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GE is another way of being unsustainable
in the biological sense

The market wants an un-modified product

Interview with Ian Henderson
Amberly, Aotearoa / New Zealand

Ian Henderson farms "in North Canterbury, at in the northern extent of the Canterbury Plains, just as the foothills start. It's a farm that's been in the family since 1960. It's been farmed bio-dynamically now certified bio-dynamically, with the Demeter trademark, since 1983." Canterbury is on the east coast of New Zealand's South Island.

This interview is part of an extended series of articles and interviews gathered by In Motion Magazine in the context of the 2000-2001 hearings of New Zealand's Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. In Motion Magazine travelled around New Zealand with Missouri Rural Crisis Center and Natiional Family Farm Coalition president Bill Chrisitison visiting farmers and community leaders and listening to their views about genetically modified organisms. Currently there are no commercial GE crops in New Zealand. After hearing the recommendations of the commission the New Zealand government will make a decision on whether or not GE crops will be allowed in New Zealand. This interview was conducted February 19 , 2001 by Nic Paget-Clarke.

A viable way to use the land

In Motion Magazine: What do you farm?

Ian Henderson: The New Zealand classification is mixed cropping. That means livestock and arable crops. Sheep for both wool and meat, a dual purpose sheep breed. And beef solely for the meat. There's no dairy component. We have a very dry summer so you can't milk cows through the summer. There's a good spring flush and an autumn flush but the season is too short to milk dairy cows.

In the arable component that meshes into that quite tightly, we have predominantly grain and lentils. Wheat and barley, oats, ryecorn. Several varieties including spelt wheat. Also, all that production is taken through a processing plant that we've got and turned into flour flakes, kibbelled grain. Some is whole grain, but mostly it's processed. We then market from the farm through a range of different outlets.

In Motion Magazine: How large is the farm?

Ian Henderson: 320 hectares (editor: one hectare is approx. two and a half acres). That would have been quite a substantial holding in terms of family farms in the '60s. It gave a man and a worker a good income without having to be stocked to the hilt. But in the last ten years or so, it's become, purely as a stock unit, a stocked farm, marginal.

With the dry summers that I mention you can support something like four stock units. A stock unit in New Zealand is a sheep. Compared to the European stock unit, which is a cow. Four sheep stock units per acre. Year round. That's about ten to the hectare. That's about 3000 stock units for this farm and from three thousand stock units in New Zealand now you are struggling to live. The income from that size is just a bit tight. You certainly can't employ labor. You are down to one person managing that many animals. For a reasonable income you'd need around 4,000 stock units as a base size.

If you can't expand your size because there's no one willing to sell on the boundaries of your land or even elsewhere, then you need to increase the intensity of production. The per hectare income from grain is greater than from stock and if you take the profit from additional processing steps as well, then it becomes a viable way to use the land.

Genetic engineering

Ian Henderson moving cattle from one field to the next. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Ian Henderson moving cattle from one field to the next. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
In Motion Magazine: What do you think of genetic engineering?

Ian Henderson: There are lots of different aspects to the effect of genetic engineering on the farmer, in terms of agricultural production. I can't see value in genetic engineering and genetically modified produce.

I think there are a large number of threats in the new technology, threats that can seriously effect the environmental stability that we're striving for, especially on organic farms. Secondly, consumer perceptions will effect the marketability of produce. And thirdly, the style of produce that results from genetically modified production, may also be effecting long-term the health of the people eating the food. I think that last concern is an area where there are misgivings but little hard data yet.

It's something that I feel quite sure will come back to haunt us in the future. Much in the way some of the other things that we've had offered to us by the scientific fraternity as being the new magic bullet have proved to be major problems for us much further on down the track.

The big difference with the genetic engineering is that there's no way back out of it. If you do use a chemical there may be some remediation possible. You know where you've used it. You can isolate the area. You can maybe do something with that area to remediate the land. But, once you set genetically modified material loose into the environment, you can't get it back out again. There's no way out.

Bio-dynamic farming

The thing about bio-dynamic farming is that it looks at two levels. It looks at the physical world that you've got out there and it acknowledges that you need phosphate for your plants. But it also looks to the drivers, or the steering mechanisms, which it feels lie beyond the material. It's something, which is in the life of the growing aspect of the plants that contain the forming forces that make a dog into a dog and a rose into a rose, for instance. There's a whole world that you don't have visible in front of you. That you can also do something with. You can fertilize it. You can steer it. You can work with the moon planting calendar, for instance, which actually has an influence on the forms of plants that you produce.

