La Via Organica: Ten Environmental Reasons to Eat Local, Organic Foods

By Molly Blakemore, May 31, 2010

Not only is local, organic food better for your health, there are a host of environmental reasons to switch from conventional, chemical laden food choices.  From protecting water and soil to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing biodiversity, local, fresh, organic food is the way to go.  Here are ten good reasons to turn over a new, organic leaf.

1. Conserve Water: Organic farming practices “bring the soil back to life” with billions of soil micro-organisms and thereby increase levels of soil organic matter, which in turn increases water retention and reduces the need for irrigation. Organic crops are much better at weathering both drought and heavy rains. Additionally, water contamination through pesticide and nitrate fertilizer runoff or leaching is eliminated, since organic farmers do not use pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

2. Maintain Healthy Soils: Compost, crop rotation and manure fertilizer used in organic agriculture dramatically increase the number of beneficial organisms in the soil. Organic standards prohibit the use of sewage sludge and municipal solid waste application that contaminates soil with heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and toxic chemicals.

3. Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Recent analysis indicates that (non-organic) U.S. factory farms and industrial agriculture are responsible for at least 35%, and possibly up to 50%, of greenhouse gas emissions (CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide). The manufacture, application, and transportation of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers all require large amounts of fossil fuels. By significantly reducing the use of these inputs, organic agriculture uses far less fossil fuels and reduces CO2 greenhouse gas emissions. While CO2 comes mainly from burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests for agriculture; methane (20-70 times more destructive per ton than CO2) arises primarily from the industrialization and overproduction of livestock, and rotting (non-composted) food in garbage dumps. Meanwhile nitrous oxide (200 times more climate destabilizing than CO2 per ton) arises primarily from using nitrate-based chemical fertilizer. Since organic standards prohibit animal factory farms, pesticides, and nitrate fertilizer, and utilize food and crop waste to produce natural fertilizer, organic farms and ranches release significantly less greenhouse gases (GHG).

4. Increase Carbon Sequestration: Data from the Rodale Institute’s long-running comparison of organic and conventional cropping systems confirms that organic methods are far more effective at removing the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, from the atmosphere and fixing it as beneficial organic matter in the soil. The heretofore unpublicized “good news” on climate change, according to the Rodale Institute and other soil scientists, is that transitioning from chemical, water, and energy-intensive industrial agriculture practices to organic farming and ranching on the world’s 3.5 billion acres of farmland and 8.2 billion acres of pasture or rangeland can sequester most of the excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere–up to 7,000 pounds per acre of climate-destabilizing CO2 every year–while nurturing healthy soils, plants, grasses, and trees that are resistant to drought, heavy rain, pests, and disease.

5. Cultivate Biodiversity: Organic farmers, gardeners, and ranchers protect plant and animal biodiversity by maintaining traditional breeds of animals and plants and collecting heirloom seed varieties that are in danger of becoming extinct due to huge, factory farming monocultures, monopolization in the seed sector, and genetic engineering.

6. Avoid Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): GMOs are dangerous because they inevitably give rise to “superweeds” and “superpests” that need stronger and more toxic chemicals to repel them. Genetic pollution and cross-pollination cause contamination in non-GMO fields, undermining biodiversity. GMOs have been found to damage and reduce numbers of beneficial insects and microorganisms in soil. Organic agriculture prohibits the use of Genetically Modified Crops.

7. Eliminate “Dead Zones»: Pesticide and fertilizer runoff from industrial agriculture finds its way into oceans, lakes and rivers, stimulating algae growth, depleting oxygen, and eventually creating “dead zones” where no marine life can survive. The most notable example of this is the Gulf of Mexico, slowly being killed by chemical runoff from non-organic farms and feedlots in the Mississippi River basin.

8. Support Small Farms: Most organic farms are small. Small organic farming systems are diverse, incorporating and preserving significant functional biodiversity within the farm. By preserving biodiversity, open space, and trees, and by reducing land degradation, small farms provide valuable ecosystem services to the larger society.

