Global warming is not typically the first issue associated with grocery shopping, but today’s consumers decide much more than what’s for dinner with their food dollars.Agriculture has wide ranging environmental impacts that are difficult to see from the kitchen. After all, growing food is intimately connected with soil, water and air, so we must expect that food production processes affect the quality of these resources.
Organic agriculture is often associated with healthier food, but “organic” goes far beyond the product sold in the market.
Organic agriculture capitalizes on the complexity of ecosystems to produce food in ways that sustain and improve soil, air and water quality. By choosing to buy organic, you support production methods that reduce agriculture’s contribution to global warming and mitigate its effects.
Currently, conventional agriculture is a major net contributor to global warming.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture to be up to 30 percent of global emissions. Organic agriculture has great potential to change this _ a potential recognized by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the IPCC.
The manufacture of synthetic fertilizers, which are prohibited in organic production, alone accounts for one-half of all energy used in American agriculture, according to the Rodale Institute.
Nitrogen fertilizer, in particular, is extremely energy intensive to manufacture. Instead of synthetic fertilizers, organic farmers supply crops with nutrients through the use of cover crops, manure and compost.
All of these natural fertilizers add organic matter to the soil, locking in, or sequestering, large amounts of carbon. Results vary, but in long-term comparisons of cropping systems, the Rodale Institute estimates that organic systems can sequester 600-1,000 pounds of carbon per acre of soil.
Methane and nitrous oxide, two major greenhouse gases, are closely related to animal density and handling conditions of manure waste. Organic agriculture sets limits to animal density and requires animals to be on pasture. Pasturing animals eliminates the need for manure pits, which create conditions for these emissions.
Critics argue that organic farming is not a viable means to combat global warming because yield on organic farms is lower, causing much more land to be put into agricultural production.
The science is inconclusive on this point. More important, though, consider the basis for comparison: conventional farm yields depend on a system sustained by chemical fertilizers and pesticides that contribute to global warming and pollute our environment. Furthermore, many studies have found that organic production out-yields conventional production in years of extreme weather conditions. As such conditions become more prevalent in a warmer world, organic yields are likely to be increasingly significant.
Consumers may face another dilemma in the grocery store: organic vs. local. A head of organic lettuce may travel 1,500-3,000 miles to reach the shelf, while a conventional head may be grown closer to home. While the carbon footprint of food miles is important and the combination of local AND organic food is the ideal additional food miles may well be compensated for by organic production techniques.
Reducing fossil fuel consumption, cover cropping, using compost, minimizing tillage and pasturing animals these organic production practices that mitigate global warming are not entirely absent from conventional agriculture.
However, for consumers, the organic label carries an assurance that these practices are being followed and emphasized. Certainly, there are problems surrounding organics, such as the large-scale commercialization of farms, but these call for stricter regulations, not the abandonment of the word.
So buy organic, for you are what you eat, and so too is the quality of our environment.