Behind The Lines - January 2010

Take your pick: snake oil, voodoo, foo foo dust, or woo woo. These are some of the non-believers’ terms for products and practices that can’t be validated scientifically. We really only noticed how prevalent these phenomena are as we researched material for this month’s cover story. It’s about alternative farming practices.

Writer Mary Baxter focused on trends like the growing interest in biodynamic farming, a more extreme offshoot of the organic movement. Certified biodynamic farmers treat their operations as closed systems. They protect crops against disease using special preparations made on the farm from common medicinal herbs and animal sheaths.

Another “alternative” practice is the manipulation of so-called electromagnetic fields to improve crops, livestock production and even the health of farm families. The very existence of these electromagnetic fields is a matter of conjecture (some say misrepresentation), as is their supposed detrimental effect on humans, livestock and crops.

Stories like this are challenging to write. Journalists are supposed to be critical thinkers, not easily swayed by those with an agenda. We are also expected to maintain an open mind and attempt to accurately portray the views of everyone involved in a story.

When reports of scientific breakthroughs cross our desks, we have a professional responsibility to look for bias by determining who funded the research. We should also give more credence to results that have been published in reputable scientific journals where results have been reviewed by respected scientists who aren’t involved in the research.

The challenge with our cover story this month is that, on the one hand, a significant number of readers practise the ideas being featured, so the story does needs telling. Yet none of the concepts described however have successfully withstood scientific scrutiny. Not only have some of the theories not been published in a reputable journal, some have actually been disproved. 

As our story progressed we asked ourselves “what’s the harm” even if none of this works? Using that search term we discovered many links for websites that attempt to answer this question.

We couldn’t find any harm, however, in the case of someone practising biodynamic farming. In fact, there might even be a business opportunity lurking there for a savvy marketer who is perhaps willing to put in even more effort than a hardworking conventional farmer. 

We hope though that when someone embraces alternative methods over critical thinking in areas like electro-magnetism or animal communications that they aren’t risking more than they can afford to gamble. Especially where the health of their animals or families are involved. BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman

Better Farming - January 2010