“Organic” is a word that seems to be thrown around a lot. But what does it actually mean, and why is it so popular? First, let’s get an idea about what it means when the label says “organic.” The USDA guidelines can be found here. Overall, organic farming is a system that does not use synthetic chemicals and, instead, mimics natural systems.*
So, that gives us a better sense of how organic food is produced. Next, I want to talk about why it’s different from conventional farming and, in the end, better for the environment.
“When one also considers yields, economic viability, energy usage, and human health, it’s clear that organic farming is sustainable, while current conventional practices are not”
*Most information for this post comes from the 30 year Farming Systems Trial (FST) performed by the Rodale Institute. Other sources will be noted.
In the Rodale trial, they found the soil health progressively increased over time, while the conventional systems remained essentially unchanged. Healthy soil retains water more efficiently, making it easier to withstand a drought when using organic methods. Providing nutrients in natural ways (manure, compost, or cover crops) saves from having to add synthetics, which pass through more quickly, making it more likely to wash away. Furthermore, by rotating and diversifying crops, new nutrients can be introduced into soil, while providing a variety of food aside from the mass-produced corn and soy.
Over the course of the trial, the organic yields proved to be equivalent to those coming from the conventional methods of farming. Furthermore, during times of drought, the organic corn yields were 31% higher. So, the healthier and more sustainable method proved to be up to the task of feeding people on the same amount of land. Another study in Iowa, utilizing diverse crop rotation, witnessed that the yields for corn and soy were higher in these systems than the standard 2 crop system. The increase in yields came even despite substantial reductions in the use of synthetic N fertilizer and herbicides.
“Organic agriculture has the potential to secure a global food supply, just as conventional agriculture is today, but with reduced environmental impact.” -From the Food and Agricultural Organizations of the United Nations International Conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security.
Creating genetically modified (GM) plants to resist herbicides means using these chemicals more and more, manufacturing weeds that can resist those herbicides, creating a vicious cycle of harsher chemicals. The FST organic crops could hold their own against weeds, without the help of herbicides, while the conventional systems need more powerful weapons again herbicide-resistant weeds. Using traditional forms of plant breeding and farming methods on major grain crops produced higher yields than GM varieties, as well.
With fuel-use and seeds being the highest energy inputs of organic systems, and fertilizer production and on-farm fuel use the highest in conventional, the organic systems still used 45% less energy. According to figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, conventional farming methods were responsible for 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The conventional no-till systems turned out to be the least energy-efficient system in the trial. The Iowa study also found the use of fossil energy decreased as crop diversity increased, due to the reduction of fertilizers and pesticides and the machinery that spreads them.
Using harmful chemicals to kill weeds next to plants meant for eating will never NOT make me uneasy. And the fact that the solution is the GM crops to resist these chemicals upsets me more. With 17,000 pesticide products on the market, alongside the EPA’s required testing of less than 1% of these chemicals, it would be wise to turn to an organic method solution instead. The links of herbicide chemicals to cancer and a multitude of health problems strengthens the resolve.
So go out to the farmer’s market, read the labels, and be a conscious consumer! Use your dollars to vote for the products you want in your community. It’s good for your health, the health of the planet, and future generations.