, canada thistle and wild oats. If there were a weed free field it was because it had been summerfallow the previous year or was alfalfa breaking. The best fields were where virgin soil had just been broken up. Such fields were rare by the time I was growing up, but the stories were still alive.

The fields I saw at Carman were practically weed free. And the growth was impressive. I was truly struck with what was possible. Since then I have been trying to integrate what I have experienced of agriculture in the last 45 years with what I saw on that field day this summer.

The availability of chemical fertilizers and weed control chemicals in the 1950s made a new way of farming possible for farmers. Plant nutrient concerns now could be dealt with by applying precise amounts of designated chemical fertilizer, and pest control now was possible by applying other carefully selected chemicals. The management and research issues became centred around how best to use these chemicals. A whole industry has grown up devoted to dealing with these questions and issues. The questions were many: which chemical to use, when is the best time, how much to use. There are safety issues and economic issues. I, together with many readers of this column, am familiar with that industry.

But even as the above developments have been moving ahead rapidly, there has been another approach to food production that has also been evolving. This other approach has been called many things: organic, chemical-free, natural, low-input, etc. depending largely on the particular passion of the person advocating it. Aspects of these alternatives to the chemical agriculture described above are not new to any of us, but so far most of us have considered this kind of “fringy” -- not something the world can [or should] take seriously. I am now convinced that we all need to give this alternative system, and recent developments in these systems, a second look.

We have not taken chemical-free food production methods seriously because we have not needed to. If it is possible and economical to control wild yellow mustard by spraying the crop, why look for alternatives?

But there have been people with vision who have looked for alternatives – who have applied modern science and communication technology in their search for improved food production without a dependency on chemicals. We all need a greater awareness of what they have been doing.

By Eric Rempel