Chardon Report IV - The Wheel of Health

Report IV, May 2002 
 

Summary

[PDF version of the full report (125KB)]

INTRODUCTION

‘The Wheel of Health’ refers to the circular interconnection between soil, the organisms living in the soil, plants, animals and human beings — and the ultimate dependence of all health on the quality of the soil. In these respects, the results of chemical and GM agriculture are contrasted in this report with those of ecological agriculture. The evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of ecological farming.

1. FARMING METHODS: YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW

1.1 Ecological Farming Methods

1.1.1 Evidence on ecological farming from the 1930s

The title of this report is taken from a book of that name1 first published in 1938 by Dr G.T. Wrench. He describes the work of Sir Robert McCarrison, working in India, who noted the extraordinarily good health and longevity of the people of Hunza. Sir Robert came to ascribe this excellence of health, and of the plants and animals raised by these people, to their ecological methods of cultivation.

Another pioneer, also working in India, was Sir Albert Howard, who followed ancient Chinese principles of manuring. Sir Albert’ method was applied to a farm in England. This resulted in ‘marked improvement in yield and quality of the vegetables …. The most striking feature was the general healthiness of the crops and the absence of insect and fungous pests. No chemical sprays have to be called into use. The plants themselves need no such doctoring.’

Sir Albert Howard said of the seven years he had worked in India, ‘I cannot recall a single case of insect or fungous attack.’ The animals feeding on these crops also prospered. ‘I was able to study the reaction of well-fed animals to epidemic diseases, such as rinderpest, foot-and-mouth disease, septicaemia, and so forth, which frequently devastated the countryside. None of my animals was segregated; none was inoculated; they frequently came in contact with diseased stock. No case of infectious disease occurred.’

1.1.2 Evidence on ecological farming from modern times

A two-year controlled experiment involving thousands of farmers in China showed the advantage of diverse agriculture over monoculture. Other examples of the superiority of ecological methods for increasing crop yields, which are sometimes doubled or trebled, are cited from many countries. The yields can fully match and even surpass those of intensive agrochemical agriculture.

Monocultural planting, which is used for GM crops, reduces total yield (i.e., yield of all plants growing in an area). Productivity, measured in terms of biomass produced, increases with increasing diversity; and ‘high diversity plots are fairly immune to the invasion and growth of weedy species’.

1.2 Farming of GM Crops

1.2.1 Evidence on yields of GM crops

A report reviewing the results of over 8,200 university-based soya bean varietal trials in 1998 reached the conclusion that Roundup Ready soya beans yield 5-10 percent less than conventional ones.

Several other examples are given of failures with soya beans, oilseed rape and cotton, which are the most widely grown GM crops.

1.2.2 Evidence on chemical use with GM crops

‘RR soybeans clearly require more herbicides than conventional soybeans, despite claims to the contrary. …Monsanto has manipulated comparative data on RR and conventional soybean herbicide use in ways that fall between misleading and dishonest.’ A report reviewing the results of over 8,200 university-based varietal soya-bean trials concluded that: ‘Farmers growing RR soybeans used 2 to 5 times more herbicide measured in pounds applied per acre’, compared to systems used on most other soybean fields in 1998. An additional herbicide is having to be added to Monsanto’s Round-Up to counter growing resistance of pests.

1.2.3 Further evidence on GM and conventional crops from around the world

GM crops are designed for chemical monoculture. However, total output and nutrition per acre are higher where biodiverse farming is practised, although, of course, the yield of a individual crop is not as great as with monoculture. Biodiversity provides not only vegetables and fodder but also medicines; and it protects the soil from erosion by wind and water. In India, areas like Punjab that used to be prosperous in agriculture are experiencing terrible consequences of chemical farming.

2. EXAMINING THE WHEEL OF HEALTH

2.1 The Circular Dependence

The food chain is, or should be, a closed circle. The soil is the fundamental basis that nourishes soil organisms, which encourage healthy plant growth, which, in turn, produces healthy animals and ultimately healthy human beings. All the material taken from the soil by plants, animals and human beings ought to be returned to the soil to replenish it; otherwise, the soil is mined and gradually declines in both quality and quantity, dragging down with it the health of the entire chain.

