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.