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An Illinois River Almanac

Jason Haupt's Energy and Environment Blog

An Organic Question Part 2 - The Environment


The issue of organic food is a very complicated one. If you read the last article on the subject, An Organic Question, you know that there is a lot to unpack in the question of "Is Organic Better?" The original driver behind the push for organic food was a push to be more environmentally conscious about our food and reduce the environmental impact of our food production.

As I said in the previous article, there are both advantages and disadvantages to organic production practices. There is research showing that there are advantages and disadvantages to organic farming. A paper published by a group of researchers headed by a US Department of Agriculture researcher noted that under current practices, though there are advantages (higher soil nutrients, soil organic matter, and lower global warming potential) there are some disadvantages as well (higher soil erosion and higher nitrous oxide emissions).

Concerted efforts to improve soil health through increasing soil nutrients and soil organic matter play a large role in creating the advantages of organic farming practices. Higher soil nutrients mean that crops production reduces or eliminates the need for chemical nutrient input before, during, or after the growing season. A combination of many practices including crop rotation, cover crops, and the use of compost or other natural nutrient sources make this possible. Higher soil organic matter further plays a role in increasing the soil nutrients through providing a slow release of nutrients throughout the growing season but it also plays a role in increasing the water storage capacity of the soil. The increase in water storage capacity reduced the need for watering. Many organic farming practices also look at the reduction of water in their considerations. Using drip irrigation and other water conservation techniques to reduce the amount of water needed to grow their crops.

The lowering of global warming potential is two sides of a coin as this can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. The use of cover crops and buffer strips around fields provide greenhouse gas emissions offsets. By not using pesticides and chemical nutrients, there is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the production of these products. However, as was mentioned in the previous article certified organic produce often has a very large carbon footprint. Because the cost of certification is highly restrictive, the majority of organic produce that is available in grocery stores uses industrial techniques using tractors and other heavy equipment. In addition, the majority of organic produce is grown outside Illinois. This requires transportation, using over the road trucks, further increasing the carbon footprint.

The industrial organic farming techniques are the major factors in the disadvantages to organic food. The increased carbon footprint is accompanied by the increase in Nitrous Oxide (NOx) emissions. Using diesel engines throughout the production process and the transportation of organic produce greatly increases the NOx released into the atmosphere. NOx is a major factor in smog creation.

The best way to reduce the environmental impact that your food has is to buy from local producers. Many of them use organic practices and the smaller farms have very small carbon footprints. Find a local grower at www.localharvest.org or go to your local farmers market.



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