Helping farmers put real health on our plates

“I think, therefore I farm organically” – and wholistically

WHAg Window – giving a view from our perspective…..

You don’t have to be an organic farmer to farm for health but organic farming and biodynamic farming are the only farming systems which are built on a concept of health – in principle and in practice. “Regenerative” isn’t, nor is agroecology, or “agricology”, nor “pasture fed, or “holistic grazing” and nor are the various versions of “nature-friendly farming”.

All of these approaches have things to commend them – some more than others – and the farmers following these methods should be given credit for breaking out of the conventional mould. These approaches are all concerned with some aspect/s of health on which they focus, which is why organic farmers are often – if not always – involved in them.

But they are not systemically built on an underpinning and overarching concept of health which determines how the whole farm is managed from soil, to plant and to livestock and then how the product of that farm is harvested, stored, processed, packaged and sold. All with the aim of securing and enhancing the process of positive health in all of those phases – and in the surrounding ecosystems.

The organic farming vision – ambitious, preposterous and real

This aim is so ambitious that it is almost guaranteed to fail, and in truth there are some poor examples of organic farms in all parts of the world. But there are far more good ones than there are poor ones.

Some might say that this ambitious aim became a preposterous one when organic ideas began to spread and sought to take root in a wide range of ecosystems and social conditions around the world. But organic farming is found thriving in far more countries, in all parts of the world, than not – and in most of them it has been grown from the grassroots by an alliance of farmers and citizen consumers.

Others have argued that this ambitious and preposterous aim became well-nigh impossible when the organic movement began to evolve into an organic sector and became involved in a regulated global market.

And in part they may be right because there are examples of dire regulation which shame the organic vision and concept but there are also good examples, in many parts of the world, where regulated organic production provides consumers with healthy food they can trust, gives farmers a consistent and reliable market and the confidence to seek to farm for health.

Whatever its problems, downsides and challenges no other farming system – conventional or alternative – provides systemic positive health in soils, in plants, in animals, in the food produced, and in the environment and ecosystems in which it is based in a consistent, wide-ranging way across the globe. It is no accident that whenever “sustainability” of farming, or the quality of food, or the value of farming methods for health of soil and livestock are assessed, it is organic farming which is always referenced.

Celebrating organic farming

So, whilst we at Whole Health Agriculture recognise the challenges facing the organic sector and are aware of the benefits of other farming systems and are conscious of the skills of many non-organic farmers, we strongly believe that we should celebrate organic farming during this “Organic September” – and every other month of the year.

Here’s why:

  • Organic farming is built on the concept that the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible. This is the truly wholistic concept of the process of positive health management which we believe is the basis of whole health agriculture. This concept is at the heart of the organic principles (health, ecology, care, fairness) from which day-to-day practices flow.

  • In practice, organic farms have for decades been delivering demonstrable benefits all around the world to the farmed environment, wildlife and biodiversity, livestock, food quality and health. Faced with the problems of climate change and finite resources, biodiversity loss and pesticide and diet related ill-health it is clear that organic farming can make a massive contribution to tackling these problems.

Although research evidence is hard to gather in complex living systems the evidence for the benefits of organic farming is now mounting to the point where it is hard for even the most critical commentator to dismiss it. One of the heartening things about this Organic September is the positive tone with which the media has generally responded.

Thinking about the farm as more than a collection of enterprises

Of course, there is still a good deal of misinformation around, from both pro and anti-organic commentators – and especially over questions of soil, food quality and health. We will pick up on some of these things in the future.

Over the years I have known many organic farmers and organic farms. I have watched closely and supported conventional farmers in their conversion to organic systems and in their journey of discovery about the intricacies of organic farming and whole farm health. Almost all of them have found this journey satisfying and would never return to farming conventionally.

One of them, the late Ed Goff – a conventional dairy farmer who started his conversion to organic farming in the mid-1980s – was adamant that he would never return to conventional farming. When asked why not, he paraphrased the philosopher Descartes in reply, “I think, therefore I farm organically”.

That is not to suggest that conventional farmers don’t think. What Ed meant, was that when you begin to see how the process of health is enhanced in whole farm systems, you begin to think through how to manage that farm as a whole and not as a collection of enterprises. You start to think wholistically (not that he would ever use the term) and organically.

Lawrence Woodward

Lawrence Woodward OBE

About the Author:  I’m the chairman of WHAg, founder and director of the Organic Research Centre (ORC), and regularly advise & speak about the principles and methods of organic agriculture. 

Farm homeopathy: an inconvenient truth

WHAg Window – giving a view from our perspective…..

The use of farm homeopathy is not a prerequisite of Whole Health Agriculture but many farmers who farm for health, use or have used homeopathy.

What Whole Health Agriculture shares with homeopathy is a belief in the critical importance of the body’s self-healing capacity, and the concept that health is a process of maintaining homeostasis (a stable internal environment) or balance.

