People have been growing “organic” food since the agricultural revolution roughly 10-12,000 years ago. Beginning in the 20th century, with the industrialization of agriculture, farming began to incorporate the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. These recent developments in agriculture have been linked to:
· Soil erosion
· Water pollution
· Air pollution via burning fossil fuels
· Loss of biodiversity
· Long-term economic losses through resource exploitation
Many pesticides approved for use by the EPA were registered before extensive research linking these chemicals to cancer and other diseases had been established. Now the EPA considers that 60% of all herbicides, 90% of all fungicides, and 30% of all insecticides are carcinogenic (50). Pesticides are poisons designed to kill living organisms, and have demonstrated harmful effects to humans. In addition to cancer, pesticides are implicated in birth defects, nerve damage and genetic mutation.
The solution is to purchase foods that are grown without the use of toxic chemicals. National Organic Standards, which were created and are enforced by the USDA, prohibit the use of toxic synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, irradiation, sewage sludge, and genetic engineering. USDA standards also require the use of organic seeds when available.
Additional benefits of organic farming include:
Prevent Soil Erosion - Since agriculture began in the U.S., one third of the nation's topsoil has been lost to erosion according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service. An estimated 1.8 billion tons of topsoil were lost annually from U.S. farmland starting from the end of last century. Soil is eroding seven times faster than it naturally forms (47). Soil is the foundation of the food chain in organic farming. In industrial farming, poor soil conservation measures have caused the worst soil erosion in history.
Protect Water Quality - The U.S. Geological Survey’s national water quality monitoring program found that all of the samples the agency analyzed from major rivers were contaminated with at least one pesticide. Smaller streams were almost as frequently contaminated: 99% of the urban stream samples and 92% of the agricultural stream samples contained at least one pesticide. At least one pesticide was detected in almost 60% of the wells in agricultural areas and in almost 50% of the wells in urban areas (44).
Save Energy - American farms have changed drastically in the last three generations, from the family-based small businesses dependent on human energy, to large-scale factory farms highly dependent on fossil fuels. Modern farming uses more petroleum than many other industries, consuming 2% of the country's total energy supply (48). More energy is now used to produce synthetic fertilizers than to till, cultivate, and harvest all the crops in the United States. In contrast, organic farming is still mainly based on practices such as using composted soil and crop covers rather than synthetic inputs.
Protect Farm Worker's Health - Because agricultural pesticides account for more than 75% of total U.S. pesticide use, farmers and farm workers are often exposed to larger amounts of pesticides and more frequently than other people. EPA has estimated that at least 10,000 and as many as 20,000 pesticide-related illnesses and injuries occur among farmers and farm workers every year (44). A study by the National Cancer Institute and the University of Kansas found that if farmers were exposed to herbicides 20 days a year or more, they were 600% more likely to contract lymphatic cancer than people who did not work with such chemicals (51). The risk for farmers who actually mixed or applied the chemicals increased eightfold. Farm worker health is also a serious problem in developing nations, where pesticide use is often poorly regulated. Several of the pesticides banned from use in the U.S. such as DDT are still manufactured for export to other countries.
Support a True Economy - Although organic foods are sometimes more expensive than conventional foods, conventional food prices do not reflect the hidden cost borne by taxpayers, including nearly $6 billion in Federal Subsidies in 2010. Cumulative Farm Subsidies over the last 16 years (1995-2010) total more than $167 billion (53). Other hidden costs include increased health care costs, pesticide regulation and testing costs, hazardous waste disposal and cleanup costs, and numerous environmental repercussions.
Exceptionally high market growth rates have pushed the global organic food and drink sales toward $60 billion in 2010 (54). Many sectors of this market are experiencing supply shortages due to the increased demand for organic foods.
Promote Agricultural Biodiversity - A monoculture is a large plot of land planted with only one crop. While this approach tripled farm production between 1950 and 1970, the lack of natural diversity of plant life has left the soil lacking in natural minerals and nutrients. To replace the nutrients, chemical fertilizers are used, often in large quantities. The dependence on monoculture crops can lead to large-scale failures when the crop becomes susceptible to a pathogen or when a change in weather patterns occurs.
Human Health - The USDA’s Pesticide Data Program in 2009 showed that 60.4% of fruits and vegetables tested had at least one pesticide residue, based on 10,792 tested samples. Most of the samples that tested positive had 30 – 50 different pesticides detected, with cucumbers having 69 detected pesticides. In 2006, the USDA has found pesticide contamination of wheat, a staple of many American diets, in 69% of the samples tested, 30% of the peanut butter and 7% of the poultry (55).
According to data from the Environmental Working Group, the 12 most pesticide-contaminated fruits and vegetables are as follows (56):
6. Imported Grapes
7. Sweet Bell Peppers
In 1998, a study at Johns Hopkins University examined organically and conventionally grown apples, potatoes, pears, wheat, and sweet corn in the western suburbs of Chicago and analyzed them for their mineral content. Four to fifteen samples were taken for each food group. On a per-weight basis, average levels of essential minerals were much higher in the organically grown than in the conventionally grown food. The organically grown food averaged 63% higher in calcium, 78% higher in chromium, 73% higher in iron, 118% higher in magnesium, 178% higher in molybdenum, 91% higher in phosphorus, 125% higher in potassium and 60% higher in zinc. The organically raised food also averaged 29% lower in mercury than the conventionally raised food (57).
