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UBC Farm

Organic education for the future

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UBC Farm

Nestled in the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus on 40 acres of prime land is a well-kept secret: the city’s last working organic farm. Since 2000, UBC Farm (landfood.ubc.ca/ubcfarm) has been a place to appreciate the connections between land, food, and people through both in-depth theory and hands-on experience.

Nestled in the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus on 40 acres of prime land is a well-kept secret: the city’s last working organic farm.

Since 2000, UBC Farm (landfood.ubc.ca/ubcfarm) has been a place to appreciate the connections between land, food, and people through both in-depth theory and hands-on experience. The project began when two students pitched the idea to protect the area against development. Interest hasn’t stopped growing. Ten thousand visitors came in 2005, a significant increase from only 200 in their first year.

Features include a demonstration garden, greenhouse, vineyard, compost area, pasture land, hiking trail, rare tree species area, Musqueam garden of First Nations plants, and a free-range chicken coop.

A big draw, the summer market sells 60 fruits and vegetable varieties from their eight-acre garden. “Every Saturday morning, a small group of us arrived at 8 o’clock to set up,” recalls biochemistry and food and nutrition student Leah Scafe, one of the farm’s 100 volunteers.

“At 9 am, the flood gates opened. Near the end of the market season in August, the morning rush was huge! People were coming at 8:30 with lawn chairs so they could be first in line. The things people will do to get farm-fresh organic veggies and eggs?

So What Does “Organic” Mean?

Basically, that the carrots you’re buying were grown under a farming philosophy whose top priority is maintaining the health and harmony of soil, plants, animals, and people.

No genetically engineered materials or products and no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, artificial growth hormones, irradiated foods, synthetic processing substances, or food additives are used.

Did you know that if you buy certified organic cereal, not only is the cereal organic, but the box or bag around it must be made from materials that don’t contain any synthetic fungicides, preservatives, or fumigants?

This is why UBC Farm is so valuable–to educate the public and dispel misinformation, a need that will only increase as the organic industry grows.

Take, for instance, the case of rotenone, a botanical pesticide singled out in Scientific American magazine during a discussion of environmental culprits of Parkinson’s disease. The June 2005 article claimed rotenone is often used in organic farming because it’s made from natural products.

Rotenone is produced by extraction from the roots, seeds, and leaves of certain tropical legumes. A review of research literature confirms this insecticide’s toxicity; however, rotenone breaks down when exposed to sunlight and has a short lifetime (a week or less) in the environment. In addition, its use by organic farmers is not common, nor treated lightly.

“Regular use for the same problem would most likely result in declassification,” says Kirsten Kale, executive director of the Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia (COABC), the province’s largest certifier. Under their standard, rotenone is a regulated substance and is not to be used as the primary source of pest control.

The Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network website lists only a handful of rotenone products sold in Canadian farm and garden supply shops.

The fisheries industry’s 50 years of rotenone use to eradicate exotic fish from their non-native habitats is a more likely culprit for widespread environmental contamination: a reported 94,739 kilograms were used in the United States and Canada between 1988 and 1997.

“In general, we are trying to promote minimal use of off-farm inputs,” says Kale.

Earth-Friendly People and Practices

Back on UBC Farm, they follow COABC guidelines carefully to retain the option of organic certification. Mark Bomford, project coordinator, explains, “Certification provides an assurance that food was grown in a particular way. Our customer relationships are so close we’re able to provide this assurance first-hand. We can answer questions, show them around the site, and they see for themselves the growing techniques we’re using.”

For instance, UBC Farm successfully handled a whitefly infestation by adjusting plant spacing, improving air circulation, and installing sticky traps. “We had a lacklustre garlic crop in 2004, but [in] we paid a lot more attention to soil management, and had our best garlic crop ever,” says Bomford.

Consumers have responded to this approach, both locally and globally. An estimated 26 million organic hectares are cultivated worldwide. The European/North American market is worth $20 billion US.

