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Storm in an organic teacup August 25, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming, Organic Food, rant, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Storm in an organic teacup

(This column was first published on 2010-08-18 at News24 here)

It’s a food fight! Last week Meagan Karstens published an article entitled 6 good reasons to go organic on Women24.com. Resident Channel24 shock jock Chris McEvoy responded by exposing the organic movement for what he thinks it is: a big, fat, money-making boondoggle.

Read together, the two pieces do more to muddy the waters than provide useful information. Karstens’ article represents standard magazine fare on the topic, regurgitating the accepted organic canon without much in the way of supporting evidence. What it contains in good intentions, it lacks in detail and research.

With his usual outrageous brilliance, McEvoy counters by wielding the polemic weapon of school-yard bullies and televangelists everywhere: if I shout my opinion louder than you, mine’s got to be true. For all its machismo and entertainment value, his contribution provides even less factual content than the original article.

Before you cancel your weekly organic veggie box in disgust, I thought I’d add my own two cents’ worth.

Organic food tastes better

She says “It does”. He says “No. It. Doesn’t.” Taste is a subjective measure of quality. There’s even a so-called “halo” effect: the average consumer will expect food to taste better just because it’s labelled “organic”.

There have been numerous taste tests pitting organic against non-organic food. Many have found no consistent difference, but among the well-designed investigations that did identify a significant distinction, the majority favour organic foods. More sophisticated organoleptic studies which evaluate the sensory properties of products involving colour, feel, odour and taste have consistently rated products such as organic apples, strawberries and tomatoes superior to their non-organic counterparts in terms of sweetness, intensity of flavour, texture and crispness.

It’s more nutritious

Here McEvoy dispenses with the pesky requirement of addressing the issue at hand altogether. Existing scientific data on the matter is, in fact, patchy. Two, influential literature reviews commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency found no evidence that organic and conventional foods differ significantly in nutrient content or health benefits.

There have, however, been a number of reports, including several long-term, EU-funded studies and a recent survey by the French national food agency, which argue that many organic products are richer in nutritionally desirable compounds, including vitamins, antioxidants, polyunsaturated fatty acids and beneficial minerals, and have lower levels of undesirable compounds such as nitrates and heavy metals. Comparatively few organic products contain residues of synthetic pesticides, common “ingredients” in non-organic food.

It promotes a healthy eco-system and is chemical-free

Its potential for environmental sustainability is the most compelling reason for supporting organic agriculture – a point that Karstens fails to make effectively. Industrial factory farming is destroying the planet and denying millions of animals, drugged with hormones and kept alive with antibiotics, the most basic levels of welfare.

McEvoy’s assessment of the chemicals used in organic food production betrays naïveté on his part. Yes, organic farmers use a small number of potentially harmful chemicals, but only in limited quantities and when ecological alternatives fail. To compare this with the billions of litres of fossil fuel-derived pesticides and fertilisers with which conventional farmers soak their fields, polluting waters and soils and poisoning millions of farm workers every year, is laughable.

Making a difference

As long as you avoid products grown far away or in heated greenhouses, organic farming is likely to have a lower carbon footprint, because of its capacity to sequester carbon in organic matter-rich soil and its reduced use of fossil fuels and their derivatives.

Setting an example

McEvoy may find this tedious, but I’d rather set an example than meekly munch the genetically-modified cornflakes dished up by the mainstream agri-industry.

Bonus: you won’t wake-up with a hangover

I’m with McEvoy on this one – impurities may add to your babalas, but it’s the alcohol that produces it in the first place.

In his final paragraph McEvoy dismisses any lingering thoughts that his piece was meant to be a joke by pointing a lazy and unconvincing hyperlink to someone else’s opinion. As far as his conspiracy theory involving oh-so-scary Woolies is concerned, I can do one better: think actual multinational agri-giants like Monsanto whose intention of taking control of the entire food chain from TerminatorTM seed to McTVMealTM are on public record.

The verdict

Go local, seasonal and organic wherever you can – it’s better for the planet and better for you.

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Book Review: The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen July 22, 2009

Posted by Andreas in Book Reviews, Environment, Gardening, Organic Food, Sustainable Living, Urban Agriculture.
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This is a very accessible book for anyone who wants to start to be more self-sufficient in their home. It’s inspirational and covers a lot of ground from growing and preserving your own food, cleaning your house, saving water and electricity and more, all in an environmentally sustainable way, without going into too much detail, which makes it a good starting point for beginners like myself.

