Conservation Feed

Organic food is good for biodiversity and bees

Organic-food-is-good-for-biodiversity-and-bees. Little eco footprints

I grow my own veggies organically and often buy organic food. There are many reasons why I favour organic. I prefer my food be free of pesticide residues and I’d rather support small, sustainable farmers than large-scale industrialised agribusinesses. But the main reason I buy organic is that it’s better for the environment. Or is it? Robert Paarlberg, in his book Food Politics, suggests that my preference for organic food may be misguided.

I read Paarlberg’s 2010 book recently and it had me scrambling to double-check the environmental benefits of organic farming.

For me, it’s important to know the story behind my food. Permaculturalist Nick Ritar suggests that "every bite of food is a reflection of your ethics". "That doesn’t mean becoming a food snob who is a pain in the arse at every dinner party, but it does mean that when you buy something, you exercise your power by taking the time to understand what you are giving your money to."

What is organic farming? 

Organic food is grown without the use of synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. Instead, natural processes are embraced. Soil fertility is maintained using compost, crop rotation and manures. Weeds are controlled using mechanical cultivation, mulch and cover crops. Insect pests are kept at bay using a range of techniques including relying on 'good bugs' to eat the 'bad bugs'.

Is it better for the environment? 

Whether or not organic farming is better for the environment overall has been hotly debated for years. The focus of the debate has been on whether or not decreased yields from organic farms could have the unfortunate result of increasing the total area of land under agricultural production, resulting in more widespread deforestation and biodiversity loss, and thus undermining the environmental benefits of organic practices.

This argument is increasingly being dismissed as over-simplistic. Yields can be increased through improved farming practice and careful selection of varieties. Yield is also only one of many factors to consider when balancing the benefit of organic farming.

Environmental benefits of organic farming

What is clear is that organic farms are better at protecting biodiversity than conventional farms. A recent study by Oxford University found that organic farms support 34% more plant, insect and animal species than conventional farms. It also found that the benefit was most pronounced for organic farms in intensively farmed regions and that small farms do a better job of protecting biodiversity. The benefit of organic farming was most pronounced for pollinators such as bees, with organic farms supporting 50% more pollinator species.

Pesticide use is having a particularly devastating impact on bees. Recent research from Harvard University has confirmed that pesticides, neonicotionoids in particular, are likely to be responsible for the massive colony collapse disorder happening in honey bees.

The environmental benefits of organic farming extend beyond biodiversity and bees.

Conventional farming is dependent upon large amounts of inorganic fertiliser. The manufacture of synthetic fertilisers is energy-intensive, uses large amounts non-renewable natural gas and contributes greatly to greenhouse gas emissions. Synthetic fertilisers also dissolve in water more readily than organic fertilisers and can leach through the soil and pollute groundwater, nearby waterways and ultimately, the ocean.

So after wading through the recent literature, I’m confident that my preference for organic food isn’t misguided. My resolve to support small local sustainable farms is stronger than ever.

Introducing organic farms into already intensively farmed landscapes can boost biodiversity, provide a pesticide-free haven for pollinators, and play a major role in halting the loss of biodiversity.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 2nd June 2014.


What would inspire you to care about threatened plants?

Today is National Threatened Species Day in Australia.

National Threatened Species Day is held on 7th September each year - commemorating the death of the last Tasmanian Tiger at Hobart Zoo in 1936.

Have you read the children's book 'I Saw Nothing: The Extinction of the Thylacine'? I can't help but cry each and every time I read that book to Little Eco. 

The idea that we can sit back, watch, and do nothing while hundreds (if not thousands) of species become extinct horrifies me. 

But it's happening. 

National Threatened Species Day aims to raise awareness of the plight of threatened species and to encourage community involvement in their conservation.

The general public is typically aware that many of Australia’s animals, like the Tasmanian Devil and the Hairy-nosed Wombat, are threatened with extinction. But they are often not aware that hundreds of Australian plant species face extinction.

More than 40 Australian plant species have become extinct since European settlement and over 1000 species are considered likely to become extinct within our lifetime unless something is done to reverse their decline.

Plant conservation, in reality, is what motivates me to write this blog. It's our mindless consumption and addiction to stuff that is driving species to extinction. 

Plant conservation is my thing. I work for the Australian Network for Plant Conservation and have been working in the field for 20 years. I have a PhD in plant conservation and have published a few scientific papers and co-authored a book.

But I rarely, if ever, write about plant conservation in this space. Thats because I know most people aren't interested. Most people just don't care about threatened plants. I'd lose readers and achieve nothing. 

But I'm interested. What would help you to care about threatened plants?

Also - what's your 'thing' and how do you encourage people care about it? 

Would you like to see a couple of pretty pics of plant species that are likley to become extinct in the next decade or so unless we do something? Here's a slide show of 21 of Australia's most threatened plants that I put together to celebrate the Australian Network for Plant Conservation's 21st Birthday. Make sure you click-on 'show info' in the top right corner to see the text. The slide show is best viewed at full screen (select the box with four arrows in the bottom right).

I've spent a fair chunk of my working career over the past 6 years working to save #4. 

Reading via email and can't see the slide show? Click here

I'll return to my regular fortnightly foraging friday post in a fortnight.

