Full paper for the proceedings of the 12th International Scientific Conference on Organic
Farming. IFOAM, Argentina 1998
By stud. Ph.D. Anders Borgen
Departement for Agricultural Sciences,
Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University,
The world view dominating conventional science is described as reductionistic, because
it is seeks to exclude all information not gained from scientific experiments. The
ecological world-view includes values on nature and aims for agricultural systems. It is
argued that in working with ecological agriculture, it is necessary to work on the basis
of the ecological world-view, since the most important step in the research process is the
selection of questions and hypotheses which are highly influenced by ones world-view.
Ecological agriculture started as a movement of farmers, who did not believe the
scientists when they said, that pesticides and artificial fertilisers did not harm the
environment. From its beginning, ecological agriculture has therefore been sceptical
towards science. On the other hand, ecological organisations often ask for more
research, and the IFOAM scientific conference can been seen as an expression of this.
What kind of research does ecological agriculture want, and how can we be sure that it
will not be the same as the science that has been rejected?
The paradigm of science versus ecology
The ideal of most natural science, and most certainly for common agricultural science, is to draw conclusions only from experiments. It is claimed that the scientific method is objective in the sense that the same knowledge could have been gained by anyone making the same experiments. However, it is only the observations that can be said to be objective. Conclusions drawn from the results can never be objective, but are purely subjective (which is not the same as being untrue or un-universal!). Science is in this respect reductionistic in the sense that it is reducing the sources of information.
The scientific world-view is constructed on the basis of the scientific experiments. Biological systems are therefore dealt with in the same way as dead matter. Science can not distinguish between what is natural, and what is not. Nature has no value in her self, since values can not be dealt with in natural science. What is left of the concept of values is the instrumental value for humans.
When the paradigm of science took over from the paradigm of religion, it was progress. Many problems were solved by technological inventions, which could not have been solved by scrutinizing the bible. Since it is commonly held that science is objective, the world view of science is often erroneously thought to be an objective one, and therefore true. However, the world view of science is not more true than the world view of religion. It has just for some time been more applicable. The scientific world view as such has never been, and can never be subject to scientific investigation.
Let me describe the difference in world view with pesticide approvements as an example.
Pesticides are approved by public authorities on the basis of scientific experiments. According to international standards, pesticides can be banned if they are hazardous to the environment or human health, but are very difficult to ban, if this is not proved by scientific experiments.
In conventional agriculture everything legal can be used, which is the same as everything that is not scientifically proven to be hazardous to the environment or human health. In ecological agriculture, treatments are evaluated in the way they fit with an ecological attitude to nature. When ecological farmers rejected the use of pesticides, this was not based on the risk for groundwater pollution or the fear of male sperm degradation. The organic farmers did not know about these details 30 years ago and there was certainly very limited scientific documentation of any effects. The rejection was based on the fact, that the use of pesticides do not fit into the ecological world-view.
The definition of the ecological world-view is a subject in itself, but I will shortly define
it as an attempt to work with nature instead of against it. This means prevention and
system design instead of direct treatments (selective killings of organisms). It is the
attempt to create a cybernetic/self regulating agro-ecosystem. Pesticides have no role to
play in respect of this aim since synthetic pesticides never can be used to make a natural
system self-regulating. In ecological agriculture therefore, the question of pesticide use
can be answered on a much broader basis, including more than the results from
scientific experiments. In this respect the ecological approach is more holistic.
Research in ecological agriculture
Thistles (Cirsium arvense) are not a big problem in conventional arable farming because they are sensitive to most herbicides in cereal crops. But what can be done in ecological production?
Many studies have been made on controlling thistles by cuttings above the cereal crop, or with pulling machines and I believe the newest invention is electric shock treatment. All these are efforts to replace herbicides with something else consistent with the ecological standards. The problems arises, when the researcher doesn't consider or understand the difference between the standards and the principles. Some measures, like herbicides, are banned in the standards due to a conflict with the principles, while others, like pulling machines, are allowed. Pulling machines are not allowed because they are not in conflict with the fundamental principles, but because of a compromise with economy, or the fact that we do not have sufficient knowledge about how to grow the crop without it. The compromises in the standards are made on basis of risk assessments in relation with environment or human health, and in the given choice pulling machines are in the standard while herbicides are banned. But it doesn't change the fact that both measures are in conflict with the long term principle of ecological agriculture.
An ecological approach is to perceive the thistles as not a problem, but as a symptom of a problem. The thistle is a perennial plant and as such, it has superior competitive abilities to annual crops like cereals. If a crop is infested with thistles, it may be a symptom of too many annual crops in the crop rotation. In perennial crops like clover-grass, thistles are not a problem. Thistles are nutritious fodder able to take up nutrition from deep soil layers. They are thereby able to bring nutrients into the production system, that crops with superficial root-architecture like cereals are likely to lose to the environment. So, thistles will multiply mainly if too many annual crops with superficial root system are grown in a tillage system, where nutrients are removed from the soil surface and ploughed deep into the ground. The multiplication of the thistles will be a problem only if the crop waste, including thistles, is not utilized as green manure or fodder, or if the system has an input level of nutrients from external sources so big that the contribution from the thistles is neglectable.
Therefore, the challenge of ecological research is not to replace the herbicide with electrical generators and pulling machines, but to learn to see of what thistles are a symptom, and to design the cropping system in order to prevent them from multiplying or to optimize their utilisation.
Whether the investigations include field experiments with three or four replications, or the pulling machine is subject to a systemic life-cycle analysis to investigate resource use in the production of the machine and its energy consumption is, in this respect, of minor importance. The crucial point is the nature view. What does the researcher see as a problem, and what ideas will he/she come up with, to solve them.
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