Earlier this month it was reported that neonicotinoids had been found in drinking water in the USA.
Neonicotinoids are chemical compounds found in a number of pesticides and have been heavily implicated in the alarming global decline in bee populations. They only came on to the agrochemical market in the late 1990s and because they are still relatively new, no “safe” level of exposure for humans has yet been established and the long term impact of exposure is unclear.
The author and scientist Rachel Carson, who wrote the seminal 1950s work “The Silent Spring”, predicted it would take a century for us to fully understand the long term impact of pesticides on human health.
Setting aside the potential for harm to humans, the real tragedy of pesticides is that they do not work, at least not in the long term.
Pesticides do not have the sophistication to target specific pests only: they cause “collateral damage” by killing beneficial insects too (by which I don’t just mean pollinating insects but also insects which prey on crop pests).
Excessive pesticide use eventually leads to resistance in the pest insect population, which then requires the invention of a newer, more toxic pesticide. Ultimately it is a vicious, self-defeating circle.
Organic growers have the wisdom to realise that we cannot completely control pest insect populations. There are, nevertheless, skills and techniques honed over generations that we can use to keep them under control. We make use of plants that attract natural insect predators such as lacewings, hover flies, ground beetles and ladybirds, all of which help keep pest numbers down.
We undertake “companion planting”, whereby two crops are interplanted because pests that are attracted to one of the crops are repelled by the other (in my experience this works with onions and carrots, basil and tomato, brassicas and French marigolds, but I am told it also works with sweet potato and maize and several other combinations).
Crop rotation, whereby no crop is ever grown in the same place two years running (and preferably not for several years), also helps to combat pest build up.
Fresh food which is grown organically – that is without chemical intervention – has to be robust enough to overcome the challenges of natural diseases and predators in order to survive. Crops grown using chemicals have not had to battle for survival in the same way.
For the organic grower, whilst there is an underlying acceptance that we cannot completely control nature there is equally an understanding that we get the best results when we work with nature. OK, so occasionally we may lose the odd weak plant to pests, but the crops that survive will be naturally strong, healthy and free from pesticides residues.
Onto the recipe. I love this dish. It’s so simple to make yet has such a great impact.
Oregano is one of the first herbs to burst into life during early Spring. Here it is paired with garlic and cannellini beans to create a quick and delicious treat. It makes a lovely Mediterranean-style accompaniment, alongside my chargrilled courgettes with lemon and basil, but it is also lovely as it is with a slice or two of garlicky crostini: an “upmarket” version of beans on toast.
cannellini beans with garlic and oregano
two 400 g tins organic cannellini beans
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tbsp fresh oregano leaves, chopped
Juice of a lemon
250 ml vegetable stock
½ tsp sea salt
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1. Drain and rinse the cannellini beans.
2. Pour the olive oil into a large pan and place over a medium heat. Add the garlic and lower the temperature. Cook, for 2 minutes, stirring to make sure the garlic does not catch.
3. Add the dried oregano, sea salt and the beans and stir for a minute, then add the stock. Bring to a simmer, stirring every so often, then reduce the heat and cook for 30 minutes, continuing to stir every so often. The stock will have reduced by this time. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. Stir in the fresh oregano and lemon juice before serving.