We can't see the effects of this food. Maybe it will become apparent as time goes on and we'll start to draw conclusions about what's going on. But I think that real care is needed. I feel much more comfortable with the Precautionary Principle than with saying, "Well, the risk is only one or two percent of something going wrong".

A guaranteed un-modified product

In Motion Magazine: Are you concerned about economic impacts?

Ian Henderson: Personally you could almost see that it would be an advantage for the organic farmer to have the genetic product out there. Playing a devil's advocate argument, if the genetic product is available and people don't want it and they know and can be assured that the organic product is clean, then that will increase the sales of organic product.

The market for organic produce has strengthened considerably in the last six months and I think it's because, in part, in the background of the consumer's mind, there is this fear of GMO's out there and they know that the organic organizations are very strict about the inputs that come onto their farms. But the bigger picture, I think, is much more bleak. You know the experience in America and you know what's happened with the Starlink corn and the Japanese refusing soya. There are disruptions to trade right now as a result of GMO's not being adequately separated, or identifiable.

New Zealand is not a big player in the world food market. The New Zealand Dairy Board has said it's going to become a force to be reckoned within the world but they trade in something like 1 or 1.2 percent of the world's dairy produce. Nothing actually. I think that we don't need to stay out there competing at the commodity level with big producers like America and Europe, or Argentina.

Looking at it with an insular view, we can let those people modify their products, their plants and animals, and as a result produce more of those commodities, but to be able to compete price-wise with the same commodities is a non-sensical view. We'd be far better to try and maintain the integrity of our production and have a guaranteed product to offer to the market that's wanting more and more un-modified product.

We could have that possibility because we are an island. We're far enough away to reduce the risk of wind-born pollen and so on. We could maintain ourselves in a fairly good condition.

Economically, the surge towards modified products is going to spin back on countries, who are involved in it. New Zealand is in the position to be able to maintain a GE Free base. I would really like to see that. I know a lot of people in New Zealand would also like to see that. And that was the thrust of some submissions to the Royal Commission by farmers and consumers.

The road show

In Motion Magazine: How was it when you made your submission? What did you think of the process?

Ian Henderson: I didn't appear at the commission up there (Wellington). I appeared locally. They did a tour around the countryside and they had public meetings. We appeared down here in Christchurch at the public meeting and then wrote a submission. At the meeting in Christchurch, through the course of a day, there were a hundred people attending. It was done with small working groups. We sat round tables and tried to bash away at a particular corner of the whole question, whether it was ethical concerns or food quality concerns, or market concerns, or production concerns.

The individual groups tried to form some sort of consensus from their table to give a mini-report. This was then presented to the room. The commissioners heard what the consensus was from this or that table and if there was non-consensus, why. At the end of that, there was about an hour or so for individuals to stand up and make a statement to the commission. Nearly all the speakers spoke against GMOs.

The hearings in Wellington happened at the end of this tour around the countryside after they had already collected public opinion. The hearings there were for groups who had to register as interested parties and if they were accepted as an interested party then they were given the right to submit, the right to speak to their for the submission, the right to have expert witnesses, and the right to cross-examine. There was quite an interplay.

But the overall feeling I have is that there are misgivings about the commission now in the community. It's the government giving lip-service to consultation. That's the feeling that is out there. A lot of energy has gone into this. A lot of words have been said and at the end, the commission will probably say, "We think there are concerns in this field and also some concerns here, and we can recommend to the government that we need some caution, but we don't want to shut out the technology." In the end, the government is in no way bound to accept the recommendations of the commission.

It's a wait and see.

The appropriate public climate

In Motion Magazine: Can you talk a little about the organizing that took place here when Monsanto tried to set up some GE field trials?

Ian Henderson: What happened here is that Monsanto felt that New Zealand would be a good place. It's down the other end of the world. "We could easily get some GE wheat trials running down there and there wouldn't be too much difficulty."

I had the feeling that we were going to be used. It would have been a wedge, a foot in the door. There's been no arable trial work done. If it had gone through then Monsanto could have said, "There's a precedent now and there's no damage." That would have been one danger. Secondly, there's always the chance that there could have been an escape. That was there, though wheat is not in the same league as rape seed oil where the pollen flies for miles and bees carry it even further, and it can pollinate other plants.