2.2 Soil

US researchers concluded that all topsoil in non-organic managed farms would be lost in 50-100 years unless topsoil management practices were improved.

Addition of organic matter to soil does not of itself improve soil structure. Improved soil structure is a consequence of processing of the organic matter by soil organisms.

2.3 Soil organisms

2.3.1 Functions of soil organisms

Plants are unable to utilise directly the mineral and organic matter in the soil. Lacking enzymes, they are reliant on the larger fauna in the soil to begin the process of breaking down organic matter, and on micro-organisms to continue the breakdown and ultimately to deliver nutrients to the roots of plants. These processes are briefly described.

Soil micro-organisms also contribute to plant health by suppressing mechanisms that lead to disease, for example, by providing a physical barrier against pathogens, by out-competing soil pathogens and by attacking harmful fungi. Yet these beneficial micro-organisms can be inhibited by the use of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. Earthworms, which are important contributors to soil functioning, may be dying as a result of the effects of GM Bt maize.

2.3.2 Effects of GM crops on the functioning of soil organisms

In addition to the effect on earthworms noted above, ‘Pest resistant GM (Bt) crops are exuding pesticides at unpredicted levels (examples from the US); producing 10-20 times the amount of toxins of conventional pesticides and leaching toxins into the soil, with negative effects on insect larvae.’

Scientists have warned that GM genes leaking out of crops into soil micro-organisms (a process that has been experimentally demonstrated) and transferred directly (‘horizontally’) into different species of micro-organisms (also demonstrated) may result in altered behaviour leading to reduced soil fertility. In the worst case, the suggested mechanism might cause irreparable, cumulative damage to soil fertility and the GM genes might spread uncontrollably over vast areas.

2.4 Plants

Excessive nitrogen fertilisation is linked with increased plant susceptibility to pests (including aphids) and disease. Plants manured organically are less or not at all affected by aphids. ‘Crop losses [on conventional farms] due to insects have increased by around 20 per cent since 1945 despite a 3,300 per cent increase in the amount of pesticides used.’

‘Unexpected changes that could affect the nutritional quality or allergic potential of the resulting crops have been identified in genetically modified (GM) rice and soya. …[I]n the US some side effects have been identified in GM crops only once they were being commercially grown.’

2.5 Animals

‘Animal studies show better growth and reproduction in animals fed organically grown feed compared with those fed non-organically grown feed. …’

‘[A]nimals distinguish between the foods on offer from the various agricultural systems and almost exclusively prefer organic produce.’

It is notable that not a single case of BSE has been found, even during the outbreak, amongst animals born and bred on organic farms.

Short-term feeding trials that reveal no harmful effects should not be taken as proof of no harm in the long term. ‘Research in animal feeding trials has indicated that health effects often only reveal themselves over long time spans, sometimes even over successive generations.’

2.6 Human beings

Sufficient data are not available for a meaningful comparison of the vitamin and mineral contents of conventional and organic produce, but the latter tend to score higher.

The British Society for Allergy, Environmental and Nutritional Medicine states: ‘We have long believed the micronutrient deficiencies common in our patients have their roots in the mineral-depletion of soils by intensive agriculture, and suspect that pesticide exposures are contributing to the alarming rise in allergies and other illnesses.’

A report published in 1940 tells of the improved health of students at a New Zealand boarding school that began serving almost exclusively organically grown produce.

3. CONCLUSIONS

In Britain and in many other countries where food produced by chemical agriculture is consumed, plants and animals, including human beings, enjoy a moderate standard of health. On the other hand, consumption of organically produced food has been shown to lead to superior levels of health, vitality and freedom from disease. Moreover, chemical methods of farming have adverse effects on soil, which is increasingly depleted and degraded. Genetically engineered plants are a further step along the road of chemical agriculture, with the added hazards of introducing unknown and uncontrollable complications.

1 G.T. Wrench, M.D., THE WHEEL OF HEALTH, reprinted in 1990 by Bernard Jensen International, Escondido, California. Other references are omitted in this summary but may be found in the full report. Many are derived from various publications of the Soil Association.