Guest Column: Buying organically-grown food is good for you and the environment


What is organically-grown food?

Organic growing practices are farming methods to control pests and retain soil nutrients that exclude the use of manufactured (the key word!) pesticides, fertilizers, or other additives to regulate growth, and include other environmentally-friendly means of crop management.

One of the easiest-to-understand summaries on organic farming comes from Sloan Barnett (Green Goes with Everything, 2008): “Long ago and far away – okay actually not even a hundred years ago – all farming was organic farming. Farmers used manures and nitrogen-building cover crops to increase fertility, rotated their crops to give fields a rest, tilled the soil along each row to cut down weeds, used manual labor and beneficial insects to keep down pests, grazed animals in their meadows and sold their products pretty much locally.”

This is not to say that traditional farmers are not incorporating these same methods, because many farmers do use a variety of these practices. However, certified organic farming is regulated around the world, meaning that foods labeled “organic” adhere to certain production standards.

In the U.S., organic foods are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its National Organic Program (NOP). The NOP has long lists of what is needed to qualify as organic, how to get certified and the dozens of practices that are to be followed. Some of the outlined standards involved crop rotation, livestock health care, pest management, wild-crop harvesting, soil fertility and crop nutrient management and seeds and planting stock practices.

How does this help the environment?

A few of the areas organic growing practices benefit are ground water quality, river system health, soil retention, habitat availability and global human health.

Some of these benefits arise out of the simple fact that organic farmers do not use manufactured fertilizers or pesticides that typically end up in our water supply. And the fact is, some of these manufactured fertilizers (or extreme amounts of manure) and pesticides have a negative impact on ground water quality, river system health and human health – you and your community’s health.

Methods like crop rotation provide the nutrients for the soil instead of fertilizers that are commonly made using petroleum products. Harvest and tillage methods which leave plant material in the field after harvest and during the winter provides valuable habitat for any number of small species which depend on cover from the cold in winter, as well as providing protection against soil erosion.

Does this mean that organic food is better for you?

Organic foods may provide some health benefits because they are produced without synthetic chemicals. However, another compelling reason to buy organic foods is that organic foods are another step toward environmental sustainability. Making sustainable food choices, such as buying organic foods, will help the environment – and every little bit helps!

The content of this column is the opinion of the author and does not reflect the opinions of the ESE Institute/Environmental Studies.