If you do happen to be interested in plant conservation please follow the ANPC on facebook, twitter or google + or subscribe to our e newsletter


Five things YOU can do to reduce the impact of plastic on marine life

Plastic rubbish litter beach art 1

We recently enjoyed a rare sunny afternoon playing at the beach. Little Eco danced, made sand angels, and we all joined in some beach art, creating art from the plastic that littered the beach.

Plastic rubbish litter beach art 2

I was truly surprised by just how much plastic littered the beach. The above plastic was collected within only a few minutes while wandering less than ten metres.

Plastic rubbish litter beach art 3

I was reminded of all that plastic this week by a news story about a dead sea turtle found washed up on a beach in northern NSW.  This poor turtle likely starved to death after more than 300 pieces of plastic it swallowed caused its digestive system to shut down. Rochelle Ferris, spokeswoman for Australian Seabird Rescue, said she was aware of 40 to 50 cases of turtles suffering from plastic ingestion each year. And that’s along only 250 km of coastline. “…imagine how many turtles are dying long, slow deaths across the country where there is no help."

Plastic rubbish litter beach art 4

I’ll be honest, I sometimes find it easy to disconnect from stories of environmental destruction. They break my heart, but often I don’t connect my life with the destruction. Like the chicks at Midway Attol, turtles in Morton Bay, or this poor turtle in northern NSW. I subconsciously tell myself that these deaths are happening elsewhere, not in my backyard. But our moment of beach play made it clear to me that the rubbish from my street contributes to the problem. Despite living kilometres from the ocean, the rubbish from my street ultimately ends up in the ocean, unless it’s trapped by one of the few pollutant traps along the way.

Plastic rubbish litter beach art 5

It is likely that the rubbish from your street (no matter how far you live from the ocean) ultimately ends up there too. The gutter out the front of your house probably drains into a small creek, from where it travels down increasingly larger creeks, perhaps via a river, until it ultimately reaches the ocean. We’re all part of the problem.

The five simple things you can do:

1. Donate to Australian Seabird Rescue
2. Take three pieces of rubbish when you leave the beach
3. Join in Clean up Australia Day
4. Say no to plastic bags
5. Stop buying bottled water

Ending on a happier note, I hope you have a lovely weekend. This weekend, inspired by Gina of Clutterpunk and Fiona of Inner Pickle, I hope to spend a moment with my ‘to mend’ pile. I’m determined to mend one item per week until the ridiculously huge pile is gone. I was also reminded this week by Julie of Go Greener Oz to consider hiring before buying. It’s amazing what you can hire these days. For more of what has inspired me recently, head on over to the Little Eco Footprints Inspiring Reads page. What’s inspired you recently? And don’t forget to enter the Biome giveaway if you haven’t already. Entries close Monday.


How big is your ecological hand print?

1 native plants hyco seedlings 2

I often feel that too much emphasis is placed on decreasing our ecological footprint. Even if by some incredible miracle, the entire global population began living within the means of our planet overnight, nature would still be stuffed.

3 native plants hyco seedlings

Soils would still be contaminated, rivers would remain polluted, native animals would continue to be preyed on by exotic pests and disease, native plants would continue to be displaced by environmental weeds, threatened species would continue to be driven to extinction by the impacts of habitat fragmentation, CO2 would still be elevated, and climate change would still be happening. The earth we leave our children would still be poorer than the one we inherited.

3_planting native seedlings from hyco pots

Restoring and conserving nature requires us to do more than decrease our ecological footprint. That's why I love the concept of an ecological hand print.

4 learning to plant trees

What is an ecological hand print?

In contrast to your ecological footprint, which describes your negative impact on the planet, your ecological hand print represents your positive impact. Your ecological hand print is your contribution towards a sustainable future. It describes the good you have done for the world.

"The best one can get with a footprint is no impact at all.
The potential of a hand print is unlimited.”

John Biemer, 2009

I hope to have little eco footprints and a HUGE eco hand print, or at the very least have a hand print that is bigger than my footprint.

5 watering

How to increase your ecological hand print

There are many ways you can increase your ecological hand print. For example, you can inspire others to act, educate, help restore a patch of bushland, campaign for change, or join a local food movement. The options are endless.

6 learning bush regeneration_brush matting

I'm sure many of you already have a nice looking ecological handprint. Could it be bigger?

An activity to celebrate World Environment Day

Today is World Environment Day. It's a day for celebrating positive environmental action and provides the perfect opportunity to think about your ecological hand print.

7 learning bush regeneration_weed control

Simply sit for a few moments and think about what you are already doing to help the environment, and then give some thought to how you could do more.

8 kids learning how to plant trees

If you feel like putting pen to paper, try this activity suggested by John Biemer:

"Draw outlines of two hands on a sheet of paper. Near each finger of the left hand, write down one of your environmental accomplishments. It is okay to give yourself credit for signing consciousness-raising save-the-whales petitions. On the right hand write down five ways you want to create sustainability. Intentions can be powerful, especially when witnessed. Share your picture with a friend."

9 children ready and waiting to plant trees

I'll be celebrating World Environment Day today by co-ordinating a community tree planting day within an important patch of bushland. The photos accompanying this post were taken on Friday, when Little Eco and I had the pleasure of helping 85 school students plant trees. Talk about crazy!

10 stuck in the mud

Enjoy your World Environment Day :-)