After humans learned how to cultivate crops around 9,000BC, traditional farming was practiced for thousands of years without the use of artificial chemicals.
It was not until in the mid-1800s when chemical fertilizers were first created. When added to the soil, these fertilizers gave plants a boost of nutrients (mainly nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) which would temporarily result in increased yields of crops. These synthetic fertilizers were cheap, easy to transport in bulk and gradually made their way to countries around the world, even to our remote islands in the Pacific.
In the 1940s, pesticides were created to control insect pests which damage fruit and vegetable crops. It was even more recently that Cook Island growers began using these products, as well as chemical herbicides (weed-killers) to reduce threats to their crops and improve yields.
However, over time, growers around the world noticed their soils became compacted and hard, and saw declines in soil fertility – all as a result of using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. From the early 1900s some farmers realised the need to go “organic”; to ditch the chemicals which were known to be causing damage to both environmental and human health, and to use smarter, natural alternatives to supply nutrients to their crops to increase yields.
Organic farming relies on fertilizers of organic origin such as compost, animal manure, or other natural occurring substances instead of chemical fertilizers.
As for pest control, the best defence against insects is a healthy and strong plant which is achieved by sufficient nutrients, water, and care. It is usually only when plants are stressed that insect pests invade crops, however there are also organic oil pesticides and plants which repel some insect pests. For weed control, using metal tools or hand-pulling rather than spraying chemical herbicides is the way to go.
Perhaps it is strange then, that the traditional farming which humankind practiced for thousands of years, is now labelled as “organic farming”, while farming which uses synthetic chemicals is considered “conventional” or “normal” farming.
The benefits of organic farming include being more sustainable (does not degrade and pollute the land as significantly as conventional farming), better health benefits (no residual pesticide spray or preservatives used on the foods), improved food security (less reliance on imported foods) as well as food safety (less transport and supply chains).
Organic agricultural methods are internationally regulated and legally enforced by many nations, based in large part on the standards set by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), an international umbrella organisation for organic farming organisations established in 1972. In the Pacific a number of organic organisations have been or are being formed, including in the Cook Islands with the establishment of organic movement Natura Kuki Airani (NKA).
NKA consists of a group of small-to-medium scale producers who understand the importance of organic farming and want to help other people to adopt these practices and become certified. They are members of the Pacific Organic and Ethical Trade Community (POETCom), the governance body of the organics movement in the Pacific region, based at SPC in Noumea. The organisation has 47 members in 15 Pacific Island countries and has developed a Pacific Organic Standard, which is a tailored standard for our climate, conditions and traditional crops that preserve the principles of Organic Agriculture.
They have sourced funding to test soils in all the Pacific countries, training on how to farm organically, printing of resource books for distribution, and general awareness of the organic movement in our region.
The work on organic Participatory Guarantee Systems Certification for NKA is funded by the International Fund for Agriculture Department under a project called “Capacity Building for Resilient Agriculture in the Pacific Targeting Youth” and is implemented by POETCom in Niue, the Marshall Islands and Cook Islands.
Through POETCom, NKA are in the process of having the legal right to the certified organic mark and this certification may be displayed on grower’s farms and their produce by as soon as November. Ten growers on Rarotonga are undergoing this accreditation process.
Due to increasing consumer demand, organic agricultural land around the world increased almost fourfold in 15 years, from 11 million hectares in 1999 to 43.7 million hectares in 2014. Concern for the quality and safety of food, and the potential for environmental damage from conventional agriculture, are apparently responsible for this trend. It is hoped more Cook Islands growers will join in transitioning to organic to match the steadily growing demand both locally and globally for organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables.
A special mention to our local, well-established organic growers which include Robert Wigmore Jr who has been using organic methods since 1993. Bakers Treecutting and Composting are growing using organic methods and currently have spinach and compost on the market. Finally, Cook Islands Noni Marketing (organic certified for 20-plus years with well-known certifiers such as Agriquality (A New Zealand government initiative) and ACO in Australia.