Many people choose to buy organic products in order to keep themselves and their families healthy. However, what many lovers of organic food may not realize is that organic farming may be even more important for the health of agricultural land and the general environment. Organic farming is not just about eliminating pesticides so that humans eat fewer chemicals—it is an entire system of farming that involves using natural biodiversity to keep soil healthy and fertile and to minimize agriculture’s impact on the surrounding environment and future generations of people.
Conventional farming practices typically result in soil degradation. Soil degradation can involve a decrease in organic matter, loss of top soil, declining fertility, changes in chemical make-up as well as soil compaction and other structural damage that impairs the soil’s ability to hold water. These changes make soil less and less productive, until eventually land has to be abandoned altogether. Soil degradation and resource depletion from crop growing or grazing can even result in a process called desertification, during which previously fertile lands become barren desert where nothing at all is able to grow.
Conventional farming can also have a serious impact on local waterways. "Big Ag" and industrial meat production are two of the largest culprits of water pollution, creating significant run-off of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, sediments, salts and manure. This run-off can have a variety of negative consequences for the surrounding areas, creating “dead-zones” along rivers or lakes, decreasing production in local fisheries and contaminating local drinking water. Standard irrigation practices also speed the process of nutrient depletion and soil degradation. All of these events have significant implications on climate change, which affects not just today but future generations.
Apart from the environmental and health effects of Big Ag and industrial meat production. the way animals are treated in so-called "factory farms" goes not only unchecked, but stamped with approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Indeed if your only motivation to eat organic food is your own personal health or the health of your family, this is a perfectly valid reason to choose organic products. More than 70 percent of conventionally farmed produce samples have been found to contain residue from pesticides. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) likes to use passive language, such as may cause health problems, even they admit that pesticides pose danger. Use of pesticides in food is linked to myriad health problems, including:
- Many cancers
- Birth defects
- Nerve damage
- Organ damage (especially in children who are still developing)
Organic food also means no artificial fertilizers, and no genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs have been tentatively linked with a number of health problems, but they are widespread and the U.S. government does not currently require them to be labeled. If avoiding GMOs is important to you, then buying organic makes it easy.
In future blogs, we will go into what GMOs really are and the health risks they pose on us.
There is also evidence that certain organic foods are fundamentally healthier than non-organic varieties, even when pesticides and fertilizers are taken out of the picture. A study in the British Food Journal concluded that organic milk has more anti-oxidants, vitamins and moega-3 fatty acids than non-organic milk. A ten-year study from the University of California, Davis found that organic tomatoes have a higher number of anti-oxidants than conventionally farmed tomatoes. A third study from Newcastle University suggested that organic produce in general increases exposure to anti-oxidants and decreases exposure to heavy metals.
How Organic Farming is Different
So how does organic farming avoid soil degradation, excessive run-off and loss of productivity while still keeping pests under control and successfully raising crops, livestock and poultry?
Organic farmers manage soil health using compost and cover crops to help the soil stay healthy, while also nurturing the living components of the soil to help it replenish itself. When the soil is healthy, it is able to hold water extremely well so that minimal run-off from irrigation occurs. Instead of plant pesticides or genetically-engineered crops, organic farmers use hand weeding, machetes, mechanical tilling and crop rotation to keep weeds under control. Instead of spraying fields with insecticides, organic farmers encourage the presence of beneficial insects and birds to keep pest populations down.
Our goats and chickens are given organic feed and are free-range. In the case of our goats, they eat more greens that we grow on the farm than they do grains. Our chickens live freely to eat all sorts of insects and the greens they come in contact with. Unlike animals subject to the standards of industrial meat production, our animals don't sit in pens not even large enough to turn around. Our animals are allowed to graze freely, have healthy diets, live in sanitary conditions (which we clean daily). Because of this, they have no stress, which helps to minimize disease and parasites that force industrial meat producers to spend a fortune on medicines, parasiticides and hormones.
Because we don't spray our vegetables, greens and fruits with pesticides, our animals aren't ingesting pesticides, which would then come out in their milk and eggs.
It's all cyclical, because as the saying goes, "you are what you eat." If we drink our goats' milk and eat our chickens' eggs, we know that whatever we do affects what they eat, which in turn affects what we eat.
Of course most people aren't farmers themselves, and so what we recommend is to know your farmer. Ask him or her questions about what they feed their animals. Visit their farm and see how their animals are raised and ask to see everything, both outside and in their storage areas. Farmers aren't ashamed to give people tours; industrial meat producers and Big Ag producers are.