Marthélize Tredoux: Is the concept of “organic farming” being abused?

I’m not much of a pedant. It’s too exhausting to be pedantic about everything. However, I am painfully pedantic about the misappropriation of words with specific meanings. And yes, I mean misappropriation: swindle, thieved, pilfered. Taking a word with a specific meaning out of context is embezzling with words. This gets on my last nerve in a big way when done with terms bandied about daily in the public domain.

Let’s take an example, shall we? “Organic”. A perfectly familiar term. Our wallets get emptied of extra ZARs spent to buy organic. Organic as an idea exists behind a bastion of moral superiority – if it is natural, then it is good and we must better ourselves by purchase strawberries only grown by blind monks who water the plants with their tears and feed it with their positive energy. Anything else is evil, corporate and killing the planet. Right?

Wrong. At the risk of the Organic BrigadeTM, tying me to the non-GMO stake here, there are a few thing I must point out. Most notably, I want to say that I have nothing against “organic” when used in proper meaning and context. As a species, we really are doing a number on the planet. We use too much pesticides, herbicides, fungicides etc. We need to rethink our methods if we still want an inhabitable planet in a century or two.

My beef is with how the word “organic” has been abused for money-making machine. Let’s be clear: not everything that is organic is good. Arsenic is organic – would you like a spoonful? Lard is organic, but you really shouldn’t eat a 2-litre tub of it (unless you’re Banting, maybe). Think I’m out of context? Ok. Have you recently heard about the concern around the fate of honey bees? Nutshell: if bees die out, the fruit industry is done for. Traditional insecticides are blamed (not entirely inaccurately). Now there are two organic pesticides called Rotenone and Azadirachtin being peddled as bee-saving replacements to synthesised pesticides. Pity they’re actually more dangerous to bees than traditional chemicals. But they’re organic, so we’ll just ignore that inconvenient detail.

Timeout. The point of this article is not to rant – though I’m happy to do that over a glass of wine if you’d like to get in touch. The point is that I loathe what Brand Organic has become. I am infuriated that people keep referencing it without knowing what it means. They give a bad name to the people out there who are doing it right.

Johan Reyneke.

Johan Reyneke.

People like Johan Reyneke from Reyneke Wines in Stellenbosch. The farm is both organic and biodynamic (more on that particular practice another day). After my recent post on GMOs, Johan invited me to visit the farm so he can show me what they do and I was blown away. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting – lentils and sandals perhaps? On the drive over, I was hoping I would see real thing, not a front for the Organic BrigadeTM. I was not disappointed. I can’t really do the experience justice here. I’d suggest visiting Johan yourself and having him walk you around the farm while telling you about it. It’s an experience. And you meet some lovely cows (they all have names).

In short, their approach is ground up – quite literally. From the use of companion plants to outcompete weeds and letting Dandelions grow so the mealybugs (transmitters of leafroll virus) have a preferable host to live on keeping them off the vines – they’re an entirely organic operation. Crucially though, every step in the process is backed by science. Johan doesn’t simply accept the organic methods at face value, but makes the effort to understand how it works and why. I suspect this is his secret to success. Unlike the Organic BrigadeTM, he doesn’t scorn science but uses it as a tool to successfully move away from traditional practices.

I cannot capture the essence of our conversation here – not accurately, anyway – but we had a frank and open discussion around the benefits and drawbacks of both organic and traditional practices. It was refreshing, enlightening and I wish I could replay it for everyone in industry. The single most important message I took away that day was that the extremists are never right. GMO and organic are not two sides of the same coin. They’re barely the same currency. There’s a place for both, but the nutters on the far sides of the issue make it difficult – nay, impossible – for the sensible moderates in the middle to make it all work.

  • Marthélize Tredoux is the co-owner and editor at Incogvino. By day, she helps SA wineries sell their wine in the USA. She won a wine writing award once.

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One Comment

  1. Helene BrandJuly 17, 2015 at 4:13 pmReply

    Sometimes a good rant does one’s soul tremendous good.
    However, thereafter, we are still left with the bitter taste of a job still to be done, a To Do item left outstanding, in this case the concern I share with you: the use of terms such as “natural”, “organic” and “pure” on everyday products, where little or no guidelines are in place to protect the (dare I say it) uninformed/ unconscious/ disengaged consumer.
    It’s refreshing to see there are great farmers out there who will continue to do the right thing, no matter what it’s labelled as.

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