According to a 2019 report from the Organic Trade Association, organic food sales rose to approximately $48 billion in 2018, accounting for 5.7% of the American food market. This number represents the greater movement in the United States towards the use of organic food and other organic products. By seeking out alternatives to the traditional methods of farming and product manufacturing, consumers hope to protect their own bodies from harmful chemicals and to protect the land from corporate agricultural abuse. Those involved in the process of organic farming hope to grow food in a way that supports the land they work on and its indigenous biology, such as microorganisms and wildlife, by avoiding the overuse of nutrients in the soil and rejecting harmful pesticides and chemicals that could seep into the groundwater.
Despite its noble intentions, however, some question whether the benefits of organic farming outweigh the drawbacks. For example, in places where there is low farmland availability, an argument can be made in favor of conventional farming techniques as they more efficiently use available acreage, consequently leaving nearby wildlife untouched. While advancements are made every day in organic practices, the yields under conventional practices are often higher because of the chemically-efficient fertilizers used. To produce the same amount of organic food a farmer must therefore use more land, contributing to deforestation and increasing what Swedish researchers call a “carbon opportunity cost” — a new way of measuring the cost of deforestation via the amount of organic carbon stored in forests which is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when the forests are taken down.
Because organic farms do not use the traditional pesticides found in conventional farming, they often have to till the soil more often. This process of breaking up the topsoil does remove weeds; however, it also contributes to a significant amount of erosion and soil degradation, especially when the deeper layers, which are usually protected, are exposed to the environment. A study conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found that of the five main causal factors of soil degradation around the world, three could be traced back to farming practices.
Although the United States is a top exporter of many products such as apples and grapes, we still import things that do not thrive here, such as coffee. Additionally, despite the fact that the United States produces a large proportion of the world’s organic corn and soybeans, we still have to import these products to meet domestic demands and feed animals so that their meat, eggs, and other products can comply with organic standards.
Despite the fact that 90 million acres of American soil are dedicated to growing corn for animal feed, we still need to import it if we want organic — only 0.2% of the corn and soy grown in the U.S. is organic. For many producers, the problem is monetary. Most farmers know that the soil would stay healthier if they were to avoid spraying their crops with harmful chemicals. However, as farm loan delinquencies and bankruptcy filings rise, farmers, especially smaller ones, are less inclined to tolerate the upfront losses incurred during the transition to organic practices. Not only do these small business owners have to endure transitional years of decreased yields as they move to organic practices and suffer possible yield declines, but during this time they are also unable to be certified as organic and therefore cannot benefit from the associated price premiums.
One possible avenue for easing the transition for farmers into organic growing is corporate assistance. For example, General Mills (via their subsidiary, Annie’s) has begun a program of buying land from growers so that these smaller farmers do not have to worry about expenses like property tax while they are making the financially-taxing transition to organic practices. Partnerships like these ultimately serve both the farmers, who experience less financial stress, and the companies, because the cost of owning the land is significantly lower than the cost of importing or purchasing the goods they need for production.
Now we need to ask ourselves whether the hassle and the added cost, both to growers and consumers, is outweighed by the potential environmental benefits of the process. If you can afford it, and if it’s done with an extreme amount of care, organic farming is an ecologically- and environmentally-friendly way of producing food. However, done incorrectly, organic farming can lead to extreme soil degradation and even deforestation, not to mention the fact that offering only organic food to consumers prohibits many from accessing healthy meals. At the end of the day, keeping hazardous chemicals out of groundwater and protecting the soil by planting and caring for it in a sustainable way is a better option. We must be vigilant in the ways we protect our farmland and consider that while some are able to reap the advantages of organic farming, it is not a viable way to feed the world.
Balmford, A., et al. (2018). The environmental costs and benefits of high-yield farming. Nature Sustainability, Volume 1, pp. 477-485. doi: 10.1038/s41893-018-0138-5
Capehart, T. (2019). Feedgrains Sector at a Glance. United States Department of Agriculture: Economic Research Service. Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/corn-and-other-feedgrains/feedgrains-sector-at-a-glance/
Cernansky, R. (2018). We don’t have enough organic farms. Why not? National Geographic. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/future-of-food/organic-farming-crops-consumers/
Durisin, M. (2016). Organic industry forced to import feed because U.S. can’t keep up with demand. The Seattle Times. Retrieved from https://www.seattletimes.com/business/as-demand-for-organic-feed-surges-us-cows-feast-on-romanian-corn/
Global Assessment of Human-Induced Soil Degradation (GLASOD). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Land & Water. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/land-water/land/land-governance/land-resources-planning-toolbox/category/details/en/c/1036321/
Greene, C., Ferreira, G., Carlson, A., Cooke, B., & Hitaj, C. Growing Organic Demand Provides High-Value Opportunities for Many Types of Producers. United States Department of Agriculture: Economic Research Service. Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2017/januaryfebruary/growing-organic-demand-provides-high-value-opportunities-for-many-types-of-producers/
Organic food worse for the climate. Chalmers University of Technology. Retrieved from https://www.chalmers.se/en/departments/see/news/Pages/Organic-food-worse-for-the-climate.aspx
Organic Industry Survey (2019). Organic Trade Association. Retrieved from https://ota.com/resources/organic-industry-survey