Growing Green: Assessing the Realities of Organic Farming

The idea that the organic label always means environmentally friendly is questioned by the ongoing debate about how organic farming affects the environment. Even though organic farming tries to avoid artificial pesticides and make soil healthier, recent research shows we need a careful approach that considers both helping the environment and producing food efficiently, especially as more people pick organic products.

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By Sara Shen

As soon as you enter the grocery store, you are greeted with a colorful assortment of produce: red bell peppers, orange baby carrots, and stalks of broccoli fill the shelves. As you reach out and grab some products, however, you spot some produce with a big green “organic” sticker. The green label immediately catches your attention—you’ve heard that these products are healthier for you. But what does “organic” mean? How is organic agriculture cultivated?

Early in the 20th century, concerns about the negative impacts of industrial agriculture gave rise to organic farming. The term “organic farming” was coined in 1940 by Walter James in his book Look to the Land, where he looked at a natural approach to agriculture.

When a product is labeled as organic, it means that it was grown in soil with no prohibited substances, including synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Exposure to synthetic pesticides can be harmful to organisms as they are linked to certain cancers and have negative respiratory effects. Additionally, it means the product was not genetically modified, meaning that its DNA was not artificially changed using laboratory technology, which is often used in conventional farming to produce crops with desired traits like resistance to insect damage in order to increase crop yield. The common assumption that organic foods are inherently better for consumer health and the environment overlooks the reality that organic farming does not automatically guarantee non-toxicity or safety.

Organic farming is an agricultural system that uses natural pest controls and biological fertilizers made from animal and plant waste. In order to be a USDA Certified Organic product, it must undergo inspections to ensure that prohibited pesticides and fertilizers aren’t being used onsite. By not using synthetic fertilizers in organic agriculture, the overall risk of exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment is reduced. Therefore, there is a lower rate of pollution in the soil and nearby water sources. According to the USDA organic regulations, organic farmers are required to practice crop rotation, which is when a different crop is planted on the same plot of land each season. Since crops have different nutrient needs, crop rotation prevents soil depletion by cultivating and ensuring balanced nutrient uptake. These regulations are enforced by the National Organic Program to guarantee organic integrity in the marketplace.

However, other than the fact that organic foods do not use synthetic pesticides in their production, compared to non-organic foods, they are nutritionally the same. Furthermore, many people purchase organic foods with the idea that they are doing less harm to the environment. Though organic farmers attempt to produce food sustainably by maintaining soil quality and preventing erosion by avoiding synthetic chemicals, consumers fail to take into account the negative environmental effects that come along with it. Some experts argue that organic farming may not be as environmentally friendly as many think. For example, experts have warned that the organic pesticides used for organic farming can be equally as harmful as synthetic ones. For example, rotenone, which is naturally found in the roots of subtropical plants, was considered organic and safe to use in the past, but research has shown that it can cause pathological conditions like Parkinson’s disease in rats and potentially in humans.

According to a 2010 study by the University of Guelph, organic pesticides usually have to be used in larger quantities compared to synthetic pesticides since organic pesticides are less effective at killing harmful insects affecting crops and farmers are unrestricted in terms of the quantities of pesticides used. This amplifies any potentially damaging effects organic pesticides can have on the environment. In a study done by Canadian scientists, they compared organic and synthetic pesticides to see which pesticide worked better in controlling the soybean aphid, a common problematic pest to farmers. The results showed that synthetic pesticides were more effective in pest control, whereas organic pesticides were more ecologically damaging. The organic pesticides caused a higher mortality rate in non-target species such as the aphid’s predators, thus disrupting the ecological balance between predator and prey.

Moreover, the prohibition of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in organic farming causes inefficient crop yield, meaning farmers need to use more land to yield the same amount of food. As a result, the rate of deforestation increases as companies clear more forests for agricultural production. Trees absorb and store carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, during which trees use carbon dioxide to make sugars. When forests are cleared to make way for organic farming, the trees release their greenhouse gasses and the carbon stored in them. Forest damage accounts for approximately 10 percent of global warming and accelerates climate change by intensifying greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting down forests also causes the release of carbon stored in the soil, which decreases soil quality. This makes it difficult for the soil to provide the nutrients required for plant growth, thus further reducing crop yield and stunting plant growth.

The automatic assumption that an organic label equates to environmental friendliness undermines the complexity of sustainable agricultural practices. The complexities of using organic pesticides highlight the need for an approach to agriculture that takes both environmental sustainability and food production efficiency into account. While organic farming minimizes exposure to synthetic pesticides, it introduces its own set of concerns, as organic pesticides can also pose health risks and disrupt ecosystems. As people continue to choose organic products, it is necessary to critically evaluate organic agricultural processes in order to balance environmental advantages against potential drawbacks. Next time you step into a grocery store and see the “organic” produce, think about what that label really means so you can make an informed decision about your purchase.