To Spray or Not to Spray

Part IV  Organic Good, Chemical Bad

by M.J. Harvey  January 2005


Gardening the Old Way

I was thrown into gardening at the age of three with the outbreak of World War II in 1939.  My father, just too old to be called up, dug and planted a 100 x 30 ft allotment in what used to be a school football (soccer) field.  The slogan was ‘Dig for Victory’ and millions of UK residents did just that.  The turf was first skimmed off and piled into low dividers surrounding each plot – these turf walls later produced crops of large mushrooms that we called horse mushrooms (Agaricus arvensis).  They were delicious.


I think my first job was dropping seed potatoes that we had previously chipped in half, each with an eye, and then callused, into the furrows that my father dug.  I still remember some of the names of the cultivars: ‘Arran Banner’, ‘Arran Pilot’, ‘King Edward’, and ‘Home Guard’. My dad was a Home Guard and a Fire Warden with a tin hat and whistle in addition to his day job.  They were hard times.  With the potatoes we had occasional stringy beef (old cow), rabbit, hare, horse and whale meat and, towards the end of the war, the execrable snoek.


The allotment society provided National Fertiliser which had a low analysis, something like 5:4:4, and lime which we needed to grow members of the cabbage family in the acid, sandy soil.  We started the seedlings in used kipper boxes (one remembers the smell fondly), and when planted out the roots had to be dipped in 4% calomel dust to keep the cabbage root fly and club root at bay.  We grew Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers (never Italian broccoli which was regarded as inferior) and huge drumhead cabbages called ‘Winningstadt’.  My father commented that to fight the Germans he had to grow ‘Winningstadt’.  I was too young to have developed a sense of irony, but I remember him saying it.


Compost and horse manure were important and we piled up leaves, grass clippings from the hand mower, and vegetable peelings (those not needed for swill) but the pièce de resistance was when the greengrocer’s or milkman’s horse left a pile.  I would rush out with a tin bucket and the coal shovel and retrieve the steaming buns.  My mother was big on stewed rhubarb; there used to be an old joke about what do you put on your rhubarb?  We definitely put horse manure on ours.


When I was older I had the job of insect control which I enjoyed.  I would empty the paper bag (no plastic) of shredded soap and quassia chips into a metal bucket (again, no plastic), pour on a kettle of boiling water, strain off the liquid after an hour or so and use one of those long brass syringes to blast the aphids on the broad beans and roses.


The allotments lasted into the early 1950’s at which time the school board reclaimed the land and some had houses built on them.  I went to college in Newcastle in 1954 expenses paid – thank you Lord Beveridge – Russia launched Sputnik in 1957 and science was the big thing to study.  The world also went through an agricultural revolution in which more-productive cultivars including F1 hybrids and synthetic pesticides replaced the natural ones as I outlined in Part I of this series.  One should not get all teary-eyed for natural pesticides since they included some nasty ones such as nicotine and arsenical sprays.  There are orange groves in California where traces of arsenic can still be detected in the soil from years of spraying copper arsenate to control insects.  Were we organic gardeners?  I still don’t know.


The Organic Movement

Fast forward to the 1990’s and we get into the Organic Movement.  I looked on in astonishment at lessons in composting – I mean, didn’t everyone compost automatically?  The aim of the organic movement is to get back to old-fashioned recycling techniques and to grow ‘heirloom’ cultivars.  There is an element of searching for a ‘Golden Age’ inherent in the movement.  We covered the concept of the ‘Golden Age’ in my grammar school and I learnt that it was a yearning for an idealized time that never actually existed.  People should realize that those who lived in the golden age didn’t think it was golden at all.  At first I thought I was a charter member of the organic movement but recently I’ve had cause to distance myself from it.


The Flight from Science

I can sympathise to some extent but I’ve heard the rejectionist attitude that goes something like:  “You scientists have lied to us so many times that I will have nothing to do with anything you produce.”  I have actually heard, “Oh, I never buy fruit or vegetables from the supermarket, they are laced with pesticides”.


What I think has happened is that over the past twenty or more years science has got a reputation as being difficult and geeky.  There has been an avoidance of maths and science in high schools, students take the minimum to pass and go to college to take humanities, languages, computers, business, law etc. – anything but science.  Certainly the teaching of science leaves something to be desired.  It is often (or used to be) taught in the abstract without its relevance to society coming out (I had the same problem with Latin and French verb declensions).  My old organic text book that I still have is at least the equivalent of the complete works of Shakespeare but lacks any evidence of a plot or a moral theme.


