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Is Organic Agriculture Bad for the Environment? Another Reason to Eat Locally

Is Organic Agriculture Bad for the Environment? Another Reason to Eat Locally


Written by Rachel Cernansky

The New York Times ran an important story about a growing shift in the organic agriculture industry away from sustainable practices. There are still no synthetic chemicals, but large farms growing organic crops often use monocrop agriculture, an inherently unsustainable practice that erodes soil quality, or use water resources so heavily that local aquifers become depleted.

The Times explains more:

The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry this year, meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops. And the organic tomatoes end up in an energy-intensive global distribution chain that takes them as far as New York and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, producing significant emissions that contribute to global warming.

But it’s a complicated issue, as The Times story, which is based in part on a trip to Mexico, further explains:

Many growers and even environmental groups in Mexico defend the export-driven organic farming, even as they acknowledge that more than a third of the aquifers in southern Baja are categorized as overexploited by the Mexican water authority. With sophisticated irrigation systems and shade houses, they say, farmers are becoming more skilled at conserving water. They are focusing new farms in “microclimates” near underexploited aquifers, such as in the shadow of a mountain, said Fernando Frías, a water specialist with the environmental group Pronatura Noroeste.

They also point out that the organic business has transformed what was once a poor area of subsistence farms and where even the low-paying jobs in the tourist hotels and restaurants in nearby Cabo San Lucas have become scarcer during the recession.

Organic Vs. Conventional
Organic agriculture, even when produced on large-scale farms that are not necessarily sustainable, is still ultimately better for the environment than conventional agriculture, according to most experts. But conventional agriculture is not a baseline to be working from. A small car produces fewer emissions than a large SUV, but that doesn’t mean everyone should be looking to cars as a sustainable means of transportation.

Eating Locally
What this Times story does is point back to the argument for getting to know the farms in your area and buying from them whenever possible. You eliminate the emissions associated with transporting food the long distances that imports have to travel; chances are good that if a farm (organic and local farms are best) sells at farmer’s markets and other small, local venues, it is using more sustainable practices than its large-scale counterpart; and when you buy locally, you’re just about forced to also buy in-season produce.

As The Times story points out, the demand for tomatoes in the middle of winter is part of what drives the demand for importing tomatoes from far-away places that don’t have the water resources to grow tomatoes on a large scale.

(Buying locally also allows you to eliminate some packaging waste, since imported organic produce often comes wrapped in plastic, like in the container above, or since many supermarkets do the extra packaging themselves to distinguish organic produce from conventional.)

So: by eating locally and in-season, you don’t have to worry about whether the farm supplying your organic produce is depleting the water and soil in far-away places in ways that defy one of the founding principles of organic agriculture—sustainability.

This post was originally published by Treehugger.


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1:55PM PDT on Jul 14, 2012

Being organic for at least 25 years, i try to be localvore, but still need to buy coffee, tea, sugar and bananas that come from far.(living in s.france) i don't eat tomatoes in winter, and try to give my money to smaller businesses. How do we keep the big industrials from infiltrating the organic market? i will try to boycott what i know to be polluting, taxing or harmful to indigenous peoples, but this is based on what i know...we're often naive if we don't look further into how and where our food is grown. Yes, we need to support and promote local organic farming, as much as possible! Or have our own organic gardens and share the seeds (but this won't help small farmers)

8:32PM PDT on May 26, 2012

thank you

3:53AM PDT on May 15, 2012

I suppose someone with the time energy and money to grow edible house plants under grow lights could manage a little something in the way of fresh greens daily in the winter and stretch that with staples for the bulk of their calories.

2:15AM PDT on Apr 2, 2012

And most people live in cities nowhere near farmer's markets.

12:01AM PST on Mar 11, 2012

More interesting news on the local food scene about small farmers and their re-emerging localized food systems;

8:16AM PST on Feb 3, 2012

why cant everything just be made from natural things and by natural things?

6:30PM PST on Jan 22, 2012

care2 - your taste in asinine stories is boundless.

So as long as the local farmers ship short distances and use less packaging, it's OK to pollute the earth and consumers?

You, the author, treehugger, and the commentors that like this are really fools.

7:23PM PST on Jan 21, 2012

Nonetheless we use a LOT of energy to live in a bright warm environ. It would not be very hard to live on canned/frozen products, supplemented with fresh foods grown in windows, cold-frames or, like you said, greenhouses. Goodness know we eat too few fresh foods already, growing something we like would probably improve the odds.

5:00PM PST on Jan 21, 2012

I try to buy only organic produce, and in the summer, I buy most of what we use at the Farmer's Market, or what comes from my garden. But there' s not a whole lot of local produce here in the winter. So what should I eat---the grass? Pine needles? Slugs?

I do shop at the local co-op and Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods when I'm in Seattle. I buy what is organic, but in the winter, it generally comes from beyond my state borders. The reason? its too cold, wet and dark to grow much here off season. Unless you have a greenhouse. So it would really be nice if articles such as this one addressed that. We all don't live in Ca and have access to year round locally grown.

8:25PM PST on Jan 18, 2012

"You and I, I think, are in agreement on that." - Pego

Agreed :)

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