The Monsanto trial was potentially physically dangerous, and it was also very dangerous in its potential effect on the environment for future trial work. We've got to do every thing to keep the tide back. It's like the hole in the dike, a wee bit. I would hate to see things start to roll in.

In Motion Magazine: Who was we? Who were you working with?

Ian Henderson: We in this case was the organic network, customers who had interest in organic production because they were eating organic food. Also, farmers were involved. We reached some growers through the bio-dynamic association.

In Motion Magazine: When did this occur?

The Demeter trademark on food processed on the Henderson farm. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
The Demeter trademark on food processed on the Henderson farm. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Ian Henderson: One full year ago. They withdrew the application in early January of the year 2000.

In Motion Magazine: What reason did they give?

Ian Henderson: The indication was that they didn't have concerns about the risk to the environment, or ERMA's ability to contain the trial and therefore protect the environment, but rather their concern was that the public climate was not appropriate.

In Motion Magazine: How big is a trial plot?

Ian Henderson: They can be up to a couple of acres. They are not big in terms of farm size. Maybe a hectare.

The seed trade / plant variety rights

In Motion Magazine: Can you please tell me about plant variety rights. What does that mean?

Ian Henderson: It means that if you, as a plant breeder, take some existing plant material with conventional breeding methods then select a new variety that has the required homogeneity, you have to be able to prove to the authorities that the new plant variety has three qualities. It has to be homogenous. It has to be distinct. It has to have its own characteristics.

Effectively, you patent that seed line, that germ material. With that you can then put restrictions on its distribution. For instance, there could be a royalty payment every time the seed is sold as seed. The act itself describes the process of how that can happen, how the restrictions can be put in place. It's a New Zealand act but it's part of an international treaty now. It is world-wide.

The seed trade is world wide now. Seeds are being traded all round the globe. People who develop a new variety in Germany or America, they don't want it to come down here and just be modified and sold everywhere without them getting their royalties. The problem is not so much that someone has made a new variety, or that someone is being paid for it, but rather that there are quite severe restrictions put on the way that seed can move around. To make sure those people get paid.

The difficulty of saving your own seed is now enormously much greater. If you want to save your own seed and reuse it on your farm, you have to go back and buy more seed and pay the royalty. They don't like the idea of you not doing that.

Local adaptation of seeds

Here, on my farm, I save all my own seed lines. I've been doing it for a long time. There's real value in that because this is a particular environment. It has a particular wind style and climate and cold and frost. There is a substantial degree of local adaptation for any population.

For instance, the barley that I grow is an old barley. It's become old because it was one that was current in 1979 and I still use it. Barley hangs down with the ear hanging almost vertically downwards when it's ripe. So, this little neck where the ear joins on to the stem is the point where it's quite weak and if you get a big wind coming along at the time of ripeness you'll find that the heads will break off and end up on the ground. Well, when you harvest your grain, the ones that you harvest are the ones that didn't break off of course. If you save that seed line for next year then you've already got some selection adaptation for those plants that had a better expression of wind firmness.

If you are no longer able to save your own seeds then you tend to lose that very ability, that diversity that comes from people using their own seeds in their own localities.

Because there's money to be made, the seed companies push their varieties into areas where they aren't so suited in the first instance. But they do it with a bit of muscle. For example, in a place that is fairly hilly, maybe Nepal, there are heaps and heaps of varieties of high altitude barley. In the bottom of the valley, you would plant certain varieties, but as you go higher and higher up you use different varieties, strains of the same variety. Of course they were adapted to that particular altitude. But, like an extension of the Green Revolution ideas, they brought in the new seeds. They said, they'd be more productive, "You just need a bit of fertilizer and new sprays and they would produce immensely more than the previous varieties did." They were pushed in there and the locals tended to eat up their old supplies. "We don't need that seed any more. We'll plant the new variety." Of course, with the new variety there was a royalty to be paid. And in many cases they didn't perform nearly as well as the old variety. But the old varieties were gone.You are hooked into this new variety that is constrained.

I think it has been quite a damaging development in the marketplace. New Zealand previously was not a signatory to the international convention and then they produced this plant variety rights legislation and put it out for submission. We tried to prevent it from being ratified in the form that it was because we could see all this happening. As soon as it was passed in New Zealand, it was ratified internationally and that was that.

