The April 24 article, “Six Reasons Organic Is NOT The Most Environmentally Friendly Way to Farm," fails to put organic farming systems in context. Organic farming is a holistic process, and when the parts of the systems are viewed as such, it is clear organic production is more environmentally sound than conventional production. The isolated practices pointed out by the author are small pieces of the larger picture, and are not applicable to many organic operations. It is also important remember that while all agriculture disrupts the natural landscape, organic farming practices are far less environmentally taxing than practices used on conventional farms.
1. Use of Pesticides on Organic Farms
Rather than relying on a cocktail of synthetic fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides, organic production uses integrated pest management (IPM) programs, which include cultural, biological, and physical procedures created with the specific crop, local environment, and pest life history in mind. These strategies are much gentler on the environment than conventional techniques, and maintain biodiversity in the farming system which can reduce the overall presence of pests, weeds, and diseases. For example, many organic farmers manage pests by introducing predatory insects to eat the “bad” insects that harm crops. Lady bugs, soldier beetles, green lacewings, big-eyed bugs, and beneficial nematodes all eat harmful insects, and can decrease the need for insecticides. However, the use of conventional pesticides can harm these insects, thereby increasing the need for future pesticide application. One study published last year in the journal Chemosphere showed that the use of synthetic pesticides on crops can harm predatory, beneficial insects more than organic certified pesticides because of their high toxicity levels. Using IPM programs like those practiced on organic farms are more environmentally sound than using conventional pesticides because using natural tools such as cover cropping and attracting natural pest enemies reduces not only the amount of pesticide application, which can harm native organisms and pollute ground water, but also the long-term need for synthetic chemicals.
2. The Carbon Footprint of Organic Farms
Studies examining the carbon footprint of organic farming systems consistently find that they contribute to climate change less than conventional farming systems. A study released last month from Technische Universität München (TUM) examined the environmental footprint of 80 farms and found that organic farming not only produces less greenhouse gases, but also uses less energy than conventional farming techniques. This study isn’t the first to show the climate change benefits of organic versus conventional farming. In 2009, a study in the United Kingdom found that, on average, organic farming results in 20% higher levels of soil carbon than conventional farming. A 2011 report published by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reported significantly higher soil carbon content in 480 organically managed farms across North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. When it comes to carbon footprints, organic is vastly better for the environment than conventional.
3. No-Till on Organic Farms
The use of no-till is not currently mainstream in conventional agriculture. While some environmentally conscious conventional operations use no-till, these farms make up less than 36% of total U.S. cropland. Although it is easier to institute no-till practices in combination with the use of large quantities of herbicides, the use of no-till in organic farming is not uncommon. In 2002 the Rodale Institute designed a no-till roller-crimper, which allows the mechanical killing of cover crops without herbicides.
Additionally, one of the benefits of no-till is a reduction in the amount of runoff into local streams and rivers. This runoff is reduced in organic agriculture even without the use of no-till because of the extensive use of cover crops and the low in-puts of fertilizer and pesticides.
4. Reduction of Run-off in Organic Farms
The environmental and health benefits of using compost rather than synthetic fertilizer are well documented. Only about 50% of the large amounts of synthetic nitrogen and phosphorus placed on conventional farm fields are taken up by crops, and up to 40% of those fertilizers end up in the ground or surface waters of the watershed (the rest is lost to the atmosphere and contributes to global warming), eventually polluting our rivers, lakes and oceans. This runoff of synthetic nitrogen and phosphorus causes algal blooms that can harm people and marine and freshwater life. A recent research article published in PNAS determined that long-term conventional fertilizer use contributed to the 2011 record-breaking poisonous algal bloom in Lake Erie, creating concentrations of liver toxins in the water hundreds of times higher than levels approved by the World Health Organization for drinking and recreation. The study predicts that unless management practices change, huge algal blooms might become the norm. Organic farming, on the other hand, decreases the risk of algal blooms by using biological fertilizers that release nutrients slowly, build soil organic matter, increase soil water-holding capacity, and reduce leaching of nitrates into groundwater.
5. Land Use
The use of conventional farming practices can increase short-term yield in crops bred for high-input programs, but food limitation is less of a global issue than food waste. For example, one study reported at the 2007 United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization conference that food security would not be compromised if 50 percent of agricultural land in food exporting regions of Europe and North America were converted to organic agriculture by the year 2020. Thus, conversion to organic would not necessitate land-use-conversion to agriculture. Additionally, new crops are currently being developed to increase production in low-input systems. These new organic varieties are bred specifically for high productivity and health in low-input systems, and will have higher yields in organic systems than current conventional varieties, even without the use of synthetic chemicals.
6. Scalability of Organic
Several companies have demonstrated the scalability of organic production. While a large number of organic farms are small and service local areas, an increasing number of large operations have adopted organic methods. The use of environmentally friendly organic techniques are not limited to small-scale companies, and the environmental benefits of expanding organic production can be seen in farms of all sizes.
The environmental superiority of organic is not assumed, as suggested by this article, but supported by years of scientific research. The fact remains that rather than simply focusing on profits, organic systems focus on a triple-bottom line, incorporating environmentally sound practices into their operations. When it comes to choosing products that make a positive ecological difference, organic is the way to go.