When shopping at the grocery store, you are probably aware of food marked by the USDA Organic Label. But what does this label actually mean? Additionally, is organically grown food better for the environment? Or is it simply a marketing ploy to trick consumers into paying more for food?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic produce as having been “grown on soil that had no prohibited substances (most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) applied for three years prior to harvest” (McEvoy, 2017). Organic farmers rely on natural substances and cultural, biological, and mechanical farming methods to protect the ecological health of their farm and conserve biodiversity.
Research has shown that organic agriculture has a multitude of environmental benefits, such as enhancing the soil’s ability to sequester carbon. Studies have found that plants that are treated with chemical fertilizers do not need as extensive root systems to mine for nutrients, resulting in less below ground biomass that enriches the soil and stores carbon (Kane, 2015). In contrast, organic farming improves soil fertility by avoiding the use of chemicals that decrease soil microbial activity, which in turn enhances carbon sequestration, soil organic matter content, and the overall health of the ecosystem. In fact, a study found that organic agriculture increases biodiversity of flora and fauna by 30% and 50%, respectively, and reduces nitrogen leaches by 65% as compared with non-organic farms (Niggli, 2015).
However, organic farming does have some challenges, particularly in the form of weed management on large-scale farms. Because chemical herbicides are not used on organic farms, farmers tend to rely more heavily on tillage to control weed populations. Unfortunately, tilling disrupts and degrades the soil, reducing soil quality and fertility and hindering the soil’s ability to sequester carbon. In order to make organic no-till systems a more realistic option, researchers are developing methods that allow farmers to manage weeds without disturbing the soil. For example, the roller-crimper rolls over a standing cover crop in the spring while flattening plants and creating a mulch on the surface of the soil that will continue to suppress weeds during the growing season (Kane, 2015).
The food in CEI’s Climate Victory Grown is grown both organically and without tilling, therefore reaping the environmental benefits of both of these practices. We do not use any synthetic chemicals that may damage the garden and its surrounding ecosystem. The research is clear: Organic agriculture is an important component to a healthy, thriving, and environmentally friendly farm or garden.
By Faith Haney
Kane, D., & Solutions, L. L. C. (2015). Carbon sequestration potential on agricultural lands: a review of current science and available practices. In Natl. Sustain. Agric. Coalit. Wash. DC USA.
McEvoy, M. (2017, February 21). Understanding the USDA Organic Label. Retrieved from www.usda.gov/media/blog/2016/07/22/understanding-usda-organic-label.
Niggli, U. (2015). Sustainability of organic food production: challenges and innovations. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 74(1), 83-88.