Since 1981, the Rodale Institute, America’s oldest organic research institute, has conducted North America’s longest side-by-side farming systems trial: comparing organic, conventional and, for the last handful of years, GMO agriculture, collecting data on yields, economics, nutrition, soil health and energy.
The foundation of organic agriculture is not only the absence of the use of toxic chemicals in food production, it's also the active practice of soil stewardship. We build the richness of our soils and reduce weed and pest pressures using a variety of techniques, from crop rotations to compost and cover crops, which put nutrients into the soil and increase the living organisms within, in turn nourishing our crops and ultimately ourselves.
Cost to farmers: Conventional chemical and GMO farmers are finding it harder to make ends meet. They are experiencing the rising costs of production, including patented seeds and chemicals, herbicide resistant weeds, pesticide resistant pests, and the need for increased land to make a profit. The increased mechanization of farming has reduced the numbers of farm jobs. There is a decrease in the long-term natural capital and viability of farms to produce food, in terms of soil depletion and erosion.
Reducing pesticide and herbicide exposure: Increases in the incidence of rural health disorders such as cancers and Alzheimer’s are likely due to agro-chemical exposure, which also carries with it the risk of birth defects. Glyphosate-based herbicides, which are specifically designed to be paired with genetically modified seeds but are also used domestically, have been shown to cause DNA damage, infertility, low sperm count and prostrate or testicular cancer in rats. Further, pesticides are now so pervasive in our environment that they are found in human breast milk and umbilical cord blood. Atrazine, another commonly used agro-chemical, turns male frogs into females at 1 part per billion. Current water safety requirements are set at 3 parts per billion. Organic farmers do not use these chemicals.
Life-sustaining approach: Organic farmers invest in truly life-affirming techniques, which build crop resilience, soil health, biodiversity, increased farm jobs and no toxic chemicals. Organic food production and consumption has been responsible for the reduction in chemical use by millions of pounds per year. According to the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial report, after 30 years of continual research, organic systems use 45 percent less energy than conventional systems, which emit nearly 40 percent more greenhouse gases per pound of crop produced compared to organic systems.
Healthier farms, farmers and food: Organic agriculture, as exemplified by the Rodale Institute, leads to healthy soil, healthy food and healthy people. Organic crops tend to perform equal to or better than those produced with chemicals or GMO varieties during good weather years. Significantly, organically stewarded soils result in crops that out-perform chemical and GMO production in years of high stress such as drought and flood. It is naive to think that we can “feed the world” forever using fossil fuel dependent means and increasingly toxic fossil fuel-based chemicals.
Carbon sequestration: There’s a thick blanket of greenhouse gases around the planet. Some argue this is causing global climate change, others that the carbon dioxide levels of our air are rising to life-destroying levels. Global oxygen levels are vastly reduced, while C02 levels have exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm), with safe levels being 350 ppm. Wherever one is on the political spectrum, we all need to breathe and to find a way to put what is “up here” back “down there.”
While there may be some very high-tech, capital-intensive ways of sequestering carbon, the easiest, cheapest and most beneficial method is enrolling the help of plants. Carbon is a building block of all life. Plants absorb atmospheric carbon into leaves and stems and roots and flowers, through photosynthesis. These plants may be food for us to eat, or food for the soil. Regenerative organic agriculture methods optimize a farmer’s ability to sequester carbon back into the soil.
One of my friends manages a 2,200 acre farm, growing organic commodity crops while conducting carbon capture, farm economic vitality and soil remediation research. The crops are presently sequestering 15 tons of carbon per acre per year, further enriching the soil and eliminating the need to use synthetic fertilizer.
While rising C02 levels challenge our globe, as we transition to earth-regenerating, soil-building organic agricultural practices, carbon becomes a resource. Through its capture in plants, we increase the nutrient levels of our food, improve the resilience of our farms and assure long-term health of our soils, so we can feed the world.
Photosynthesis functions optimally in temperatures ranging from 50-68 degrees Fahrenheit and stops during extreme heat and cold. This natural process is at risk with rising global temperatures. We need to rapidly transition as many acres as possible to regenerative organic agricultural practices, in order to recreate truly life-supporting conditions on our planet.
Washington’s most important role is to work to create policy and mechanisms that help farmers to move away from soil-destroying agricultural practices and transition farms to regenerative organic agriculture, which will sequester carbon and increase planetary and human health while increasing food security.
So this week, as the Organic Trade Association hosts its policy day on Capitol Hill, you will have the opportunity to say “yes” to Organic.
Kucinich is a board director of the Rodale Institute and a D.C.-based consultant dedicated to working to bring social, economic, health, agricultural and ecological systems into balance.