People farmed organically for thousands of years. We were basically gardeners of the forest, practicing what we call “agroforestry.” Agroforestry maintains a delicate balance between farming and environmental impact, and humans maintained this type of farming for thousands of years.
The Green Revolution, named for its productivity gains, really accelerated after World War II. It saw the application of mechanized equipment and inorganic methods to farming. Farm implements, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides are applied to the land and crops to boost yield. Imagine in 1910 that few tractors were used on farms, and by 1950 there were over 3 million. Farm productivity demonstrated great success; in 1900, it took 1 farmer to feed 2.5 people, today 1 farmer can feed 100 people.
Biologist Rachael Carson famously raised issues concerning pesticides, a staple in conventional farming, particularly DDT, in her book Silent Spring written in 1962. DDT destroyed the eggshells of Pelicans, for example, by getting into water imbibed by these birds. This reduced pelican populations to extinction levels. A ban on DDT brought them back in plentiful numbers and stood as a testament to what consumers and advocates can do to protect nature.
However, the industrial approach to farming continues to have negative consequences, including dead soils, pollution of waterways due to fertilizer run-off, killing off bees and other valuable pollinators, and food loaded with toxins left over from chemicals and spraying which may cause long term disease.
The factory model has also had disastrous consequences due to the scale of planting itself—for example, the development of palm oil plantations at the expense of forests. Palm oil is found in almost every household item, even your favorite peanut butter. Indonesia has lost 50% of its forests to palm oil plantations, logging, and other crops. This has resulted in habitat loss, low biodiversity, and less carbon dioxide absorption and oxygen regeneration from trees in the atmosphere.
Certified Organic is Making a Difference
Consumer choices are beginning to change farming for the better.
The United States Department of Agriculture, USDA, certifies a farm as organic. You’ll see this nomenclature featured on every genuinely organic label. Organic certification, first and foremost, indicates a method of farming. No chemical-based fertilizers are used, no pesticides, no genetically modified elements or GMO’s and referring to animals, no antibiotics. Instead, these farms use only approved pest control methods and natural deterrents and methods like crop rotation to improve soil health.
Even with these advances, farmers are sometimes reluctant to employ organic methods because of potential risks to productivity and steep learning curves. It requires different equipment, more labor for weed control and crop rotation, and different storage facilities and transport networks. This helps explain why organic farms account for less than 1 percent of US farmland, or less than 5 million acres in total, but most of the marketplace’s growth. The U.S. is an exporter of conventional corn, wheat, and soy, but an importer of organic corn, wheat, and soy, over $2 billion in imported organic foods annually.
A Growing Market
On the other hand, consumers’ healthy choices in the U.S. drive significant growth in organic produce and meat. The organic market in 2012 was $28.4 billion, and by 2020 it had grown to over $50 billion, doubling in eight years. This year it is up 4.6%, compared with 2% for conventional products.
This is changing the manufacturer and branded side of the business as well. For example, General Mills bought Annie’s, a maker of organic pasta and snacks, and has contracted directly with farmers to plant thousands of acres to be farmed organically. This may be the beginning of a change in scale for organic farming that will benefit consumers and make organic farms more attractive.
You will find plenty of organic choices at farmers’ markets, health food stores, subscription services, and chains like Whole Foods and Safeway. A rapidly growing segment is “farm to table,” including services that provide produce boxes featuring only local and in-season options or even “odd” lots of products that are non-GMO and don’t look like the perfect tomatoes we may be used to seeing in our stores. There are also farmers’ markets cropping up in towns and cities across the country and restaurants that grow their own produce and livestock. The silver lining of “farm to table” is that local production also means less carbon footprint.
Rules of Thumb for Navigating Organic Choices
Following are a few rules of thumb on how to shop for organic foods:
- First, look for USDA Certified Organic. You can trust this label, which should be stated clearly on the package or sticker on the fruit or vegetable. You will also see certifications for non-GMO.
- Shop the “local” section of the produce aisle. Not everything will be organic, but you will get the chance to support local farmers and reduce your carbon footprint. Again, organic options should be clearly labeled.
- The simpler the ingredients, the better, and you will notice that organic options always have fewer additives. Peanut butter ingredients should read “peanuts and salt added;” if you need to be a scientist to comprehend the label, do not buy it. Lots of peanut butter, for example, contain palm oil and synthetic ingredients, many of which are added as preservatives or to change the texture and taste of the food.
- Look for line and pole caught fish, including canned tuna. Ask your fish guy or butcher for sustainably sourced options.
- If the organic version of fruits, vegetables, and meats is more expensive and you are on a tight budget, mix your basket up and only buy organic lettuce. Lettuce readily absorbs chemicals; strawberries can also be problematic, so prioritize organic berries.
- Look for shade-grown and fairtrade coffee, with shade serving as a natural fertilizer. Fairtrade is particularly important with coffee, given the smallholder farmers involved in the supply chain, the volatile price of coffee in the market, and the need to adapt to climate change in the regions that grow coffee.
- Notice how prices reflect what produce is in season and save your pennies by buying apples in the fall and berries in the summer. In-season produce tastes better and does not require the same level of intervention in farming used to deliver strawberries to consumers in the winter.
Your choices matter; make them count in-store or online and at the farmers market. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain.