Jack D july 2017 copy

Jack Derksen


Blue plastic tarp tents spread under giant trees of natural windrows, smoke from outdoor cooking fires, kids playing simple games in the mud beside a dirt road, women washing clothes and dishes with water drawn from blue plastic barrels, men rinsing off after a hard day hoeing weeds in 90 degree plus heat, mosquitoes everywhere—this is the hidden face of large scale organic farming.

Organic farming means growing crops without the use of conventional herbicides and insecticides. Weed control usually involves purely hand labour and insect control depends on a few natural insecticides that are now on the market. No chemical fertilizers may be used. During recent years organic farming has established a foothold in the lowlands of Eastern Bolivia. Several thousand hectares are devoted to organic soybeans that are shipped to Europe to be used as feed for organically raised poultry and cattle. Organic soybeans are an excellent niche’ market for Bolivian farmers who in turn provide seasonal employment for hundreds of unskilled laborers who keep the crop clean by hand.

I have nothing against the European who is prepared to pay more for the luxury of eating meat untainted by chemical residues. And I certainly have nothing against a farmer who provides an opportunity for unskilled labor to obtain sorely needed cash in a country where the unemployment and under employment rates are high. But the users of organic products should be aware of what large scale organic farming really involves. The romantic internet promoted myths that have been associated with small truck farming operations with their chemical free, manure and compost heap technology, are shattered when seen in large farming operations.

Organic agriculture requires soil untainted by synthetic chemicals. The farmer wanting to enter into an organic regime has two options: if he has utilized chemicals on the land previously, he can work the land for two years without the aid of conventional insecticides and herbicides or he can clear jungle and start out with “pure” land. Working the land for two years without the aid of conventional chemicals involves considerable loss of income since the farmer sells his crop in the non-organic market but suffers the reduction in production and the higher cost of manual weed control because he is unable to use conventional chemicals. “Purifying” the land involves two years of higher costs with only normal or more likely below normal returns. The least expensive solution is to clear jungle and start with organic crops right away. Therefore, as organic farming in the Santa Cruz area expands the pressure on clearing jungle will increase.

Organic farming currently requires that land be prepared using traditional methods namely working the land first with large disc harrows and then with finer disc harrows. Santa Cruz is an area with almost constant wind, intense sunlight and heavy seasonal rains. Exposed soil is subject to serious erosion over time. Today Santa Cruz has extensive areas where conventional tillage has been used for many years. The result is that the land has become infertile and can only be used as pasture. This is one of the main reasons that progressive farmers are protecting against erosion and fertility loss by employing no-till methods. But of course no-till farming requires the use of chemicals especially the use of the Roundup to control weeds.

Crop rotation, another key element in maintaining soil fertility and weed and insect control is also difficult for organic farmers. There is only one crop, soybeans, that currently has the market necessary to justify the higher cost involved in organic farming. Organic farmers have few crop options. Soybeans are planted in the summer for the European animal feed market and in the winter most of the land is devoted to sunflowers which grow quickly providing adequate cover which keeps weed control costs down. However, repeated summer and winter planting of broadleaf crops eventually leads to soil deterioration and increasing weed pressure.

Then of course there is the matter of fertilizer. It is fine to talk about manure and compost when the scale of production is limited to little more than your back yard. However, the problems involved in fertilizing thousands of hectares are daunting. To date I am not aware of anyone in this area using natural fertilizer for their organic crops and it seems that the day when it is used will be a long time in coming.

Of course the main reason that large scale organic crop production is concentrated in developing countries is the abundance of cheap unskilled labor. Eliminating weeds manually requires the recruitment of families that live in primitive tent camps, that have to work for a low daily wage in 90 degree plus heat, that frequently are at the mercy of labor contractors, that cook over outdoor fires with wood scrounged from windrows, and that receive minimal medical attention. Ironically all the water that I saw provided at the labor camp was stored in 200 liter drums that previously contained Roundup, the herbicide most organic farmers abhor. There is nothing wrong with Europeans wanting to consume organically grown products, but when they purchase their organic meat they should keep in mind how their “clean” product is produced. At the same time that they purchase their organic meat they might as well buy a Persian rug supposedly woven by young girls shackled to their looms.

Jack Derksen

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