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Green living expert, author, and TV personality, Sara Snow, explains the USDA organic seal and why "natural" is not organic.

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Response to “Organic is not the ‘sustainable’ food of the future”

Apr 21, 2014
Photo Credit: Bob Jagendorf

Photo Credit: Bob Jagendorf

The sustainability focus of the article “Organic is not the ‘sustainable’ food of the future” is commendable, but misses many of the useful sustainable tools that organic has to offer. According to the quote from Dr. John E. Ikerd, sustainable agriculture must be “ecologically sound, economically viable and socially responsible.”  Organic principles are based around these values, and the organic standards regulated by USDA use up-to-date scientific information to ensure that organic farming remains economically viable, while supporting environmental and human health.

Farmers face many challenges—threat of decreased yield, soil degradation, and resistant weeds and pests.  These troubles are shared by organic and conventional farmers alike, and the grower community should share resources to address them in a way that is beneficial to all.  Many of the ecologically sound practices in organic agriculture are not exclusive to organic management, and can be used by conventional farmers to reap the benefits of long-term crop health.  These systems are based on current research to provide long-term solutions to problems.  Because organic farming relies on few inputs, these methods are often so cost effective that they are incorporated into conventional management plans as another useful tool to combat common challenges.

Photo Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli

Photo Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli

For example, nitrogen leaching is a problem for all farmers, but large-scale models show that organic practices can actually reduce nitrogen runoff by over 50%.  In general, research supports the fact that organic methods can decrease nitrogen losses.  One way that this is achieved is by combining fewer synthetic inputs with the recycling of plant material.  The soil structure of organically managed soil also allows for greater storage and reduced runoff and leaching of nutrients.

When it comes to climate change, organic management also provides some interesting tools that can be used to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.  For example, recent research has found that, on average, organically managed soils release 492 kg less carbon dioxide per hectare per year than conventionally managed soils. Findings also showed that the uptake of methane on organic farms was higher than on conventional farms.  One of the reasons for this reduction in greenhouse gas output is the reduced use of synthetic fertilizer.  The production of synthetic fertilizer is extremely energy intensive and can result in higher greenhouse gas emissions than the use of compost, especially when the carbon sequestration of composting is taken into account.  One study that looked at the issue in depth found that the emission reduction potential by abstaining from using mineral fertilizer would be about 20%, and the compensation potential by carbon sequestration would be 40-70% of the world’s current annual agricultural GHG emissions.

Photo Credit: Natural Resources Conservation Service: Soil Health

Photo Credit: Natural Resources Conservation Service: Soil Health

These emission reductions are also true within the production of specific food commodities.  One study looking at the sustainability of organic versus conventional lemon and orange orchards found that organic production had a lower environmental impact and reduced energy consumption than conventional production. Another study focusing on peach orchards found that organic orchards produced less greenhouse gasses than conventional orchards. Similar greenhouse gas reductions in organic management have been documented for a variety of commodities.

Another issue brought up in the article focuses on reduced yields due to organic management.  Although it is true that some studies have shown lower yields for organic production, new studies are showing that by using best management practices and maintaining organic management over a long period of time, yields can equal or surpass those of conventional farms.  For example, one recent study showed that organic yields increase the longer their fields are managed organically.

Photo Credit: Wonderlane

Photo Credit: Wonderlane

The same study also showed that organic management can benefit soil quality.  There are many methods for increasing soil health, and on average, research shows that using organic techniques can improve the long-term health of your soil.  If you are interested in reaping the benefits from both organic and no-till practices, there are several successful techniques for no-till farming developed specifically for organic systems.

The challenges of farming are shared among conventional and organic growers.  Farmers need to work together and use as many techniques as possible to ensure that agricultural systems are “ecologically sound, economically viable and socially responsible.”  Organic has a lot to share. Let’s learn from each other to reach a shared goal of sustainability!

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