How awesome would it be if a tidy little green and white label could tell you that your food was grown with minimal impact on the environment and evidence-based consideration for long term human and ecological sustainability?
If certified organic had a 1:1 correlation with environmental and social responsibility, I would jump on the 100% organic bandwagon. Right now.
Unfortunately, organic is a marketing term, and a highly profitable one. The cynical part of me sees the way big corporations have gotten in on the action and wonders: if organic growing practices have a higher cost that is passed on to the consumers, why is it so profitable that huge corporations want in?
What am I actually paying for?
While I still think that more of the farmers who are paying closest attention to sustainability are organic, buying organic food doesn’t excuse us from continuing to ask questions about the impact of our food. Answers, as always, are hard to come by.
Here I want to acknowledge how hard it is to wrench food from the earth. As someone who has managed to get aphids on indoor herbs, I have tons of respect for farmers who go out there and grow food in the face of unpredictable weather and fierce competition from insects, bacteria, viruses, and small mammals. I also recognize that, however you farm, you drastically alter the ecosystem of the area you farm. There’s no way around that. When it comes to eco-friendly farming, we’re always already talking about compromises.
Anyway, I’ve come up with some questions to ask before buying organic. It’s more of a wishlist than a realistic set of questions to interrogate your local farmer with on Saturday mornings, but it’s a way to start thinking about these complex issues. Most of these also apply to conventional agriculture. What would you add?
1. How does this organic farm manage pests?
Contrary to popular thought, organic does not mean pesticide free. It usually does mean free of synthetic pesticides (some synthetic substances, like pheromones, are allowed—the National Organic Program has a list of organic-OK pesticides that all certified farmers abide by), but it doesn’t tell you how often [natural] pesticides were used, how many different ones, how much, or how safe. Natural pesticides are sometimes less efficient than synthetic equivalents, resulting in either crop loss, higher quantities of pesticides, or both. (See this study comparing environmental impact of synthetic and natural pesticides.)
Unfortunately, natural pesticides are not necessarily gentler on animals or soil. According to Professor James McWilliams of Just Food, sulfur, which is a commonly used natural fungicide that is allowed in organic agriculture, is responsible for many farm worker injuries, is toxic to fish, and contributes to topsoil pollution. Another, copper sulfate, persists indefinitely, bioaccumulates in fish, and is classified by the EPA as a type I toxin (most toxic; glyphosate, in comparison, is a type III). Read more about pesticides used in organic farming here. Like synthetic pesticides, some are relatively safe, some are very toxic, some bioaccumulate, some don’t. They need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Better answers for this question would be things like crop rotation, crop diversification, integrated pest management, and cultivating beneficial predator populations.
What gets me is this: by drawing a line between natural and synthetic, the National Organic Program creates a binary based on ideology, not safety records. There is nothing intrinsically safer about natural pesticides. I would prefer to support a farmer who used integrated pest management to control pests, using the lowest effective dose of an appropriate, well-tested chemical (synthetic or otherwise) as a last resort.
2. Does the farm till to control weeds? How often?
Tilling seems like an intrinsic part of farming, but should it? Farmers till soil to get rid of weeds, but tilling is also responsible for increased soil erosion, moisture loss, run-off, poor soil quality, and the subsequent need for more fertilizers. No-till farming has benefits in reducing labor and machinery and improving soil quality and sustainability. However, with no-till, farmers still need to control weeds. Here are your three choices: tilling, spraying conventional toxic herbicides, or using glyphosate and glyphosate tolerant GMO crops. Pick your poison.
Growing coconuts in NorCal is probably not a good use of resources. And because it’s not economically beneficial, we don’t tend to do it. But what happens when it is profitable to grow a crop that doesn’t fit the environment in which it’s grown? The most famous example is probably tomatoes. If you get tomatoes in winter, they probably come from either Florida or Mexico. Florida: tons of pesticides (soil is packed with nematodes and terrible for tomatoes). Mexico: American demand for certified organic tomatoes (and basil and peppers) is decimating local water tables. Closer to home, California’s aquifers are also under stress from both organic and conventional agriculture. Not too surprising, given that we spend six months of every year bone dry but grow food year round.
4. How efficient is this organic farm compared to a non-organic farm growing the same variety under similar environmental conditions?
Here’s another of those pick-your-poison scenarios. Done well, organic agriculture can have less of an impact on soil health, local animal populations and waterways. But many scientists (no, Rodale is not considered a scientific organization) remain unconvinced that organic can meet the efficiency levels of conventional agriculture. Water and land are also limited resources, and the more inefficient the farm, the more pressure on local ecosystems. Read more about organic farming efficiency and ways that careful management can narrow the gap to 13percent (still considerable). Since efficiency difference varies by crop, maybe instead of the Dirty Dozen, we need an Efficient Eleven (or whatever) guide to buying organic. Then again, agricultural efficiency has driven massive population growth. Then again, dropping agricultural output to curb our population seems like it would be an unpopular and possibly inhumane idea. Ack!
5. How do nutrient levels compare in the same variety of organic and non-organic produce under similar environmental conditions?
Same thing, really. We do tend to see increased pesticide residues (well below accepted safety standards) in conventional agriculture compared to organic, though organic isn’t pesticide free, either. When it comes to nutritional content, studies and articles not produced by the organic industry tend to be inconclusive. I dunno, I kind of think that Americans should just eat more fruits and vegetables and not worry about minor nutrient differences between conventional and organic. Still, it would be interesting to see more studies and more lists of fruits and veggies in which organic does make a difference.
This piece of information is frustratingly hard to find. Unlike GMOs, I can’t hop online and get a reasonable idea of which farms/products I want to avoid for ethical reasons. And tragically, farm workers are some of the most (if not the most) disenfranchised people in the country. They are exposed to the highest levels of toxic chemicals and have little or no legal recourse even when they have children with terrible birth defects as a result of illegal chemical exposure. I would gladly pay more for organic if it guaranteed that farm laborers were paid a fair wage with adequate protection from toxins and health care.
Whew. Sustainable food is one big, messy problem with no simple or easy answers. I think I could be reading up on it for the rest of my life and still be unsure what the best thing for me to do as a consumer. Right now, I buy a mix of organic and conventional. The percentage varies on where I’m shopping, and how much more organic costs than conventional. I really should try to talk to more farmers to get answers to these questions and make more decisions based on detailed knowledge, but again, there’s that whole farmers-market-phobia thing. Damn you, introversion.
Did I flub anything? I’d especially love to hear from organic farmers. Are there any questions you would add to my list? How do you feel about buying organic?
Jennifer Mo is a concerned global citizen and a long time cat/book/tree person. You can follow her green journey at It’s Not Easy to be Green.
Editor: Seychelles Pitton
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