9. Stop Breeding Deadly Disease: E. coli, salmonella and Mad Cow disease—all food born illnesses that can be fatal to humans—are the result of factory farming. E. coli emerged in the gut of cattle in the 1980s because their stomachs were not accustomed to digesting the grain that they were being fed as a replacement for grass and pasture. Mad cow disease arose from the unnatural practice of feeding cattle the ground and cooked left-overs of the slaughtering process as well as from the cadavers of sick and injured animals. And one study by the Soil Association found that factory farmed eggs had five times higher salmonella levels than organics.

10. Organics Can Feed the World: In one of the largest studies to analyze how agro-ecological practices affect productivity in the developing world, researchers at the University of Essex in England analyzed 286 projects in 57 countries. Among the 12.6 million farmers followed, who were transitioning toward sustainable agriculture, researchers found an average yield increase of 79 percent across a wide variety of crop types.

Salmonella Levels Over 5x Higher in Factory Farm Eggs than Organic

By Peter Shield, Natural Choices, February 1, 2008

The Soil Association can reveal that a recent government survey shows that organic laying hen farms have a significantly lower level of Salmonella. Salmonella is a bacterium that causes one of the commonest forms of food poisoning worldwide.

The study showed that 23.4 per cent of farms with caged hens tested positive for salmonella compared to 4.4 per cent in organic flocks and 6.5 per cent in free-range flocks.

The research also showed that the highest prevalence of salmonella occurred in the largest holding size category (30,000 birds or more). This was over four times the average level of salmonella found in flocks closer to the maximum size allowed under Soil Association organic standards.

Intensively farmed chickens reared for meat can be housed in flocks 30 – 40,000 strong. Even the RSPCA’s Freedom Food standards allow 16,000 egg-laying birds per house, and there is no limit on flock size for free-range meat birds.

In contrast, Soil Association organic standards recommend flock sizes of 500 – with absolute maximum flock sizes of 1,000 for meat birds and 2,000 for egg birds allowed only with special permission and additional management measures in place.

These results support Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his ‘Chicken Out’ campaign to improve the welfare standards of chicken production. It also adds weight to the argument that although ‘free-range’ production would certainly be a positive step forward, it is still some way behind the Soil Association’s organic poultry systems , which ensure truly free range birds and offer the highest standards of animal welfare as acknowledged by respected animal welfare groups such as Compassion in World Farming.

Some battery egg operations have as many as half a million birds. Most battery cages house four or five birds, each with about as much room as an A4 sheet of paper. All animals on Soil Association organic farms must have access to outdoor ranges and pasture, with an emphasis on enabling the animals to express their natural behaviour. Unlike intensively reared birds, organic chickens can’t be given routine doses of antibiotics which weaken the animal’s natural immune system so increasing reliance on drugs, as well as being linked to creating antibiotic resistant ‘superbugs’ with serious human health implications.

There are now approximately 29 million egg-layers in the UK over 70 per cent of which are housed in battery cages. Today three-quarters of the UK’s eggs come from fewer than 300 units, each with 20,000 or more layers.

Emma Hockridge, Soil Association policy department said: «Anyone watching Hugh and Jamie reveal the appalling conditions millions of chickens endure in the cramped, windowless sheds of factory farms will be in no doubt that organic and free-range chickens have a better life.

«This research confirms the Soil Association’s view that there are serious potential human health implications from such intensive systems. Whilst Salmonella food poisoning can be avoided through proper cooking of eggs and meat, anything that reduces the incidence of this bug should be encouraged – like genuine free-range, organic farming.»

Environmental Facts about Organics

The Organic Trade Association

Organic agricultural production benefits the environment by using earth-friendly agricultural methods and practices. Here are some facts that show why organic farming is “the way to grow.”

