Can Organic Heal the Earth?

Posted on November 29, 2011

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The world we live in is made up of information. We are constantly bombarded by information, via television, radio, magazines, newspapers, status updates, and tweets.  It can be hard to know which sources to believe, who to trust. Controversial topics can be particularly difficult to understand. One such topic is the debate over organic versus conventional farming.

Over the course of this three-part series I’m going to attempt to break this argument down and lay out the reasons why organic farming really could be the answer. (I’ll always provide you with sources so you can check the information for yourself.) In this first installment we’re going to address the environmental costs of these competing farming methods. Most of the environmental issues that arise from conventional farming come down to one practice: monocultures.

A monoculture is when a farmer chooses to plant a huge area of land with only one type of crop. (The term is also sometimes used to refer to
CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.) Large farms may plant around 640 acres of corn in a season. An acre is roughly equivalent
in size to a football field, minus the end zones. Monocultures are a cheap and easy way to grow the most food on a given acre of land. Because there is no competition from other species, the plants can be grown closer together, treated with one fertilizer or insecticide/herbicide, and harvested all at the same time with the same equipment. This also reduces the amount of labor required to bring the crops from planting to harvest.

There are downsides to monocultures as well. Closely crowded plants of a single species are more susceptible to the onset and transmission of disease, often necessitating heavy pesticide use. The planting of a single species can also lead to depletion of soil nutrients, due to the appetites of so many plants all hungry for the same minerals. This in turn leads to an increased need for (usually chemical) fertilizers. Monocultures also lack genetic diversity. If a pesticide or herbicide resistant pest does arise, an entire season’s harvest could be wiped out at once.

Animal monocultures, or CAFOs, are also prone to outbreaks of disease, and the crowded livestock is often treated with preventative doses of antibiotics. When cows, who would normally eat a grass based diet, are fed primarily grains, it changes the pH of their stomachs. (The grain they are fed is generally grown as a monoculture crop, adding to the problems mentioned earlier.) This creates a breeding ground for new types of bacteria, which can become resistant to antibiotics due to the regular exposure. The animals may also become unhealthy due to a lack of physical activity. Finally, housing such a large number of animals in a single location creates a huge amount of waste matter. The unhealthy (sometimes
antibiotic-resistant) bacteria in this waste often gets into the water and contaminates vegetable crops, leading to outbreaks of foodborne illness.

What do insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and animal waste have in common? They end up in our water.  We all learned about the water cycle in elementary school: Rain falls, finds its way into rivers, lakes, seas, and plants, evaporates back into the sky, forms clouds, and falls again. What we sometimes forget is that water is a very effective solvent. It dissolves and incorporates the things it comes into contact with, bringing them along on its cyclic journey. The huge machinery needed to care for large farms is extremely heavy, compacting the soil and making it less
absorbent. This increases the likelihood of erosion, and compounds the problem of chemical runoff. When these chemicals reach the water, they can cause algal blooms, which lower the oxygen levels, causing the death of many plants, fish, insects, and other aquatic animals.

Organic farms are generally much smaller in size than their conventional counterparts, reducing the need for oversized machinery and incidents of soil compaction. Fewer and more natural pest control methods are used, further reducing chemical runoff. Crop rotation, alternating the crop planted in a field from one season to the next, allows for healthy replenishment of soil nutrients. Animals are allowed access to the outdoors and opportunities to graze naturally. Their manure nourishes the earth and can be composted for use as fertilizer. They are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. Finally, because they use smaller machinery, non-chemical fertilizers, and have less concentrated livestock operations, organic farms produce fewer greenhouse gases than conventional farms.*

When all these factors are taken into account, it seems that organic farming methods are indeed less harmful to the earth and can even help replenish depleted soils. Sustainability is only part of the argument though. In the next installment: Can choosing organically farmed foods affect your health?

Learn more:
The USDA on corn production: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/sb974-1/sb974-1.pdf
The EPA on runoff: http://www.epa.gov/owow/NPS/Ag_Runoff_Fact_Sheet.pdf
The USDA on organic production: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/ofp/ofp.shtml
The Sustainable Table on farm pollution: http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/

*The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial: http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/FSTbookletFINAL.pdf

 

This article was adapted from one first published in the GreenTree Cooperative Grocery Newsletter of Fall 2011.

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Posted in: Organic, Production