In Motion Magazine: When was this?

Ian Henderson: In the '80s. It was the pre-cursor to the genetic developments in a way.

In Motion Magazine: It was the groundwork for bringing out GMO's?

Ian Henderson: That's right. It protects the new developments, of course, because they are all now registered.

It's a necessary precursor because had Monsanto and these other people produced these new varieties of seeds, been unable to protect them, they could have been picked up by anybody and the profits would not then have flowed back to the originating company.

Monsanto's clever way

One of my pictures of Monsanto's quite clever way of moving forward concerns how they handled the original chemical Glyphosate, or Roundup. Roundup was discovered by someone, not merely by them, and registered by them with the name Roundup. It has been completely contained inside their marketing fold for all those years. But the patent ran out on those chemicals and it was going to become available in a wider environment. Other people could also make this Glyphosate and market it. Maybe it wouldn't be called Roundup but Rounddown, I don't know, something else. They could see, in the future, that they would no longer have all the profits from the royalties on Roundup coming back to them. So what to do?

Well, one thing would be to increase the use of that material. And, if there is going to be more of the stuff available then they want to make sure that their plants can be used in that environment. If they could develop a plant that could handle the Roundup environment, they could get their money back from the plant royalties instead of from the chemical royalties - since the chemical royalties would no longer be available. It's really smart thinking. I guess they are obliged to keep their shareholders in mind. That's the way these things work. The Plant Varieties Act is absolutely essential to that step of producing Roundup-resistant seed.

In Motion Magazine: So they were thinking about these things a long time ago.

Ian Henderson: They must have been. The corporate world was thinking about their own security. You can't see these individual steps in isolation.

In Motion Magazine: You were dealing with the government in attempting to modify this act.

Ian Henderson: Yes.

In Motion Magazine: Did you see who was making the case against you?

Ian Henderson: No.

In Motion Magazine: How was this done? In a community meeting?

Ian Henderson: In those days, when the draft bill was made public from the government, we had meetings of organic practitioners and small groups round about and wrote submissions to the select committee. We've learned from what happened then in terms of our own organization and mobilizing people and now with the Internet possibilities people can do things in concert much more easily.

The current implications of that law, the GE ramifications, was not at that time in any way visible. We were concerned about being able to save our seeds and also passing seed lines to neighbors or other organic farmers. Which you cannot now do.


In Motion Magazine: What does it mean for your seeds.

Ian Henderson: It means that if I get new seeds, new plant variety-protected seeds, then I'm restricted in different ways. I tend to use old varieties. They haven't patented all the native vegetation in New Zealand, though they are trying and there's concern about that too. But the older varieties are not protected.

I do have some lentils that are a new variety that was developed by a Crown Research Institute in New Zealand. They passed it to a private company to market and gave the rights to that private company. The profits go back to them. I tried for a number of years to get some of this seed to grow to compare to my other lentil seed and eventually, after I'd signed a number of protocols and statements that every single lentil I produced would be milled for flour, they released some seed to me. The restrictions are quite severe.

The structure of the rural community has changed

Ducks on a pond on the Henderson farm on the Canterbury Plains. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Ducks on a pond on the Henderson farm on the Canterbury Plains. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
In Motion Magazine: To what extent are farms corporate in this area, as opposed to family farmers? And is that a problem?

Ian Henderson: The whole structure of the rural community has changed. Historically there have been no corporate farms at all. The government has been a land owner, quite a large landowner, but it's leased the land to individuals and they've operated as family farmers with quite large holdings. Especially in the high country.

Over the intervening years, of course, the number of farmers has declined and that's a worldwide trend. Farms have become bigger but the basic structure has remained, that of the family farm. In the recent past, there's been, in particular in the dairy industry, a certain amount of corporate land-holding going on with managers put in there working for the corporation. Not a family farm structure. That's partly because there's been a very rapid shift into dairy in areas of New Zealand from other farming forms. That needs a huge amount of capital and herd size has gotten to be staggering. It's nothing to milk a thousand cows.

They have a large herd conference for farmers once a year and I think you have to have six or eight hundred cows to be able to go.

The dairy companies themselves have become new owners of land. The companies who process the milk have their own farmers and managers and work force doing the farming. In the arable and sheep and beef sectors, it's still predominantly a family farm-owned structure. Albeit with the module increased in size, because the farms have all got larger.

