Okay guys, this one gets a little technical and dry at times, but please bear with me…this is an important topic to me, as well as to the world, seeing as how “going green” and “organic living” have exploded in popularity and practice throughout the globe in recent years. This is a research paper I did recently regarding the benefits of organic farming (with my own graphic touches here and there for comedic relief from the informative snobbery that is my third person) as opposed to conventional farming–enjoy…and I hope you learn a little something, too!
Organic Farming: Truth or Trend?
You would be hard-pressed to find a person in the U.S. today who didn’t know something about the term “organic”. Perhaps they will say that it means the product is more costly, more slowly grown, more environmentally friendly, or that the term is just another way for big corporations to make money off of a growing craze among health-conscious hippies. Today we are surrounded by the fear of our foods being polluted with pesticides, toxins, hormones, trans fats, refined sugars, GMOs, and genetically engineered ingredients. As attention is being drawn towards green living, healthier lifestyles, and farm-to-table thinking, the question remains: is organic really better, or is it simply a trend? The definition of organic farming is clear and definitive:
Organic Farming is an ecologically-based farming method that avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides…farmers rely on crop rotation, cover crops, compost, and mechanical cultivation to maintain soil productivity and fertility, to supply plant nutrients, and to control weeds, insects and other pests. (Ronald and Adamchak x).
It is widely held by supporters of the organic movement that organic farming is preferable to conventional farming methods in that it nurtures the local community, renders products of higher nutritional quality, has a more positive environmental impact, and allows consumers to be more aware and informed about the foods they purchase and feed to their families.
Local foods help local communities grow. In the commercially grown food industry, products are shipped hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles across the country and globe to reach our supermarkets (such as mangoes from Chile or avocados from Mexico). More and more, customers are losing touch with how their foods are grown and processed, are unaware of local farms, and are blindly purchasing items they know very little about. In addition, as farmers grow using conventional methods, they find themselves in a tough situation. As Duram stated:
Conventional farmers are caught in a vicious cycle in which they grow vast amounts of crops, and this overproduction leads to extremely low and falling prices. Then farmers need even higher yield per acre the next year, so they must use even more agrichemicals—and still many family farms go bankrupt. At the same time, the agribusinesses that sell farmers the chemicals and buy the low priced crops are becoming increasingly wealthy. Conventional Farmers’ incomes are so low that they must rely on government subsidies in order to continue to produce food. So why is the American taxpayer wholly supporting this illogical system of food production, in which agribusiness is the only winner? (8)
As local organic growers develop a repertoire with their customer base through farmers’ markets or community agriculture subscription services, and as foods are sold in or near the communities they were grown in (thus reducing the number of miles they travel), the potential for the development of rural communities increases (Duram 80). In addition, eighty-percent of organic production originates not on conventional farms, but on family owned and operated farms, since organic practices are best suited for smaller farming facilities than for large acreage commercial farms (Blatt 68, 73). If more Americans were to purchase local ingredients, they would be supporting their community’s economy, encouraging their local farmers to practice more sustainable growing methods, and educating themselves and their families about where their food comes from and how it is grown.
Some may argue that a farmer can better survive economically and expand his business by bringing more money in via mass-production and selling of only one or two types of crops to wholesale corporations. However, studies show that diverse organic crop yields are within ten to twenty percent of those of conventionally grown crops, and it should be noted that by spending less money on pesticides and fertilizer, much of the cost for organic farming could be offset (Duram 43). Also, organic products are usually sold for much higher, up to even twice the price of conventional products, so farmers could initially make a good turn on profits by taking advantage of this trend (Blatt 67). If local farmers growing these organic crops were to focus more closely on direct marketing to customers, they would see more of the profits of their sales, since the middlemen of the industry would be eliminated (Ronald and Adamchak 24). Organic farmer’s markets, though they are selling high quality goods that would cost much more in commercial sales, tend to provide fair prices for their crops directly to the consumer, sometimes charging much less than what a retail chain would sell them for. As a result, buying locally and direct from growers could mean lower prices for customers in the long run, and less cost and more profits for the farmer as well.