* A nine-year study by USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) researchers at Beltsville, MD, has shown that organic farming can build up soil organic matter better than conventional no-till farming can, according to results published in the July 2007 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

Source: “No Shortcuts in Checking Soil Health,” http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/jul07/soil0707.htm?pf=1.

* Research at The Rodale Institute has shown that organic practices can remove about 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air and sequester it in an acre of farmland per year. Thus, Rodale estimates that if all 434 million acres of U.S. cropland were converted to organic practices, it would be the equivalent of eliminating 217 million cars—nearly 88 percent of all cars in the country today and more than a third of all the automobiles in the world.

* The Long-Term Agricultural Research (LTAR) initiative funded by the Leopold Center in Iowa has shown greater yield, increased profitability, and steadily improved soil quality in organic over conventional rotations in grain-based cropping systems, according to an article in the Summer 2007 Leopold Letter. The initiative, begun in 1998, is being conducted at the Neely-Kinyon Research Farm near Greenfield, IA. The research tests whether organic systems relying on inputs such as composted manure can promote stable yields, soil quality, and plant protection. Results are then compared with a corn-soybean rotation supported by greater levels of inputs such as fossil-based fuels.

Source: Leopold Letter, Summer 2007

* Research conducted jointly by scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the agricultural consulting firm AGSTAT published in the March-April 2008 Agronomy Journal showed that organic crop rotations had similar yields to their conventional counterparts. The research compared six cropping systems (three cash grain and three foraged-based crops), which ranged from diverse organic systems to conventional systems. Results of this multi-year study found that forage crops produced using organic methods yielded as much or more dry matter as their conventional counterparts “with quality sufficient to produce as much milk as…conventional systems.” The results of the study also revealed that organic corn, soybeans, and winter wheat produced 90 percent as well as the same crops produced in a conventional manner.

Source: www.newswise.com/institutions/view/?id=1622

* A study published in the March 6 online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science showed that fertilizing apple trees with synthetic chemicals produced more adverse environmental effects than feeding them with organic manure or alfalfa. The findings, published by Stanford University graduate student Sasha B. Kramer and colleagues, showed that the use of organic versus chemical fertilizers helped reduce nitrogen pollution.

Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, March 6, 2008.

* Two Brazilian research groups have warned that the Amazon Rain Forest may shrink nearly 20 percent by the year 2030 due to farming, road construction, and poor government surveillance of deforestation.

* According to research performed by Tufts University biologists, tadpoles experienced negative physiological changes, including deformed hearts and malfunctioning kidneys and digestive systems, in early phases of their lives when they were exposed to atrazine, an herbicide commonly used to treat golf courses and residential lawns. While causation had not yet been conclusively determined, researchers found that “compared with control populations, the tadpoles that were exposed to atrazine had a dramatically higher incidence of abnormalities.”

Source: http://www.newswise.com/institutions/view/?id=1939.

* Research performed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Environmental Sciences division revealed that hypoxia, a fatal condition that affects thousands of fish, shrimp, and shellfish in the Gulf of Mexico each year, is partly the result of fertilizer run-off from agricultural activities in the Mississippi basin. The run-off, along with the temperature differentials created when the warm water from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers come into contact with the cold Gulf waters, forms a deadly combination whereby algae grows, dies, decomposes and uses up the oxygen the aforementioned organisms need for survival. To combat this problem, and reduce phosphorus production, which is also seen as a contributing factor in the rise of hypoxia, researchers have proposed increasing the use of environmentally sustainable biofuel, improving nutrient management, and restoring wetlands in the affected areas.

Source: http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/539988/.

* An article, “Pesticides reduce symbiotic efficiency of nitrogen-fixing rhizobia and host plants,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the use of pesticides and other contaminants reduces plant yield by one-third as a result of impaired symbiotic nitrogen fixation. “Agrichemicals are blocking the host plant’s phytochemical recruitment signal,” according to study lead author Jennifer E. Fox, a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Oregon.

Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Pesticides reduce symbiotic efficiency of nitrogen-fixing rhizobia and host plants,” Vol. 104, No. 24. June 12, 2007.

* Research at the NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science has show negative effects of the commonly used herbicide atrazine on phytoplankton, the free-floating algae that form the base of the food chain for aquatic animals. Results, published in January 2007 in the journal Pesticide—Biochemistry and Physiology, showed protein levels in phytoplankton decreased as a result of exposure to atrazine.

Source: Pesticide—Biochemistry and Physiology, January 2007

* The United Nations in February 2006 released a report entitled “Challenges to International Waters: Regional Assessments in a Global Perspectives,” resulting from the Global International Waters Assessment project. Noting “pressures from human activities have weakened the ability of aquatic ecosystems to perform essential functions,” the report looked at freshwater shortage, pollution, over-fishing, habitat modification, and global change. Pointing out that oxygen-depleted zones are present not only in enclosed seas such as the Baltic and Black Seas but also in large coastal areas, the report states, “Globally, harmful algal blooms are considerably more widespread and frequent than they were a decade ago, a situation that is expected to further deteriorate by 2020 due to the increased application of agricultural fertilizers, especially in Asia and Africa.” The project also found that reduced stream flow inappropriate irrigation practices and use of groundwater “have increased the salinity of freshwater throughout the world. As a result, agricultural land is becoming too saline to support important crops.” The report recommends an integrated approach linking water management to land and economic management.

Source: www.giwa.net/publications/finalreport/.

* Canadian researchers have found that the toxic pesticide DDT still is having damaging effects on birds despite being banned in the United States and Canada for the past three decades. Andrew Iwaniuk, lead author of a study published in Behavioural Brain Research (online July 7, 2006, “The effects of environmental exposure to DDT on the brain of a songbird: Changes in structures associated with mating and song”) reported that robins’ eggs that had been exposed to the pesticide during development resulted in birds with up to 30 percent less tissue in certain areas of their brains. As a result, they were unable to sing complicated songs, defend their territory or build nests properly. Iwaniuk, who is with the Department of Psychology at the University of Alberta, estimated that at least 15 to 20 generations of robins have been adversely affected since the pesticide was first applied.

Source: Behavioral Brain Research, online edition, “The effects of environmental exposure to DDT on the brain of a songbird: Changes in structures associated with mating and song,” July 7, 2006.

Don’t Panic, Go Organic

By Anna Lappé, Foreign Policy Magazine, April 29, 2010

Be not troubled by Robert Paarlberg’s scaremongering. Organic practices can feed the world — better, in fact, than wasteful industrial farming.

In May 2004, Catherine Badgley, an evolutionary biology professor at the University of Michigan, took her students on a research trip to an organic farm near their campus. Standing on the acre-and-a-half farm, Badgley asked the farmer, Rob MacKercher, how much food he produces annually. «Twenty-seven tons,» he said. Badgley did the quick math: That’s enough to provide 150 families one pound of produce every single day of the year.

«If he can grow that quantity on this tiny parcel,» Badgley wondered, «why can’t organic agriculture feed the world?» That question was the genesis of a multi-year, multidisciplinary study to explore whether we could, indeed, feed the world with organic, sustainable methods of farming. The results? A resounding yes. Leer más

On the Benefits of Small Farms

By Peter Rosset, Food First, February 8, 1999

The following article is a condensed version of Food First Policy Brief number 4, The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture in the Context of Global Trade Negotiations. The complete policy brief contains extensive bibliographic references, and can be ordered from the Institute or read here.

For more than a century, pundits have confidently predicted the demise of the small farm, labeling it as backward, unproductive, and inefficient — an obstacle to be overcome in the pursuit of economic development. But this is wrong. Far from being stuck in the past, small-farm agriculture provides a productive, efficient, and ecological vision for the future.

If small farms are worth preserving, then now is the time to educate the world’s policy-makers about the genuine value of small farm agriculture. Leer más