If you choose to eat animal products, you can make a significant difference for your health and the environment by choosing organic meat and dairy raised on sustainable farms. Certified organic meat and dairy products are:
· Free of antibiotics, added hormones, GMO feed (genetically modified organisms), and other drugs.
· No genetically engineered animals.
· Not fed animal parts that can lead to diseases like Mad Cow.
· More humane, ethical treatment of animals.
· Animals are allowed to free-range and graze.
· Manure is used as fertilizer in small farms; industrial farms pollute with it (due to differences in scale).
· Animals are integral to small farms for nutrient recycling and product diversity.
· Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are not used on the food or land.
· Diversity of animal species on small farms promotes genetic diversity.
· Factory farms use large amounts of nonrenewable fossil fuel and cause topsoil erosion.
If you can not source certified organic meat and dairy, the next best option is to look for meat and diary that has received one of the following certifications:
American Grassfed Tier 1
American Humane Certified
Animal Welfare Approved
Food Alliance Certified Grassfed
US Grassfed and USDA Process Verified
It is estimated that the average food product travels 1500 miles to get from farm to plate (46). Purchasing locally-grown food uses less energy for transportation and for refrigeration during transportation. Packaging materials are also saved when food is bought locally.
Buying local food also helps to make farming more profitable and selling farmland for development less attractive (49). Small family farms accounted for 90% of the farms in the U.S. but produced a modest share (25%) of farm output in 2004. Large and very large accounted for only 25% of farms but 75% of the value of production in 2004 (52).
Local food is often fresher and tastes better than food shipped long distances from other states or countries. Local farmers can offer produce varieties bred for taste and freshness rather than for shipping and long shelf life.
· Reducing our consumption of meat and dairy will result in pollution reduction and a more efficient use of resources.
Consider these facts (60):
Pounds of potatoes that can be grown on 1 acre of land
Pounds of beef that can be produced on 1 acre of land
Percentage of U.S. agricultural land used to produce beef
Pounds of grain and soybeans needed to produce 1 pound of meat
Pounds of protein fed to chickens to produce 1 pound of meat
Pounds of protein fed to hogs to produce 1 pound of meat
A plant-based diet can feed significantly more people than a meat-centered diet. A study conducted by Cornell University concluded that if everyone in New York state followed a vegetarian diet, the state could directly support almost 50% more people, agriculturally. With today's high-meat, high-dairy diet, the state is able to support directly only 22% of its population (61).
As discussed in the Water section, the most significant threat to water resources across the U.S. now comes from non-point source pollution such as agricultural runoff and stormwater drainage. Current farming practices often result in the release of sediment, fertilizers, pesticides and animal wastes to local watersheds. The local impact has worsened as small, family farms have been replaced by centralized operations housing thousands of animals in assembly-line conditions. Factory farms have multiplied in recent years, spreading into many states that lack adequate environmental controls. Every year almost two trillion pounds of animal waste are produced nationally from 1.5 billion cattle, hogs, poultry & sheep (10). Antibiotics are routinely used on factory farm animals to aid in the digestion of unnatural grain feed.
Those animals that are fortunate enough to not be raised in feedlots and allowed a natural vegetarian diet are sometimes left to graze in pastures with critical riparian zones. The riparian zone refers to the thin ribbons of green vegetation that border rivers, streams and other water bodies. It protects the waterway from for degraded water quality, increased erosion and runoff, damaged fish and wildlife habitat, and decreased recreational opportunities. With controlled grazing strategies or restricting livestock completely from these sensitive areas, many of the detrimental impacts to water quality can be minimized or greatly reduced.
In 2004, states reported that about 44% of assessed stream miles, 64% of assessed lake acres, and 30% of assessed bay and estuarine square miles were not clean enough to support uses such as fishing and swimming. About 16% of U.S. waters were assessed by the states for this report. Leading causes of impairment in assessed waters include excess levels of nutrients, metals (primarily mercury), sediment and organic enrichment. Top sources of impairment include agricultural activities, hydrologic modifications, atmospheric deposition, industry, and unknown or unspecified sources (11).
Because the emphasis is on non-meat food sources, a vegetarian diet generally contains less fat and cholesterol, and typically includes more fiber. The American Dietetic Association states that a vegetarian lifestyle tends to result in lower rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. Vegetarians also tend to have lower body mass indexes and cholesterol levels (64).
US EPA, Agriculture.
US Humane Society.
American Dietetic Association.
Fish and Seafood
· Unsustainable fishing practices are threatening fish populations.
· Pollutants, like mercury & PCBs, contaminate certain fish species.
· Eat fish species that are that are harvested sustainably and free of harmful pollutants
In recent years, fish populations around the world have seen dramatic declines. One reason is overfishing -- harvesting fish faster than a population can replenish itself. In The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010, it was indicated that in 2008 "15% of the major marine fish stocks … are underexploited or moderately exploited … About 53% of the main stocks or species groups are fully exploited … 28% of stocks or species groups are reported as overexploited … The remaining 4% have become significantly depleted, or are recovering from depletion… Total food fish supply has increased at an annual rate of 3.1% since 1961” (65).
