Helicopters, Soil Life, and Healthy Food

On a warm August evening I returned home from making some deliveries to see a helicopter circling over my house alarmingly low to the ground. He headed across the river, almost brushing the treetops and dove lower out of sight in my neighbour’s corn field. There was no crash though, and soon he reappeared to repeat the same maneuver. My initial thought was that maybe the authorities were scouting for marijuana plants. They used to do that from the air – back in the days when pot was illegal. But the systematic flight pattern of this noisy bird made it clear that something was being applied to the corn crop, already 10 feet tall and out in tassel.

Next morning, I happened to be passing by this same property and spied the aircraft on the ground, with the pilot and 2 helpers preparing for flight. This seemed like a great chance to satisfy my curiosity so with my best pretense of disinterested observer I stopped and asked what they were putting on. “Headline” the pilot told me. He was happy to describe to me the entire application process. The boom under the machine which has the spray nozzles cannot be wider than the rotor on top – 21 feet. But the extreme wind from the rotor allows the pilot to fly at 60 foot intervals and get complete coverage of the crop. No need to eyeball the 60 feet or count rows since the whole pattern is mapped on GPS.

“Headline” is the brand name for a broad spectrum fungicide, I learned later with a few minutes of internet research. It is a truly impressive feat of chemical engineering, having the ability to bind tightly to the leaf surface of the plant, and then move through the leaf to protect against disease organisms even on the underside where no spray has landed. It becomes “rainfast” (not susceptible to washing off) within one hour. “By interfering with fungal cell respiration and the production of energy, Headline fungicide causes fungi to stop growing and die.” brags the manufacturers website. Pyraclostrobin, the active ingredient, kills more than 50 known organisms that can cause disease in plants.That’s what “broad spectrum” means.

What’s wrong with this picture? Should we all be rejoicing that the smart people who work in labs have given us such powerful tools? Corn yields have doubled in the last 40 years – that is a remarkable accomplishment!
But wait! Corn is not grown in test tubes lined up on the walls of the laboratories of multinational pharmaceutical giants. Corn is grown in fields, across the river from my house. Corn is grown on soil, and soil is a living community of interdependent creatures. Fungi are a main component of that community. They perform important functions of decomposing plant material, making nutrients available to plants and creating the crumbly structure that allows air and water to move through the soil sustaining plant life. Isn’t it just a little bit risky to douse the whole county in Headline?
This kind of reckless intervention into natural processes is all too common in modern agriculture. The goal of increased yield has become the only consideration, with little or no regard for the effects on the ecological systems on which all plant life and ultimately all human life depends. But there is an even more serious and immediate detriment to human health.

Is this stuff good for you?

You most likely have already thought about the dubious quality of food that is grown like this. The proponents of industrial agriculture, with its dependency on systematic use of chemical interventions, will quickly point out that the research shows it is all safe. No need to be concerned. But some of us, myself included, are more than a little suspicious of these conclusions. For one thing, the research is mostly paid for by the companies who sell the products to farmers. They find no link between agricultural chemicals and cancer or the epidemic of allergies, or the many other food related diseases that are driving health care costs to unmanageable levels. It’s a complex puzzle to solve and the links between a particular toxin we eat and overall human health or the incidence of disease are not easy to tease out. The people doing the research are paid by those who don’t want these connections to be discovered. But not being able to understand and “prove” the connections between soil health, plant health and human health doesn’t mean that there are no connections.

Some studies show that the nutrient density of food has declined steadily as yields have increased. For instance, an article in “Scientific American” states that “You would have to eat twice as much broccoli today to get the same nutrients as a generation ago.” and ““The level of every nutrient in almost every kind of food has fallen between 10 and 100 percent. An individual today would need to consume twice as much meat, three times as much fruit, and four to five times as many vegetables to obtain the same amount of minerals and trace elements available in those same foods in 1940.”see https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Cv4HY06EvIZajp9BMrWq2tQuBzOiG2yNOra7EaVgHjM/edit)

An Alarming Trend

As a young farmer, when I was first introduced to the principles of organic farming in the early 1980’s, I learned to farm without herbicides by using other cultural methods of weed control. These chemical weed killers needed to be avoided because they could indirectly affect the delicate balance of soil bacteria, fungi and insect life which we promoted through the use of compost, and other methods of feeding and protecting soil life. We understood that herbicides were designed to kill plants. Insecticides and fungicides work directly, by their design, to kill the life in the soil. They are much more harmful to the soil ecosystem. At that time the use of insecticides was confined to seed treatments – a relatively small amount – and the use of fungicide was very rare. Today almost all the wheat crop in Ontario is sprayed at least once with a fungicide to control diseases. The insecticide used on seed corn is a neonicotinoid, which enters the plant at germination and transmits into every cell of the plant to protect against insect damage for the entire growing season. Almost all of the corn and soybeans grown in North America are GMO (Genetically Modified for resistance to the herbicide glyphosate or “Roundup Ready”).  The point is that over 40 years, industrial farming has gone a long way in the wrong direction.

As organic farmers, we try to explain what we do on our own farms, and usually stay out of criticizing our neighbours who farm differently..  Why am I writing this in our newsletter? It is important that we face reality and be aware of how our world is changing. Methods of farming that harm the environment and make people sick continue because most people don’t know what’s going on, and naively think that it can’t be all that bad.  The helicopter was a wake up call for me. I thought I should let someone know. 

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