In Motion Magazine: The industry of the day, dairy farming, is the one that's more corporate?

Ian Henderson: Yes.

In Motion Magazine: So that means that there's less family farms?

Ian Henderson: As the corporate dairy farms encroach on the agricultural scene, then family farms give way. Corporations buy more land. They might own at the start only two or three dairy farms in that area, but if they start servicing that area with their tankers, then they quickly will have one or two family farmers coming in, also supplying the company. But they themselves will most likely own land. That's a trend that is moving.

In Motion Magazine: What is share milking?

Ian Henderson: Share milking is a stepping-stone program. The young farmer works for a dairy farmer, maybe even for a family farmer, for an owner who can't supply all the labor. He gradually accumulates animals of his own. He may then be working on a farm, and in fact owning the animals so the share farming aspect is that one farmer owns the land, and another farmer may own some of the animals.

In Motion Magazine: That's different from what you're describing where managers are working on corporate land.

Ian Henderson: Yes. Often these share farmers have a lease on the land or an arrangement with the owner of several years. Then suddenly in the winter all the leases run out together and you see these guys driving hundreds of cows down the road taking them to their new farm. You can gradually change your percentage. Maybe you'll have more ownership and you might have a 75% agreement of all the proceeds. The actual landowner gets less if you are doing the utility maintenance or whatever. It's a different situation from family ownership or corporate ownership.

The end of subsidies in the '80s

In Motion Magazine: To what extent is "Get big or get out" present in New Zealand?

Ian Henderson: It's certainly here. The first major impact was the subsidy changes in 1988. At that stage there were a number of contributing factors. There were a number of people with quite high debt loadings because of poor seasons prior to that. To keep going they had taken on an extra debt. With the removal of subsidies, the sale prices collapsed in some sectors. It wasn't possible to sustain some units. From one day to the next there was an exodus of farmers.

In Motion Magazine: Why did the prices collapse?

Ian Henderson: Because part of the price to the farmer was the subsidy money. And it was taken off.

For example, the lambs in those days, maybe you were getting $20 dollars for a lamb. Of that $20, straight after the subsidies came off, it must have been $9 was government support, because we got $11 for the lamb. You're income was suddenly cut in half from one production year to the next. For farms that were perhaps under stress anyway because of the increased debt loans because of difficult seasons in the past seasons prior, or they were just too small, they didn't have enough lambs to sell in total, they had to get out. There was no choice. And so farms then became larger.

There were less farms, but there was no less farm farmed. Not much land came out of production all though some forestry was put in at that stage too. In general, neighbors swallowed neighbors.

Pressure on the family farm unit

In Motion Magazine: So there was the taking away of subsidies, the Plant Varieties Act, and now GE.

Ian Henderson: Together it's a lot of pressure on the family farm unit. And traditionally, farmers are salt of the earth. They tend to have a routine. They get out and feed their cows every day. They tend to be down to earth people. To have to react to all these changes that were flooding over them asks different abilities from those that farmers traditionally have. They haven't been people to react quickly to new market situations.

They tended to supply the freezing company (the food processor) with their lambs over the years. They've had some sort of loyalty bonus, perhaps. But before the subsidies came off, people were either this company's supplier, Alliance or Fortex Vortex, or whatever. You tended to stay with that supplier. You didn't shop around for the extra few cents that you might have got. You weren't market savvy. And not all farmers prior to the subsidies could make that transition anyway, I suspect. They would have felt uncomfortable in the new environment as well as being under pressure from the choices.

Contributing to the social fabric

I hear farmers saying with some pride we don't have a farmers' subsidy structure in New Zealand. And I don't totally agree with that stance because the farmer has more than an agricultural economic effect. He also has a social effect and if he is prepared to contribute to the social fabric in some way and that costs him, then that's an argument for some support of some kind.

Shorn sheep on the Henderson farm. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Shorn sheep on the Henderson farm. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
An example would be in Switzerland where the mountain farmers are hopelessly uneconomic. The production that they manage to get from these steep Alpine pastures is very costly and yet they are paid to produce that because there is a great effect on the health of the valley life. If the grass grows long on the Alpine pastures because it's not grazed and not cared for, when the first snow comes in the autumn, then grass is laying down and it acts like a slide for the snow masses. They get these avalanche problems in the valley which are much less if the land is cared for. That's a downstream effect. That's not an agricultural production effect. That is an argument for supporting them, though it's a small argument.