Overfishing also leads to incidental capture of non-target species, like dolphins, marine turtles, seabirds, sharks, juvenile fish, and fish with little commercial value. This is often referred to as by-catch. A decrease in the amount of fish will limit the growth of its predators. Depleting the worlds fish stocks also contributes to a decline in other animals, such as marine birds and mammals, which depend on these stocks for food.
In order to prevent the overfishing, and regulate the commercial fisheries industry, the US government has adopted several solutions. One solution is individual fishing quotas (IFQs) -- a federal permit to harvest a quantity of fish, generally expressed as a%age of a fishery’s total allowable catch, that may be held for exclusive use by a person. IFQs have been adopted in four U.S. fisheries: Alaskan halibut and sablefish, wreckfish, and surf clams/ocean quahogs. IFQs help to reduce overfishing and rebuild depleted stocks (65.5).
While eating fish can provide many health benefits, it can pose considerable health risks when contaminated with pollutants such as heavy metals (e.g. mercury and lead), industrial chemicals (e.g. PCBs) and pesticides (e.g. DDT and dieldrin). Contaminants enter the water through industrial and municipal discharges, agricultural runoff, and storm water runoff. Rain can also wash chemicals from the land or air into streams and rivers. These contaminants are then carried downstream into lakes, reservoirs, estuaries and oceans.
The amount of pollutants in any given fish depends on many factors such as species, size, age and location. Generally, larger and older fish have had more time to bioaccumulate toxins from their environment than smaller and younger fish. In addition, large predatory fish (like sharks and swordfish) near the top of marine food chains are more likely to have high levels of toxins than fish lower in the food chain. In humans, certain contaminants such as mercury, PCBs and dioxins build up in your body over time. Health problems that may result from eating contaminated fish range from small, hard-to-detect changes to birth defects and cancer.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,
Marine Stewardship Council,
Blue Ocean Institute,
· Genetically-modified foods pose known and unknown risks.
· Certified organic food is free of genetically-modified organisms.
Genetic engineering refers to technologies that alter the genetic makeup of organisms such as animals, plants, or bacteria. Genetic engineering has been used by humanity for quite some time through the hybridization of plant species. This traditional breeding technique operates within established natural boundaries that allow reproduction to take place only between closely related organisms and at a slow pace. Modern genetic engineering often crosses genes between highly unrelated species that would not likely crossbreed in nature.
Genetic modification is gaining momentum due to the exponential growth in the human population, increased demand for food worldwide and the growth of large-scale food production. Some of the desired traits are virus, insect, and herbicide resistance, hearty plants for harsh weather conditions, increased desired nutrients and flowering or fruiting earlier and longer.
Technologies for genetically modifying foods offer some hope for meeting some of the 21st Century's greatest challenges. Like all new technologies, they also pose some risks, both known and unknown. Controversies surrounding GM foods and crops commonly focus on human and environmental safety, labeling and consumer choice, intellectual property rights, ethics, food security, poverty reduction, and environmental conservation.
Genetically engineered crops can cause environmental and human harm in a number of ways:
Gene Transfer to Wild or Weedy Relatives - Pollen migration, by the wind, can contaminate crops on farms that choose not to grow GM crops. This “genetic pollution” can occur over large distances.
Squandering of Valuable Pest Susceptibility Genes - Non-toxic pesticides used in organic farming, such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), are being genetically engineered into plants. Continuous exposure to these pesticides selects for the rare resistance genes in the pest population and in time will render the Bt pesticide useless to organic farmers.
Creation of New or Worse Viruses - One of the most common applications of genetic engineering is the production of virus-tolerant crops. Such crops are produced by engineering components of viruses into the plant genomes. For reasons not well understood, plants producing viral components on their own are resistant to subsequent infection by those viruses. Such plants, however, pose other risks of creating new or worse viruses.
Unknown Harm - At this time, ecology is too poorly understood to be certain about long- term effects of GM technologies.
New Allergens in the Food Supply - Genetic engineering routinely moves proteins into the food supply from organisms that have never been consumed as foods. Some of those proteins could be food allergens, since virtually all known food allergens are proteins.
Antibiotic Resistance - Almost all genetically engineered crops are bred using antibiotic resistance genes as a marker. This process is unrelated to the agricultural use and is just part of the breeding process. Antibiotic resistance can be passed on to livestock and humans that consume these crops.
Production of New Toxins - Many plants contain low levels of toxic substances to help defend themselves from the predators in their environment. In some cases, addition of new genetic material through genetic engineering could reactivate inactive pathways or otherwise increase the levels of toxic substances within the plants.
Loss of Natural Plant Defenses - Genetic engineering might be used to delete or turn off genes associated with plant defense mechanisms.
Unknown Harm - Powerful new techniques can lead to unpredictable reproduction, mutation, and migration (cross-pollination). Once released, it will be virtually impossible to recall all genetically engineered organisms for retesting.
Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology,