A quick look at the benefits of organic

Photo: Organic garlic scapes at Gravity Hill Farm, Titusville, NJ, from howfoodisgrown.blogspot.com

Here in the Delaware River Valley, a place chock full of small, independent farms, it’s easy enough to find fresh local food. Some of that food is certified USDA organic. Some is grown or raised using “sustainable” farming methods — even if the farm hasn’t pursued the official organic label. In the latter group, there seems to be growing awareness of consumer interest in healthier, more environmentally sound farming practices and safe, chemical-free food.

Local and fresh are both great benefits. But what are the additional benefits of choosing food that is organic or sustainably grown? For starters:

1. Fewer chemicals

What you get: USDA organic guidelines ban the use of synthetic fertilizers, “prohibited pesticides,” irradiation and sewage sludge. A farm that is not certified USDA organic still may be committed to using few if any “chemical inputs.” The only way to find out is to ask… or let farmers know your concerns and listen to their responses.

Why that’s important: While eating some foods with chemical residues may not pose an immediate health risk, studies suggest there’s reason to be concerned about the cumulative effect – and the impact on children. Independent studies have linked many pesticides to health problems, including cancer, hormonal disruption, brain and nervous system damage and irritation to skin, eyes and lungs. Studies also have linked pesticides to nervous system damage in children.(1)

2. No hormones or antibiotics

What you get:  USDA organic guidelines also prohibit the use of hormones and antibiotics. Many local farms that are not certified USDA organic identify their products, including milk, eggs, chicken and beef, as hormone and antibiotic free.

Why that’s important: For years, industrial farms have been pumping livestock with hormones to encourage growth and antibiotics to counteract the unhealthy conditions created by CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) (Note: If you aren’t familiar with CAFOs, consider downloading Food Inc. from Netflix!). Some scientists believe that hormones in food may contribute to premature puberty and to certain types of cancer. As for antibiotics, their use in livestock amounts to a whopping 80% of all antibiotic use in the U.S. according to the FDA.(2)  There’s widespread concern that this is contributing to the dangerous rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

3. No GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)

What you get: Once again, these are banned outright in certified USDA organic food. If an item is not 100% organic, look for non-GMO or GMO-free labels or produce stickers with a five-digit number beginning with 8. Since the U.S. doesn’t require labeling of GMOs, these are not full-proof methods. But since GMOs are mostly used in large-scale industrial farming, buying from small local farms can help keep GMOs out of your diet.

Why that’s important: GMOs have become increasingly common in recent years. Proponents believe these super-resilient organisms can better withstand natural risks such as pests, disease and weather extremes. The problem is that there hasn’t been much research to determine whether GMOs are safe to eat.

 4. Poly culture

What you get: Certified USDA organic farms are required to grow a variety of crops and rotate them seasonally, using cover crops and other techniques. Most small local farms grow a variety of crops and/or raise a mix of livestock.

Why that’s important: Mono-crop farming has become the norm for large-scale industrial farms that grow commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans. Chemicals enable this, but ultimately, it is not considered a sustainable approach. Since biblical times (really), farmers have understood the importance of poly culture and crop rotation. Growing a variety of crops can reduce the impact of pests that attack any one crop. Farmers may even plant certain crops together to take advantage of one plant’s natural ability to ward off pests in another plant. Poly culture also allows for annual crop rotation, which helps rebuild soil and restore its fertility, reducing erosion and enhancing the nutritional value of crops.

 5. Less Carbon Dioxide

What you get: It turns out that what’s good for your health is literally better for the planet. Studies by the Rodale Institute(3) have found that organic farming preserves mychorrhizal fungi in the soil. These fungi act as natural “carbon sinks,” pulling in carbon from the air and sequestering it in the soil for decades. On the other hand, Rodale studies show that chemical farming causes soil to release carbon dioxide into the air, actually contributing to global warming.

Why that’s important. Dealing with global warming is a big challenge. The Rodale Institute’s research has found that by farming organically, using cover crops, crop rotation, composting and other “regenerative organic practices,” we can put the soil to work as an effective carbon sink. Scientists at Rodale believe this may be one of the most effective tools we have to ameliorate the effects of climate change. And there’s an  added benefit: While carbon in the atmosphere causes global warming, carbon in the soil provides an important nutrient to plants, making them hardier and more nutritious.

6. A whole lot more

Other benefits of organic food and farming methods include the following: Research suggests that organic farming is more drought resistant than “conventional” farming, something that hopefully will get attention in light of current events in the Midwest. Organic farms must meet animal health and safety standards, including providing livestock with access to the outdoors and a 100% organic diet. Organic farming could eliminate concerns about toxic chemical runoff into our rivers and streams. And some argue that organic has the potential to produce more food than conventional farming, helping to prevent global food insecurity.

Still not convinced…or simply want to learn more about organic? The sources below are a good place to start.

Sources for this article include the sites of the Environmental Working Group, the Rodale Institute, the USDA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

1 Source: The Environmental Working Group, http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/faq

2 The Union of Concerned Scientists reported this finding from the Food & Drug Administration.

3 The Rodale Institute: Regenerative Organic Farming: A Solution to Global Warming