Why 100% organic is a false ideal

I enjoy growing things in my garden. By and large, I use organic no-dig growing techniques, but I’d never be able to claim organic status. The reason is that I’m too precious about my fruit trees. A couple of years ago one of my dwarfing apple trees developed a fungal infection of some description. I’ve use various home-made sprays to treat the trees for other things, but this one was different. When I looked up the organic solution, it was simple: cut the tree down and burn it. So I went to the garden center and bought some chemicals instead.

I was reminded of this incident this week by the news from Madagascar. The country is being plagued by locusts once again, the third year in a row that the insects have threatened harvests. The photos make a fairly compelling case for why the world is never going to be 100% organic. There’s simply no effective organic technique for a mass locust attack. You can deal with them in small numbers by luring them into water or deterring them with chilli sprays and what have you, but when they swarm like this, they sweep all before them. You need to spray something a little more toxic. Malagasy farmers use traditional organic techniques by default, not by choice. Many of them will pay for that with the loss of their livelihoods this year.

Organic standards in the West have been developed with an absolutist mindset, in opposition to mainstream farming. But there’s a healthy middle ground that’s much more realistic. The key thing is that our agriculture is not dependent on chemical inputs – not that it avoids them altogether.

We should consider chemical intervention a bit like medical intervention. If we’re facing a serious threat to crops or animals, they should be treated. If we can’t get by without them on a normal basis, like a certain pop star anesthetizing himself to sleep, then something has gone wrong.



  1. It is difficult to maintain 100% organic, especially in the face of something as overwhelming as a plague of locust.
    I went to a presentation by a botanist who has a popular gardening show on PBS.He’s Harvard educated and has years of gardening experience. He said he is Mostly Organic, but not a purest. There are times when you need tobring out the heavy artilliary and deal with a nasty problem.

    1. I’ve heard dairy farmers say the same thing. They are mostly organic, but they reserve the right to treat their cows with antibiotics when they get sick – something organic farmers aren’t always at liberty to do (depending on the certifier). Seems reasonable to me.

    1. Yes, which is why we need to drastically reduce our dependence on both artificial fertilisers and pesticides/herbicides. The good news is that we can do that without returning to pre-scientific farming practice.

  2. Thank you for this post. It is one of the most reasonable and intelligent thoughts I have ever read on the issue of organic food. Too many consumers sit at one extreme and too many large scale farmers at the other. Like most things in life the solution is in the middle. Well said!

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