In Canada, the Organic Task Force has been hammering out the complications of creating a unified, organic standard for three years. At time of print, a third draft that may become the basis for organic regulations was waiting for a vote.

The impact on industry is hard to predict yet, says Kane of the COABC, which has been involved in the process. “Everyone making an organic claim will have to be certified. There will be enforcement by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.”

Five percent of Canadian farms are organic–about two percent of total cultivated commercial fruit and vegetable area. Most farms are smaller than conventional operations, yet the industry is on the move.

Environmental, Health Concerns

Two reasons behind this growth are increased environmental awareness and health concerns over pesticides. Of 193,000 Canadian farmers recently surveyed, 73 percent use pesticides, including Roundup. Some, but not all, practise alternative pest control (weeding, primarily) and pesticide reduction strategies.

Three quarters of conventional crops have pesticide residues, but only 23 percent of organic crops do, according to late 1990s US Department of Agriculture data.

A recent study by US federally funded researchers showed that when 23 children ate only organic foods, their body concentrations of organophosphate pesticides decreased substantially. Once back on conventional foods, pesticide metabolites in their urine rose again.

Study authors concluded that an organic diet provides a “dramatic and immediate protective effect” against organophosphate pesticide exposure from food, its exclusive source.

Many experts recommend avoidance of pesticides, including organophosphates. A comprehensive review by the Ontario College of Family Physicians (OCFP) confirmed links between pesticides and tumours of the brain, prostate, kidney and pancreas; non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; nervous and reproductive systems damage, the latter resulting in birth defects and fetal death. The OCFP’s final caution is to avoid exposure to all pesticides whenever and wherever possible.

The pesticide industry has responded by stating that pesticides are “safe” when used as directed and they are approved by federal agencies.

Even so, the UBC Farm continues its dedication to education and outreach. Overall, 2005 was a good year, although there was tomato blight and a continued wireworm problem to contend with. Researching anti-wireworm strategies is just one ongoing project.

“We are, first and foremost, an academic institution. If we embark upon a new project, it needs to somehow improve the learning opportunities for students,” says Bomford.

Despite ongoing funding challenges and a possible land status change in 2012, UBC Farm hosts 38 university programs, offers internships, and just started a children’s summer day camp and a kitchen garden project with residents groups from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

If the adage, “We reap what we sow” is true, then these students, volunteers, and the people they interact with at the UBC Farm are hope for the future of organics and environmental sustainability.

Roundup Runaround

Is something skewed when rotenone, a botanical pesticide of restricted use in organic farming, receives more attention than herbicides containing glyphosate, the world’s most common agrochemical?

Glyphosate, better known as one of its brand names, Roundup, is not only applied to genetically modified glyphosate-resistant crops, but also to lawns and gardens.

Canada uses an estimated 40,000,000 litres annually.

Studies show that glyphosate causes genetic damage in animals and human cells, increases risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, miscarriages, and attention deficit disorder, and reduces production of sex hormones.

The few environmental studies conducted indicate glyphosate is a common water contaminant, as well as toxic to birds, fish, insects, spiders, and frogs.

“Researchers at Carleton University (Canada) and Environment Canada who studied glyphosate drift describe its potential effects as ‘severe ecological changes,’ ” wrote scientist Carolyn Cox in the Journal of Pesticide Reform.

Now we’ve also got glyphosate-resistant weeds to worry about: since 1996, six glyphosate-resistant weeds have popped up in seven countries.

Many scientists have called for urgent regulatory review of glyphosate. Our Pest Management Regulatory Agency, which handles product safety, approval, and label requirements, has published its intention to do so sometime between April 2005 and June 2009.

Meanwhile, ClearOut 41 Plus, another glysophate product, was just approved in Canada. By time of print, after only eight weeks of sale, 2.1 million litres had already been distributed.

Rotenone versus glyphosate is a case of David against Goliath. One is a last resort intervention in small-scale farming, the other a mainstay of conventional agriculture whose sales represent a hefty chunk of the $30 billion US world pesticide market.

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