Can Technology and Nature Cooperate?
Ted Quaday, Communications Director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, clarified the issue when I spoke to him. “We’re taking new knowledge, new information, and transferring that into real practical solutions in the farm field . . . is that new, innovative technology? I would argue that it is.”
According to the definition that I found on Merriam-Webster’s website, Ted’s right:
tech·nol·o·gy (noun, \tek-ˈnä-lə-jē\) – the practical application of knowledge, especially in a particular area.
Who said technology had to involve spinning blades and steel? Organic farmers use new research in their approaches to the field, and that qualifies their methods as technology.
The Trade-offs of Technology
Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers save time and labor in conventional farming practices. But the resulting efficiency comes at a cost. The production, transport, and use of these substances threatens water quality and leaves a sinister carbon footprint. They produce runoff that causes algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico, draining oxygen from the surrounding area and killing nearby fish.
Through more natural farming methods, organic farms avoid damaging the environment. These examples reveal how technology can help, even while adapting to natural processes:
Fertilization and Yield
To increase yields, conventional farmers use chemical fertilizers. But mechanical tools can be suitable alternatives. The roller crimper, a device dragged by a tractor through alfalfa and hay fields during harvest, breaks down the cell walls of plant stems to accelerate decomposition. This man-made tool increases soil fertility by speeding up the natural decomposition process – without artificial chemicals.
Another simple innovation that can increase yield quantity in organic farms is the hoop house, which is very much like a greenhouse – only easier, faster, and cheaper to build. Consisting of raised beds in a walled-off piece of land, it extends the growing season by protecting crops from bad weather and keeping them warm. More crops can then be produced for the local market, avoiding the need to import them from another location (which cuts down on potential carbon emissions). This research-oriented improvement helps farmers increase yields and benefit financially in a clean way.
Pest and Weed Control
Pesticides and herbicides are notorious in conventional farming, and apples are especially vulnerable. Conventional farmers use potent substances in apple orchards to get rid of codling moths, tent caterpillars and other destructive pests. Organic farmers can’t use these chemicals because of their side effects, but they’ve found alternatives. Surround, a type of biodegradable clay, can be sprayed on apples to confuse insects. Once affected, pests no longer recognize them as food. The clay washes off and dissolves in rain, so it has none of the harmful effects of the more conventional methods.
Thanks to a better understanding of insect mating habits and chemistry, farmers can also strategically destroy pest populations without even touching crops or soil. They can set up sticky traps coated with female pheromones, attracting male flies and maggots that typically harm the crops. They come in to mate, become trapped, and eventually die. Researching the chemistry and deploying these traps required new research and designs, so it’s clearly a form of technology. It’s just not the giant robot with chainsaw hands that we all tend to imagine.
A Delicate Balance
Pure technology or not, organic farmers can merge nature and human creation to improve efficiency and protect produce. Adhering to strict standards has forced organic farming into creative action. Nature and technology, two apparently polar opposites, have seldom shared such a symbiotic relationship.