The late Dr Peter Fisher (formerly Director of Research and Consultant Physician at the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine) described homeopathic treatment as aiming “to stimulate and direct the body’s self-healing capacity by triggering a reaction. The body reacts to stimuli, which have physiological effects (drugs or toxins) by attempting to maintain homeostasis (a stable internal environment). Homeopathy makes therapeutic use of this effect.”

Many farmers have used, and are successfully using homeopathy. Our own survey of the use of farm homeopathy and other alternative methods is revealing significant levels of success in reducing anti-microbial drugs across all types of farms and livestock types – from smallholders to large scale, commercial productions. We shall be reporting these findings over the coming months.

Yet for sceptics – and those who pretend to be objective but aren’t really – the real-life evidence of farming practice isn’t enough. They dismiss it as fantastical wishful thinking, or conspiracy or arrested development or belief in fairies.

But is there anything more fanciful than the notion that hard-headed, commercial farmers would make-believe or lie about the evidence of their own, eyes, and the weight of their wallets and say that farm homeopathy works if it doesn’t?

For these sceptics, so called “scientific evidence” is the be all and end all. Yet they avoid the questions: Which science? Whose science? Which methodology? Which observations are fit for purpose? And which assessments are designed for failure.

They also fail to own up to the fact that its not so long ago that ecology and biological interactions struggled to find appropriate methodologies, scientific analysis and statistical treatments. Ecological research eventually found methods that are fit for purpose and it is highly likely that this will eventually happen with wholistic approaches and disciplines.

In the mean time we have the evidence of farmer experience, and, less well known, is that there is a body research evidence which indicates that homeopathy works – in people and in animals, plants, other organisms and cells. Before his death in 2018, Peter Fisher reviewed this evidence.

It is not definitive but it is substantial enough not to be dismissed. And at a time when we are facing new disease challenges, it should not be dismissed.

We recently reported about the hypothesis that “old friends” micro-organisms play a critical role in the development and regulation of human immune systems. If living organisms – whether in soil, plants, animals or man – have the ability to self – regulate or organise a resilient immune response by adapting to challenges (internal or externally generated), it is not unreasonable to explore the possibility that there can be a mechanism that triggers or stimulates that response in a way which Peter Fisher describes.

But setting this speculation aside, it is clear from farmer experience that whole farm approaches to health – whether in crop or livestock systems – build the capacity to be resilient to challenges (pests, disease, virus, draught, extreme weather events) by finding a way back to balance (homeostasis).

The experience of farmer indicates that homeopathy is one way of assisting in that approach.

To use Al Gore’s headline phrase, this is “an inconvenient truth”. Or you can choose your own headline. How about a paraphrase of Lord Alfred Douglas poem, it is a “truth that dare not speak its name”, or rather that people dare not speak of.

On the other hand, you could choose the headline “homeopathy works” – OK?

Lawrence Woodward

Lawrence Woodward OBE

About the author:  I’m the chairman of WHAg, founder and director of the Organic Research Centre (ORC), and regularly advise & speak about the principles and methods of organic agriculture. 

The Ecology of Health

WHAg Window – giving a view from our perspective…..

Every month, sometimes every week there is a new report on “health” and the need for new initiatives. Most get it wrong and when they do get something right, it seems to be by accident.

A recent one from the “think-tank”, Demos, is no exception. It’s called “Turning the Tables” and has a sub-heading “Marking healthier choices easier for consumers”. It contains some valid recommendations about making unhealthy choices more difficult to access but its thinking “tanks” badly because it hasn’t got a clue what a positive healthy choice might be,

This is a common theme. “Unhealthy” equals fat, salt, sugar, red meat and processed meat; ergo, “healthy” is simply the opposite and anything we can do to reduce foods and diets containing these things is good – irrespective of context, overall food and diet composition, and certainly, of food integrity and quality.

All of which leads directly to recommendations that the food manufacturing industry should be given support to reformulate food processing to produce “innovative” processed food and preservatives, lab-grown meat and meat substitutes using patents and other intellectual property right based technologies such as genome editing and synthetic biology.

In fairness, there are some reasonable recommendations and the report also contains interesting information about consumer buying dynamics.

But there is nothing about positive health management, nothing about production systems, and nothing about environment, farming and food interactions, what might be called the ecology of health.

Microbiome health: an ecological approach

However, in happy contrast, another recent report highlights a whole body of research work, observation and thinking which does this and, for us at least, improves our understanding of how that new “buzzword” – the microbiome – can be viewed from a Whole Health Agriculture perspective.

Writing in “The Conversation”, Jake M Robinson, a landscape researcher at the University of Sheffield, explains that “biodiversity loss could be making us sick”. Here are some of the key points he makes:

– Most of us know that we are losing biodiversity at a massive rate. But we may not realise that microbial diversity is a large part of that biodiversity loss. “And these microbes – bacteria, viruses and fungi, among others – are essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems. Because humans are a part of these ecosystems, our health also suffers when they vanish, or when barriers reduce our exposure to them.”

– Many people now realise that our bodies “harbour distinct microbiomes – vast networks of microbes”. “The human gut alone harbours up to 100 trillion microbes, which outnumbers our own human cells. Our microbes provide services that are integral to our survival, such as processing food and providing chemicals that support brain function.”

– However, there is less recognition that “Contact with a diverse range of microbes in our environment is also essential for bolstering our immune system. Microbes found in environments closer to the ones we evolved in, such as woodlands and grasslands, are called “old friend” microbes by some microbiologists. That’s because they play a major role in “educating” our immune systems.

– Part of our immune system is fast-acting and non-specific, which means it attacks all substances in the absence of proper regulation. Old friend microbes from our environment help provide this regulatory role. They can also stimulate chemicals that help to control inflammation and prevent our bodies from attacking our own cells, or innocuous substances like pollen and dust.”

– Exposure to a diverse range of microbes allows our bodies to mount an effective defensive response against pathogens. Another part of our immune system produces tiny armies of “memory cells” that maintain a record of all the pathogens our bodies encounter. This enables a rapid and effective immune response to similar pathogens in the future.

– Just as microbes have important roles in ecosystems, by helping plants grow and recycling soil nutrients, they also provide our bodies with nutrients and health-sustaining chemicals that promote good physical and mental health. This strengthens our resilience when facing diseases and other stressful times in our lives.”

Lessons for farming and land use

Robinson’s primary focus is on increasing biodiversity in urban settings to restore microbial activity aimed at improving the health of residents. He sees restoring natural habitats, growing diverse native plants, and providing access to safe, green spaces as key strategies.

These are just as relevant to farms – and of course many organic and health focussed farms are doing these things. The WHAg hypothesis is that there is a direct connection between the quality of diversity on farms and the food produced and the health of all those – people and livestock – who eat that food.

The concept of diverse microbial communities and “old friends” in the ecosystem being linked to those in human and animal bodies seems to fit into this hypothesis. It might be one explanation as to why health in all aspects of long established, whole farm systems appears to increase over time. Investigating this will be a key part of our research work in the next few years.

For now, we can’t see that the reductionist, technological approach to health of “think-tanks”, celebrity foundations and (probably) high profile “food strategy” task forces, which ignore the ecology of health, have much to commend them.

Here are some links, additional to those in the text above, for those interested.

Whole farm and organic systems are being ignored in post Brexit farm support plans

Organic farming

WHAg Window – giving a view from our perspective…..

The Agriculture Bill currently moving through Parliament is supposed to lead to a new farm support scheme based on the idea of paying “public money for public goods”.

This approach will replace the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy where farmers’ income is supported by the taxpayer – in some cases up to 60% of farm income.

Health though isn’t included and neither, as thing stand, are whole farm and organic systems – at least not in England.

Scotland and Wales get it but not England

Possibly farming for health is too difficult an idea for policy makers and officials to grasp at the moment, but the fact that organic farms are excellent at delivering “non-market goods and services” such as biodiversity, soil protection, flood protection, habitats and landscape is well established, so why is this not being recognised?

It’s not even a novel idea. Organic farming has benefited from its own distinct arrangements in all the farm support schemes, in all parts of the UK, since the middle of the 1990s. The organic option under the most recent scheme (Countryside Stewardship) is generally recognised as a success.

All the indications are that Scotland and Wales will have organic payment schemes which will encompass a whole farm approach but in England, Defra seems, at the moment, to be perversely set against the idea.

The whole farm system approach optimises public goods delivery

WHAg is a member of the English Organic Forum (EOF) which has been trying to get the government to include an organic and whole farm component in the scheme. To date, the efforts have been made behind the scenes but such is our mounting concern that we “went public” with a press release on the back of a National Trust report on the success of its in-house managed organic farm on the Wimpole Estate.

Commenting on the commercial and environmental success there, EOF chair, Christopher Stopes said that the story of Wimpole highlighted that it is the “whole system approach which brings production, ecology and environment together in a way which optimises food production alongside the delivery of public goods.”

At the present Defra’s Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), the chosen vehicle for the new payment scheme, is built on three tiers with tier 1 focussing on production balanced by “public goods” delivered through a menu of individual techniques which farmers can take up as they choose. These have limited relationships to each other and do not form any coherent whole.

Bypassing whole farm health

As Stopes says, “The whole farm system approach is critical and we are deeply concerned that this is being overlooked by Defra.”

At WHAg we are keenly aware that it is not just organic farmers who follow a whole health approach to farming. Farmers who use conventional inputs do this too. The key thing is to manage the farm as a coherent, whole system. Experience over the years has shown that this is the best way of achieving health.

Unless Defra changes tack, what has been called a “once in a generation chance” to change how we farm is going to bypass supporting whole farm health – at least in England.

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