Avoiding synthetic chemicals
One of the biggest differences between conventional and organic farming systems is the former's reliance on synthetic chemicals - either pre- or post-harvest. There is no place in organic farming for synthetic chemical pesticides. Instead, organic farmers concentrate on improving soil health, planting disease-resistant varieties, inspecting their crops frequently, rotating crops, and encouraging natural predators with companion planting and by creating ponds, hedgerows and so on.
Occasionally, even organic farmers have such a severe pest problem that they turn to insecticidal sprays, but these must be approved by organic certifiers and are based on natural compounds, which biodegrade quickly.
Mainstream farming has, in contrast, come to depend on highly toxic synthetic pesticides. The result of all this spraying has not been a decrease in the loss of crops to insects; in fact the global loss has almost doubled in the last 50 years as insects, diseases and weeds have developed more and more resistance to these products.
These pesticides have in fact also contributed to the disappearance of many farmland birds as the bugs they feed on are wiped out or poison the birds that eat them. Wildflowers have also been devastated by mass spraying of land, as have the insects and butterflies that feed on them. Land and water pollution is another by-product of this.
Of major concern is the fact that many countries with the most fragile and threatened eco-structures are becoming the biggest users of these pesticides and they are also often the least careful in terms of safe usage and disposal of these chemicals.
Post-harvest chemicals are also popular with conventional growers since they extend food shelf life. For example, methyl bromide is applied to strawberries and to sterilize grain after harvesting. Other foods likely to have been sprayed in this way are bananas, citrus fruits, grapes, apples, pears and cherries - even potatoes can be sprayed with a toxic fungicide to inhibit sprouting.
Apart from their possible impact on human health, some of these chemicals are highly damaging to the environment. Methyl bromide is thought to be 60 times more damaging to the ozone layer than the more commonly known CFCs (see page 59), and 50-90 per cent of the substance enters the atmosphere when sprayed on crops.