I think that the Germans tend to do it to because of the effect on their tourist trade of having the land cared for. The land is really nicely cared for, little patchworks in the south of Germany. It wouldn't happen if those fellows all had to farm at world prices. It would be a different style of farming there and the landscape would become less attractive and much more factory like.

There are various places where you could argue for a subsidy. I don't think that the "No we don't have them and no we don't need them" view is totally correct.

You could also argue from the organic side, if there is a long term effect from not using environmental toxins, which I think is clearly the case. If that is right then there would be some argument for supporting conversion to an organic style of farming. But the country said, "No, we don't support agriculture, we can't do that." I think it's really short-sighted.

Again, in that line, if you compare Austria from 1988 to 1995. At the end of the '80s, the Austrian government was giving, annually, two or three million Schillings to the agricultural sector for conversion to organic husbandry. In terms of New Zealand dollars, at 1 $NZdollar to 7 schillings, it was not very much money. The conversion rate was very slow. There wasn't much activity. But, in the early '90s it was stepped up to 200-300 million Schillings a year. Two hundred times as much. The conversion rate jumped up. The market support was there. There was organic food in all the supermarkets. There was a huge effect on the style of farming.

Farmers need helping through that phase. They need support with marketing work, technical support. What do you do if you can't spray your weeds? So the government doesn't give the farmer individually money but he supplies an infrastructure. That's a subsidy to the farming community. And, mind you, that is justified.

Negative political effects of GE production

In Motion Magazine: What do you think could be the long term political effects of GE?

Ian Henderson: Depends how the politicians react, doesn't it. If they keep on doggedly in a direction that is going to be a disaster for everyone then the political ramifications will be they all lose their seats. In a narrow view.

It's a truism I know, but the world has become much more a world rather than a bunch of individual countries. We can't exist in isolation the way we did in earlier days. We had this trade, but we still could do our own thing. I'm really hopeful that the political ramifications here will be along the lines that the politicians will take notice, finally wake up to what is happening outside our borders with the negative effects of GE production. There are enough of them around.

There are lots and lots of negative effects. You can't even claim that you get more yield across the board - you don't. And the market questions and health questions all start to arise. If the politicians have enough savvy to notice what is happening in the outside world, and make the right choices as a result, like keeping New Zealand as clean as possible, then the repercussions could be to the good. They would save their own bacons, and it would also do a lot of good for the wider environment, and New Zealand's economic survival. That's if they make that choice.

If they get swayed by the big business/scientific fraternity, and you have to reckon both with the force of big business, of the corporate world, and the ambition of scientists, then I think the political consequences will be dire. The economic consequences in any case.

We need to maintain our niche marketing abilities and not just thunder along in the commodity market in which we are far too small to have any real effect. If they do choose to run with GE and we get into this problem with marketing our produce with the rest of the world's commodities we'll lose all our niches. I imagine that will come home to roost with the politicians and the political ramifications will be severe.

Once you let yourself into it. it's a one way street. You can't get out again. That's my real fear. As I said before, even with the pesticide technology which has caused large problems for New Zealand, remediation is still possible or at least isolation of the effected areas perhaps. But it's a totally different question from the GE question isn't it?

Agricultural stability with increasing diversity

In Motion Magazine: Perhaps you could talk about diversity which seems to be at the heart of your type of farming, and the complete opposite to GE?

Ian Henderson: It's a really interesting topic. It has two levels to it that I think are important from where we are looking at it as the organic farm. One is that you get agricultural stability with increasing diversity. That goes up to some level at which point the sustainability declines because the farmer is overloaded.

Yes, the level of diversity is the opposite end from the monoculture state. If I plant all this farm in wheat it would do for one year, maybe for two years, and then I'd start to have real problems. But having a patchwork of different crops interspersed with different animals and grassland and trees means I cultivate a vast variety of different organisms. Soil organisms too, penicillins and mold and bacterias as well as worms and the bird world. There is a stability that arises because of that. You don't get one disease that can do the whole farm. In fact, you don't get a major disease cropping up even on that little patchwork. It's as if the diversity from the other acres helps to keep each other in check.

