Jackie Gear is executive director of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA), Britain's foremost research and support organisation for organic growers. She makes a practical and spiritual plea for organic production to take over from the current intensive growing methods.

I have been a Christian since I was a young child and at various stages of my life I have been drawn towards two different ways of trying to change things for the better. The impatient side of me always wants to take action, the other tells me to pray and hope for the best.

Even before I went to university I remember being horrified and depressed about the world's starving. I contemplated taking holy orders, believing that prayer alone could perhaps atone for what we were doing to our fellow humans and our planet. But, after studying zoology for three years, I wanted to use my newly acquired scientific skills to change things practically. However, I soon lost my faith in science in general, for wasn't it scientists who had given us atom bombs, napalm, the pesticide DDT, and a host of other destructive inventions? After several years, I decided, along with my young husband, to opt out of my chosen career and to go to work instead for a small charity with a strange name - HDRA. This organic gardening, farming and food organisation was named in honour of a Quaker smallholder of the last century, Henry Doubleday. Its founder was organic gardener and writer, Lawrence Hills, and part of its constitution is to 'observe the works of God in humbleness'.

I still go to church. I still pray for things to get better although I don't have much faith in politicians! But now at least I feel that I'm actively doing something, however little, towards helping people to grow and eat pure food - real food - food as perhaps God intended.

Organic cultivation

HDRA helps and advises gardeners and commercial vegetable growers in Britain on how to produce crops organically, in a very natural way - a way that looks after our planet; conserves wildlife and can be carried on for hundreds and hundreds of years, for it is truly sustainable. It is productive but it does not use potentially dangerous pesticides - chemicals that are routinely used in conventional food production that might be harming the people who eat them and the farmers who apply them to the soil and to the crops.

[Organic cultivation is particularly appropriate in developing countries, where peasant farmers very often cannot afford pesticides or, where they are used, there are numerous cases of pesticide poisoning. HDRA has worked with small scale farmers in Africa and India for several years, mainly in desert areas. Their most pressing need obviously is to get food to eat now but we are trying to help them to plan for the future too. At our headquarters we've got a huge collection of multi-purpose tropical tree seeds in our laboratory, like Prosopis and Acacia, that we give them according to the climate and conditions they're faced with, and once they've established the trees they start to grow food crops organically in the shade provided by them. A hundred million trees have been planted so far under this scheme. We believe that it is important for developing countries to grow food for their own consumption, so that they can be self sufficient in the long term, for this is surely their right.]

There is a ready market in Europe for commercially grown organic bananas, cocoa, coffee, tea and other tropical produce and it is beneficial to import these, not only because we want to eat them but because it provides Third World farmers with an income. However, there is a strong case for not transporting food all over the world unnecessarily, using up valuable fossil fuel and polluting the atmosphere. It makes sense environmentally to grow food as near as possible to where it is going to be eaten. There is something badly wrong with a system that relies on importing vegetables from Africa to Britain, like French beans, which could easily have been grown here in the first place. In the UK at present we are importing 60-80% of all organic food sold, whilst ironically, our farmers are having huge problems in making a living. There are more suicides among UK farmers than any other social group.

Organic self-sufficiency

All the issues that have led to the present disastrous farming situation in Britain - BSE, pesticide contamination, appalling animal welfare, GMOs, food mountains and set aside, could be solved if we farmed organically, for these situations are quite simply not allowed under organic standards. Rather than worrying unnecessarily about the efficiency of organic farming, we should be turning our attention to what will happen if we don't convert to organic production. Conventional agriculture is not sustainable. It is gradually polluting the planet to a point where it can't cope.

With government backing, Britain could be self-sufficient in food production, whilst importing only the tropical produce already mentioned. The whole world could feed itself if we went organic. This is not pie in the sky. Organic gardening and farming work. In countries like Austria they already have 10% of the farming land cultivated organically. Sales in the organic sector are growing at a rate of 40% a year. The Organic Movement also supports the concept of Fair Trade. In HDRA's organic shop at Ryton Organic Gardens (Coventry), for example, we sell Fairtrade organic coffee, which we know has been grown on small estates by peasant farmers and workers who are getting decent wages and working conditions.

I believe that we should tread as lightly as possible on the beautiful earth that we were given by God. We can help to feed the hungry, but in a way that preserves the precarious balance of nature, looks after the environment and enhances their health. We should all look after our own health, by eating unadulterated, uncontaminated food, for the body is the temple of the soul. If Christians all over the world started gardening organically at home and buying organic food, it would make an enormous difference.

Find out more about organic gardening, farming and food, the work of HDRA and the Third World Organic Support Group by contacting Jackie Gear at HDRA, Ryton Organic Gardens, Coventry CV8 3LG. Tel. 024 7630 3517.

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