I wouldn't be farming if we couldn't do it organically. My first encounter with biocides was the apple orchard sprayer at my uncles farm. I was quite young at the time, perhaps six or seven, but l remember climbing on the sprayer and peering down into the tank... and I can still remember the smell to this day. The dizzying chemical soup in there turned my stomach and I felt instinctively that this was something horrible. It is quite possible that my mind was already made up then. I knew to trust my nose as it contrasted the wonderful earthy smell of the soil in the woods and fields that I frequented, with the acrid, noxious smell of the chemicals in the sprayer.
When I began gardening I encountered the innocuous pink coating (most likely Captan) on treated corn, pea and bean seeds that were pretty much all that was available at the local garden supply stores. As I casually handled the seeds, planting my garden, this fungicide coating covered my hands and I began to itch in various places. It was only a mild reaction, but nevertheless it was another sign. I learned to avoid the pink seeds and started seeking untreated seeds.
A few years later I spent a couple of summers in PEI near potato farms and would wake up to the roar of huge sprayers lumbering through the fields. The fungicide bothered me the most and once I even had to climb down off a roof I was working on because the drifting spray made me dizzy. I began counting the number of times the potatoes were sprayed. From seed piece treatment, pre-emergence weed sprays , pesticides, fungicides, top kill and finally sprout suppressant in the warehouse it could be close to twenty applications of chemicals. How do your fries taste now? I really questioned how nutritious that potato was in terms of its life giving properties. PEI has the highest cancer rates in the country and has big fish kills every growing season in the rivers. (We have the same sort of production here in the upper Saint John River Valley.)
I have never read Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring but I did read a lot by others that were influenced by her. Family members were regular subscribers to Organic Gardening, Harrowsmith and Mother Earth News magazines (back before they were sold out to big publishers) and I would read these enough to learn a bit about organic gardening and some of the negative aspects of chemicals. Organic just always seemed to be a more positive route, working with nature instead of fighting against it. It was author/farmer Wendell Berry more than anyone who opened my eyes to the problems of industrialised agriculture and the implications for our culture and environment.
I haven't mentioned fertilisers yet. Although these chemicals do generally not create the same human health risks that herbicides, fungicides and pesticides do, they do wreak havoc on the soil biology. Fertilisers are really generally in the form of salts or acids, containing nitrogen(N), phosphorus(P), and potassium(K), the three elements that make up the NPK values written on the bags. The problem with salts and acids is that they are highly soluble and reactive allowing them to wash out of the soil or significantly change the soil chemistry and structure. Fertilisers aren't so much bad for people as they are bad for the soil and waterways. I think the human impact comes in the form of lower nutritional quality of food grown this way. Lower mineral and micronutrient content in crops are the result of a dead soil created by extensive fertiliser and biocide use. Fertilisers are also quite energy intensive to make, increasing the environmental impacts of agriculture.
Of course growing organically means a lot more than farming with the absence of chemicals. Organic is about care of the soil and stewardship of the land. It is about growing healthy plants and animals and nourishing healthy people. Organic carries with it a set of values that include healthy soil, healthy food, healthy farmers and respect for the environment. Organic is dedication to growing nutritious food with life giving properties. So much of our food today lacks those life giving and health promoting properties. Organic also offers us continuity with a long tradition of farming, celebration of food and restores the cultural and community aspects of agriculture.
Now we have a national standard now for organic farming, and you are not really organic unless you are certified organic. In fact, only certified orgainic growers are allowed to use the word organic and if someone tells you that they don't use pesticides or 'hardly any" spray, they are not organic. If they say they are organic, but are not certified, they are not organic. In fact a few people that say they grow organically, do not even know what the regulations are. Unfortunately this makes it hard for consumers who are trying to acquire safe and healthy food. They already have enough confusing terminology to deal with such as "naturally grown", "ecologically grown", most of which are meaningless marketing devices. Add the confusion around the term organic and it can be a bit disconcerting. Look for certified organic if you want a guarantee. I regularly see meat and produce being marketed as organic when it is not and I find it quite frustrating. Ask to see the suppliers certification if you are in doubt.