This is opposite, perhaps, to the pig situation in northern Germany where those piggeries are like hospitals they are so clean. You have to go in with hats on and whites and face masks when you visit these places because they are scared about you bringing in an outside organism. They give those pigs antibiotics in the feed just in case. Those pigs are totally unstable, in a health sense. Conventional pig farming is like a It's like you've got this pyramid balanced on its point and it's waiting to fall over, instead of sitting on its base. If something gets in there, then it goes through that piggery like wildfire and they all tip over.

Whereas, my pigs, they live outside and they probably eat as much soil as they eat anything else. They just love to root, and they love to wallow in the mud. They confront many outside organisms. It's unreal, if you eat a bit of dirt what are you getting out of that in terms of bacteria. That is never a problem. I have no sick animals. I just don't have them. I think that's the picture that you can carry.

But Steiner (an originator of biodynamic farming) talked about this too. He said that if you have a farm you can think of it as an organism in its own right. An organism has, like we as organisms, organs, and they all work together in such a fashion that you have this individual whole that is able to sustain itself. To repair itself. To produce, to reproduce. To do all the things that an organism can do. He said that one of the tasks of the biodynamic farmer is to find that level of diversity and that level of intermeshing that inter-connectedness, that allows the farm to become a farm organism, And if you can find it then you'll find that you've got this stability which is what I was saying at the start. The organic people see the stability that arises from the diversity. That is in part because you've dealt on the next level up with getting the organism to function.

Interconnectedness / diversity

Cattle on the Henderson farm. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Cattle on the Henderson farm. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
I can give a short example of how it works here. You have grain. You can't grow only grain because if you are always working the land you damage the soil structure. So, you need to have grassland in between the grain, to restore, a long period of effectively fallow. But with the roots going in there they restructure the soil, the worms help, and you repair structure damage.

You've got grassland there so you really want something to eat it. You've also got straw from the crops and the only thing that eats straw very well is cattle. Sheep can't do it too well, goats can't do it, deer can't do it. But cattle can do it really well and so I have these cattle here. Cows and calves and they eat the straw from the cereal crops but they also graze on the grassland which is in the rotation.

So you would imagine that you could get the right number of cattle to deal with all of your straw and grass and that's that. But if you have only cattle on the farm then you find that they have a particular parasite environment and you'll find that through their dung you'll have an escalating parasite problem, that creates up which you have to break somehow. And the best way to break it is to have another type of stock there that can cross-graze with the cattle. They take away the cattle parasites, and leave sheep ones there. The cattle graze the sheep ones away. So you've got this parasite compatibility. You reduce the challenge for any one stock type by having cross-grazing.

The fact that I've got grain means I need grass. The fact that I've got grass means I need cattle. Cattle help with the straw, but I can't only have cattle so I need sheep. The sheep also graze the grass, you see, to fix up the parasites from the cattle.

The fact that we process the grain means that we end up with seconds and broken grain small things from the seed cleaner, which we mill and that then goes to pigs because they can eat concentrates much better than ruminants can eat concentrates. The ruminants get very acid digestion systems if they get too much protein. So the pigs eat that. Then, in terms of marketing that, the pig meat and beef meat go together and we make continental small goods and market that as an end product.

That's one aspect of it. But if you look around the farm you'll find these linkages all over. There are linkages all through this farm and I think that is what contributes to the stability -- environmentally, agriculturally and in the end also economically because you haven't got your eggs all in one basket. You've got a large number of products to sell. We sell barley coffee from our barley. We sell flour, and we sell oat flakes. We sell salamis and wool. There's a whole palette of stuff that comes off as a result.

In Motion Magazine: And GE? Will that contribute to stability or instability?

Ian Henderson: GE is another way to have a pyramid on its point in the sense that people will be able to plant large areas of, say, soya in New Zealand because it's been modified to accept the herbicide. Normally, you wouldn't plant that much soya because you've got problems with either the pests or the weeds or the disease that is associated with large amounts of soy. If you modify the soy to handle your poisons so it still grows in the face of all that application then you do it and you do it as a monoculture. You do it and you spray it and that's a step away from the diverse farm organism. It's another way of doing it without having a diverse farm organism.

If you've got the GE plant available, you can grow much more simply in a monoculture. It is another way of being unsustainable in the biological sense.

Also see:

Published in In Motion Magazine May 19, 2001.

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