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The book is not particularly well edited – typos et al abound – but makes up for it by providing a lot of useful information and a very nice resource section at the end. The authors’ approach is largely DIY with an emphasis on keeping things cheap and simple. A great little book.

Recycled seedling containers June 2, 2009

Posted by Andreas in Environment, Gardening, Organic Food, South Africa, Sustainable Living, Urban Agriculture.
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If you’re throwing away loads of plastic containers and bottles like these…

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… you should probably have a serious look at your consumption habits – *gulp* – and definitely recycle as many of them as you can. Alternatively, why not turn some of them into little planting pots to raise veggie and herb seeds in?

First, clean them out with water and cut off the bottles:

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Then punch holes into the bottoms for drainage:

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Now just add soil, seeds and water:

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Cat-proofing veggie beds May 21, 2009

Posted by Andreas in Gardening, Life, Organic Food, South Africa, Sustainable Living, Urban Agriculture.
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I built a couple of raised beds for growing veggies in a small corner behind our house some time ago. The main problem with them has been that our cat, Perry, has been using them as her toilet. Not good for growing food and really smelly, too! She has her own “facilities” right next to the beds, but I guess she finds them less convenient, so I set about trying to cat-proof the beds.

I cleaned up the beds and installed shade netting to keep Perry out of them. Here's the culprit inspecting my handiwork

I cleaned up the beds and installed shade netting to keep Perry out of them. Here's the culprit inspecting my handiwork

Veggie garden in cat exclusion mode! Of course in summer the shade netting will also help to keep out the scalding sun.

Veggie garden in cat exclusion mode! Of course in summer the shade netting will also help to keep out the scalding sun.

My efforts seem to have been reasonably successful, although keeping the cat out of the beds completely is never going to happen. I did sow some stuff in the beds and we’ve already harvested some beans.

Success!

Success!

Some suburban farming principles May 7, 2009

Posted by Andreas in Cape Town, Gardening, Life, Organic Food, South Africa, Sustainable Living, Urban Agriculture.
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Nothing complicated here, just a couple of principles I’d like to follow as I start getting into this urban agriculture thing in our garden. It’s all a bit daunting at the moment as we head into winter and the whole garden goes into hibernation. Here goes:

DIY – I’d like to do as much of my gardening myself and don’t want “experts” to do the job for me. I’m very open to advice, suggestions and help, of course 😉

Organic – no synthetic fertilisers or chemicals in this garden! I’m hoping to broadly follow the principles of permaculture in my approach.

Sustainable – In our climate that means being particularly mindful of water requirements, but also of other inputs such as compost. I also want our garden to be fairly low-maintenance… I’ve got a job, you know.

Cheap – I’d like to use as many cheap and free resources as possible and am hoping that Freecycle and the Cape Town Talent Exchange (a local alternative currency system) will help achieve that goal.

Beautiful and functional – I’d like our garden to be a place that the whole family enjoys spending time in, while at the same time offering habitats for wildlife (I’m talking mostly birds, reptiles and insects here, not antelope and such…) and providing us with a steady supply of healthy, organic and fresh fruit and vegetables.

That’s about it for the moment. Will add more if I can think of any…

Harvest of Hope March 16, 2009

Posted by Andreas in Cape Town, Gardening, Organic Food, South Africa, Sustainable Living, Urban Agriculture.
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At the end of last year I got a chance to visit a new organic box scheme called Harvest of Hope here in Cape Town. The organisation which was started by Abalimi Bezkhaya, one of my favourite local NGOs, delivers affordable weekly boxes of fresh, seasonal, organic vegetables to a number of schools in the Southern Suburbs.

A box of organic veggies ready for delivery

A box of organic veggies ready for delivery

What makes Harvest of Hope really different from other box schemes is that the produce is grown by local, poor city farmers in communal gardens. They and their families consume some of what they grow and they sell the rest of it to Harvest of Hope.

An urban organic farmer in action.

An urban organic farmer in action

The program is still relatively small – at the time of our visit they were shipping out just over a hundred boxes a week – but they’re planning to steadily increase production as time goes on.

The Harvest of Hope packing shed

The Harvest of Hope packing shed

You can find the other pics I took during our tour here. I found the visit truly inspirational. I’m now totally recommitted to growing more fruit and veggies in our own suburban garden.