From the above paragraph, it is clear that the environmental benefits of organic food mainly stem from the organic farming process. A common concern to start with would be fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions. According to Beyond Pesticides, organic agriculture can use up to 75% less fossil fuels than conventional agriculture both directly and indirectly. Direct reductions in fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions could be from the reduced use of machinery, such as combine harvesters or mechanized slaughterhouses. While the name may mislead most people, indirect reductions are what most people think about in the context of organic farming, as reduced use of agrochemicals – largely petroleum based – results in less fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from their production and transportation. Do note, that organic farming can still use natural alternatives to pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer, such as using clove and star anise extract as pesticides according to Isman, and use compost as fertilizer. Furthermore, Trobe’s work also points out that when organic farming is done in a local context, the shorter distances involved in sourcing raw materials and transporting the finished products – compared to conventional farming that could be import-heavy and done overseas – would reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions from food miles. Thus, fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions from organic farming could be lower not just in the farming process itself, but both in the upstream and downstream stages concerning the farming inputs and finished products respectively.
Sources such as the FAO website to papers such as Dorais and Alsanius’ work in 2015 all state that organic farming has important benefits for soil and water conservation. For organic produce, soil health is especially enhanced through soil building practices such as minimum tillage – reducing the artificial turnover of soil – and cover cropping – planting one or more crops to supplement a main crop – as listed by Beyond Pesticides. Reducing till, with the ideal being no-till organic agriculture, helps improve the physical structure or aggregation of soil and lessening wind and water erosion. Cover cropping using species such as hairy vetch or field peas based on Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education guidelines could actively improve soil structure through the more extensive plant root systems in the soil, and through increasing the nitrogen content of the soil via nitrogen sequestering bacteria in their root systems. Segueing to how organic farming encourages water conservation, cover cropping can help reduce water wastage by improving the soil’s water infiltration capacity, and thus more water trickles into the soil for plant roots to absorb instead of remaining on the surface and being lost to evaporation. Furthermore, the reduced use of petroleum-based agrochemicals leads to reduced contamination of water resources, and less water is used due to reduced production of these chemicals. This latter point can also tie to organic livestock, as water use could be reduced because less machinery and less processed animal feed are used. Finally, linking back to soil, using less herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers also lessens the chance of soil contamination by heavy metal salts contained within the chemicals.
In terms of the organic food products themselves, there could be some direct environmental benefits tied to them. Choosing to opt out of genetic modification, food irradiation and other conventional practices such as waxing fruit or adding chemicals to enhance the appearance of meat could all result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel use and water consumption. This would further be enhanced if the packaging involved is not energy or water intensive, possibly through measures such as using paper bags for organic fruit and vegetables, and according to Trobes, the organic products are sustainably sourced. Beyond these examples, organic food is often associated with health benefits, with Dorais and Alsanius pointing out that organic produce has lower nitrate content and pesticide residues, and higher vitamin C compounds compared to conventional counterparts. In addition, freedom from genetic modification and irradiation ensures that there is minimal interference from processes that society may not have sufficient knowledge of yet.
The key message ultimately is that organic farming and organic food have environmental benefits. However, these benefits can sometimes be outweighed by costs. The issue of comparative advantage in terms of resource consumption for agriculture is one issue: would growing a crop or raising livestock locally result in less greenhouse gas emissions or water consumption than overseas, even if the species is not native in the local context and needs a large input of energy and water to survive? Another key counterargument would be that despite the reduced resource consumption involved in organic farming, the losses in yield from pests and diseases that cannot be prevented using natural farming technique may mean more resources, especially land, will be needed to reach the same yields achieved by conventional farming, as argued by Seufert, Ramankutty, and Foley. At an individual scale, it helps to consider these counter-arguments when making purchases of organic food, and to also be mindful that the ‘organic’ label is holistic and not simply a marketing tool. All exceptions aside, organic farming and organic food can help lessen our planet’s environmental issues, especially if done holistically upstream, and bought via informed choices downstream.
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