While some conventional farmers use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers sparingly in an effort to be more ecologically friendly, many do not. Pesticide use has increased by a factor of thirty-three-fold between the years of 1980 and 2000, as targeted organisms have also developed an increased resistance to these chemicals over time (Blatt 33). Some of these pesticides poison thousands upon thousands of people each year, and some of them cannot simply be rinsed off at home with water or even a vinegar soaking solution (Ronald and Adamchak 87; Blatt 35). Health problems linked to both short term and long term exposure are terrifying and lengthy to say the least: headaches, dizziness, convulsions, coma, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, organ failure, lung damage, pain, skin irritation, fever, irregular heartbeat, mental confusion, cancer, neurological and developmental problems, reproductive and hormonal disorders, and even death, some of which can arise even decades after exposure, making it difficult for these conditions to be pinned directly upon agrichemical use (which also happens to be quite convenient for the companies who manufacture them) (Duram 19). Some scientists suggest that obesity can be linked to polluting chemicals in the environment, which includes those caused by farm runoff (Blatt 243). On another note, one study has shown that urine samples of children consuming organic foods have lower levels of pesticides in their systems (Duram 5). Therefore, it is no surprise that customers may be willing to pay the extra price for organic if it means that they and their families will be exposed to less toxic chemicals.
Another health benefit organic crops can boast is their nutritional superiority over conventional and genetically modified strains. Studies show that among various crops tested, the organic products were, on average, higher in vitamins and nutrients such as vitamin C, protein, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, metabolites and antioxidants, as well as lower levels of nitrate and heavy metal residue (Duram 5, 6). Nutritional value aside, many customers claim that they prefer locally grown organic fruits and vegetables because they know that local products are fresher (since they travel less miles to reach the table), and that the higher nutritional content and freshness of these products result in them having a superior flavor, as well (Blatt 75). As evidenced in many restaurants and professional kitchens, organic ingredients are gaining popularity and are more prevalent in menus as an increasing number of people are recognizing their overall quality.
One farmer can impact many surrounding waterways, endless acres of soil, and the biodiversity in and around his farmlands. Whereas organic farms utilize crop rotation and cover crops for soil fertility, natural pest-reducing methods and eco-friendly fertilizers, conventional farms employ the aid of toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that pack a detrimental punch to the environment. First, let’s start with the soil. Not only does organic farm soil have greater earthworm activity, more minerals, nitrogen and carbon, and more water-stability (meaning less erosion and flooding), but the soil quality also improves over time due to crop rotation (Duram 51, 52). Conventional farms, on the other hand, utilize massive amounts of chemicals to fight off pests and encourage rapid crop growth, which are then carried by water through the soil (which is less water-stable) off to reservoirs, lakes, streams, and waterways to wreak even more havoc on the environment.
Chemical runoff from conventional farms does significant damage to surrounding waterways. For example, highly soluble nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium found in many commercial agrichemicals increases algae growth, which in turn consumes additional oxygen resulting in the deaths of fish and shellfish in the area (Ronald and Adamchak 16). Pesticides can also leach into our drinking water, especially in areas that host agricultural production. While many streams and other waterways tested in agricultural areas tested positive for pesticides, unfortunately the USDA has yet to set standards or regulations regarding how to deal with this issue (Duram 26, 28). Between the dead zones found at the mouths of waterways linked to farm runoff and traces of toxic pollutants found in drinking water, one would hope that the damage stops there…but biodiversity is yet another factor that can be impacted either positively or negatively by farming methods.
