Organic has only a tiny niche in Australia, and I see little prospect of
this changing. From my own experience there is sometimes less muck and magic
than there is bull**** and backbiting in our organic movement, with the
fervent purists obsessed with the idea of denying producers the right to
produce both conventional and organic products. Which stands in the way,
say, of having major exporters of wine have both organic and conventional
products. Obviously the prospect of them dropping their conventional lines
Since Chernobyl, the marketers of Australian farm produce abroad have given
emphasised that our (conventional) agricultural products are 'clean and
green'. Relative to poisoned soil circumstances in Europe and north America,
this is probably fair enough. But the meaning of it all seems to shift
through the minds of the users into a different kind of argument, and it
links up with the semantically wonderful propositions you hear along the
track, like "all farmers are greenies, and bulldozer drivers are the biggest
greenies of them all" which alter or rob meaning entirely.
When Australian beef turns up in another country with some poison in it,
there is a sucking of breath and a "gosh, what will this do to our clean,
green image", same when strange viruses from horses start killing people.
There is important progress along the lines Bart bluestem hails, not least
as fewer fools are available to stand at the end of a cotton row to tell the
aeroplane where to dump the next load of DDT, and the beef farmers next door
to the cotton farmers get militant when their carcasses and pastures are
condemned. We have so little water that the Murray Darling system, half the
size of the Mississippi system, and also flowing out of this continent at
the bottom middle, actually was closed for months by a sand bar a year or so
ago. Water limits, of course creates great tensions between the advocates
for wetland marshes and the (sometimes poor marginal) irrigation farmers.
And our soils are ancient and extremely thin (you get excited when you can
measure centimeters rather than millimetres), so there is a great awareness
on the part of most farmers of the importance of reducing tillage. However,
as you will appreciate, the chemical companies are also evangelists in
To the point: The net semantic-political circumstance we have is that most
farmers have travelled a long way towards 'sustainability' in their minds in
recent years and they consider that they are very green already. I think
Bart is absolutely right in praising signs of incremental wisdom, seeking
incentive for further shift towards more sustainable practices.
Anthony Giddens, Director of the London School of Economics, in the BBC's
1999 Reith Lectures, just concluded, and a very interesting read [or better
still, listen to the audio, an hour at a time], on 'Runaway World'
says, in Lecture 2, on 'Risk' that:
"Yet the precautionary principle isn't always helpful or even applicable as
a means of coping with problems of risk and responsibility. The precept of
'staying close to nature', or of limiting innovation rather than embracing
it, can't always apply. The reason is that the balance of benefits and
dangers from scientific and technological advance, and other forms of social
change too, is imponderable. We may need quite often to be bold rather than
cautious in supporting scientific innovation or other forms of change. After
all, one root of the term risk in the original Portuguese means 'to dare'.
Take as an example the controversy over genetically modified foods.
Genetically modified crops are already growing on 35 million hectares of
land across the world - an area 12 times the size of Britain. Most are being
grown in North America and China. Crops include soya, maize, cotton and
"No more obvious situation could be found where nature is no longer nature.
The risks involve a number of unknowns - or, if I can put it this way, known
unknowns, because the world has a pronounced tendency to surprise us. There
may be other consequences that no one has yet anticipated. One type of risk,
is that the crops may carry medium or long-term healthy hazards. After all,
a good deal of gene technology, is essentially new, different from older
methods of cross-breeding.
"Another possibility is that genes incorporated into crops, to increase
resistance to pests might spread to other plants - creating 'super weeds'.
This in turn could pose a threat to biodiversity in the environment.
"Since pressure to grow, and consume, genetically modified crops is partly
driven by sheer commercial interests, wouldn't it be sensible to impose a
global ban on them? But even supposing such a ban were feasible, things - as
ever - are not so simple. The intensive agriculture widely practised today
is not indefinitely sustainable. It uses large amounts of chemical
fertilisers and insecticides, destructive to the environment. We can't go
back to more traditional modes of farming and still hope to feed the world's
"Bioengineered crops could reduce the use of chemical pollutants, and hence
resolve these problems.
"Whichever way you look at it, we are caught up in risk management. With the
spread of manufactured risk, governments can't pretend such management isn't
their business. And they need to collaborate, since very few new-style
risks, have anything to do with the borders of nations.
"But neither, as ordinary individuals, can we ignore these new risks - or
wait for definitive science evidence to arrive. As consumers, each of us has
to decide, whether to try to avoid genetically modified products or not.
These risks, and the dilemmas surrounding them, have entered deeply into our
everyday lives." ...end quote...
This, to my mind, provides a good political context to the argument. The
organic movement, in a broader context of a sustainability movement, has to
make a case as to why it presents a least risk, or best gamble approach.
Giddens states as 'fact' that "We can't go back to more traditional modes of
farming and still hope to feed the world's population." Is this a fact? Is
there a solid counter argument? You will see that an interesting new aspect
of this year's Reith Lectures is not only that they were delivered in
Europe, Asia and America, but that internet debate is a part of it, and you
can e-mail Giddens.
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