At the college at which I taught I once gave a lecture on ‘Science:  its aims, methods and limitations’, dealing with the philosophy not the detail of science, and how it relates to the rest of human experience including religion.  A year later I received the greatest tribute in my career when a student remarked that it was the best lecture he had ever attended.  My colleagues never asked me to give it again – it didn’t fit anywhere in the curriculum.  I feel even scientists often don’t know the basis of science.


So what is science?  I define it as that branch of philosophy which deals with the material universe and concerns itself with repeatable, natural phenomena.  Emphasis on ‘repeatable’.  What we have produced over the past number of years is a highly educated, literate population which has been brought up in an anecdotal milieu.  This is the opposite of science.  Stories – anecdotes – no matter how compelling have no part in science.  Science demands repeatability, testing, reliability – not a good story.  Many people get their information from TV these days, including their only exposure to science.  This is deceptive since TV is an anecdotal medium, i.e. one person telling a story, and this inevitably adds a distortion putting it on the same level as the assertions so confidently declared by TV evangelists.  This distortion is no doubt the source of the position, common in the USA that “evolution is only a theory”, on par with (below?) Creationism. 


I note that Dr. David Suzuki, the scientist turned TV guru, who started his career counting thousands of fruit flies for their statistical significance, has resorted to telling stories to attract audience and money.  Measurements, graphs, statistics do not appear – they would turn off the audience and are vetoed by the programme consumers – the advertisers.  (Don’t forget TV programmes are merely a means of generating audience; they are not the product of the industry.  It is the viewers that are the actual product sold commercially.  The subject of science has no potential of generating a commercially viable audience – this accounts for the elimination of most of the science component from Discovery Channel which started out intending to cover science).



The word organic means related to plants or animals, or something produced from an organism.  Organic chemistry is the chemistry of carbon, more particularly covalently bonded carbon atoms.  It actually started out as the chemistry of living things on the understanding that the substances which make up living beings could only be produced by living beings.  This idea was blown sky high by Wöhler in 1828 when he synthesised urea.


The modern useage of organic as in ‘organic gardening’ is a little less defined but refers to the avoidance of synthetic chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides, and the use of recycling techniques such as compost.  I have heard that the use of fungicides such as flowers of sulphur and sodium bicarbonate are considered ‘organic’ as is ground limestone for correcting soil pH despite their not being organic in the chemical sense.  But then you get into intellectual morasses such as manure containing, among other substances, urea which is OK, but that synthetic urea (the identical substance) is not ‘organic’.  This is where the distrust of the modern enter the picture but does this mean that the traditional uses of arsenic is OK?  I myself would shrink from that.  And I hear that horse, or cow manure is not ‘organic’ if the animal has been treated by a vet.  Sometimes I get the impression that ‘organic’ is used in the sense of ‘good in the opinion of the user’.


This is where the slogan ‘Organic good, chemical bad’ comes in.  It appears to be the rallying cry of the organic movement but like all slogans it can be a substitute for thought.  There is the assumption that all organic production is good in the sense of harmless and that all ‘chemicals’ are bad and not safe.  Is this necessarily true?  One needs a little chemistry to be able to discriminate but as I mentioned there is a segment of the population without that ability.  People without knowledge have to depend on others for their opinions – which is dangerous.  A population without knowledge can be manipulated.  This is why dictators close schools.  Have we partly closed our schools?


Sir Harold Macmillan once addressed the freshmen at Oxford.  He said “In your years at Oxford you will learn nothing of use, except – except that you will be able to tell when someone is talking bosh.”  My worry is that we have active, eager, organic gardeners who do not know when someone is talking bosh.


‘Organic good, chemical bad’ becomes a mantra, to be taken as an article of faith, and like all mantras the more it is repeated the more true it becomes.  If something is repeated often enough, as politicians, Madison avenue, religious leaders and cults have known for years, a beautiful thing happens, it becomes – the truth.  At this point you have lost control, you can no longer tell when someone is talking bosh.


In the next article I will discuss whether there can be such a contradiction as a ‘good chemical’.