As more and more farmland is cleared for mass production, space for wildlife habitats is also destroyed. Farm landscape and chemical interaction can also play roles in biodiversity. For example, birds prefer trees, wider hedgerows, more insects and smaller fields, all of which are more commonly found on sustainable farms, whereas conventional farms lack such a landscape and less diverse vegetation growth (also partially due to pesticides) to promote insect populations (Duram 58). In fact, it is estimated that each year approximately seventy million birds and billions of insects are killed due to pesticides, and these chemicals have also been known to reduce frog population numbers (Ronald and Adamchak 109). On a positive note, organic farms are spectacular examples of how farms can stop this killing cycle and start promoting biodiversity on both the farmland itself and in surrounding habitats. These farms contain five times the number of wild plants (and fifty-seven percent more species), twenty-five to forty-four percent more birds, sixty percent more insects, three times as many butterflies, one to five times as many spiders (and one to two times as many spider species) and larger populations of bees, earthworms and bats than other farms (Blatt 80; Duram 59). All in all, this means a more diverse and populated habitat in and around organic farms, benefiting the grower, the consumer, and the environment as a whole.
Many regulations, certification and paperwork are required to make sure a food can be labeled as certified organic. The United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Certification Standards have regulated the process of certification since 2002 (Duram 3). Synthetic agrichemicals must not be used for three consecutive years, detailed farm logs must be kept to monitor what goes in and out of the fields, an annual inspection must be conducted, and farmers must demonstrate that they are indeed building up the soil on their fields through crop rotation and green manure use (Duram 3). There are four categories of organic foods as defined by the USDA in 2001: “100 percent organic” (no pesticides, irradiation, hormones, antibiotics or genetic modifications involved), “organic” (at least 95 percent of these kinds of ingredients used in the making of the product), “made with organic ingredients” (between 70 to 95 percent organic, with three organic ingredients listed), and then there are products that may indicate any organic ingredients in their listing of ingredients but cannot use the label of “organic” on the front of the package (Blatt 72). Only “100 percent organic” and “organic” products are permitted to display the USDA Organic seal on their products. Although this process can also apply to livestock (which would mean that they are fed organic feed and not hormones or antibiotics), it currently does not apply to fish farming methods at all whatsoever (Blatt 72, 73).
Some farmers might complain about all the hoops they have to jump through in order to submit the lengthy amounts of paperwork and adhere to the strict standards needed in order for their farm to be considered sustainable and organic. However, they will benefit from the time they have invested through an increase in profits, a healthier environment, and through increased product awareness of the consumer. In addition, this increased awareness benefits the consumer, their families, and their community. It is important and environmentally responsible to know how one’s food is grown, processed, and labeled. If everyone were to be more discerning as to what they feed themselves and their families, it could have a great impact on both personal health and ecological conditions in their own neighborhoods and perhaps throughout the world.
Food nourishes the body and feeds the mind. It is fuel, providing the energy and nutrients one needs to perform in their daily lives. Fillers, preservatives, chemicals, and toxins should have no place on one’s plate. The organic food movement isn’t just a fad. It is a reawakening of knowledge about how food should be grown and made, how getting back to basics can be the best choice one could make about the health of society and the health of the planet, as well. By supporting local growers, petitioning the government to examine the serious concerns of conventional growing and the evident benefits of organic growing, and by demanding no less than the best quality foods for oneself and their families, the world can be changed, one family and one community at a time.
Organic farming promotes community growth, provides nutritionally superior products, improves and preserves the quality of the environment, and draws much-needed attention to food production and agricultural standards of health. While making the switch from conventional farming to organic farming might at first be a challenge for some farmers due to the certification process, farming methods and paperwork involved, the overall benefits will most certainly outweigh those initial struggles. If individuals eat clean, eat seasonally, and insist on fresh, organic produce and meats, the resulting positive changes will inspire others to do the same. Striving for an entirely organic world free from toxins and filled with superior nutrition and flavor is a revolutionary goal that will improve the well being of society, thus paving the way for future generations to value a legacy of mindful eating and healthful living.
Ronald, Pamela C., and Raoul W. Adamchak. Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 9 June 2013.
Blatt, Harvey. America’s Food: What You Don’t Know About What You Eat. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press; 2008. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 9 June 2013.
Duram, Leslie. Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press; 2005. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 9 June 2013.