13 Reasons Why Farming Organically Is Vitally Important

It kinda seems like going organic has taken the back burner to buzzwords like local, humanely raised, and fair trade. While all of these things are definitely what I want food to be, after reading Maria Rodale’s Organic Manifesto, I must stress to you that going organic has to be at the forefront of the food movement along with these other changes.

While I did not agree with everything Rodale wrote—like a lot of food movement leaders, she is super zealous and biased—her words left a major impression on me in terms of the necessity of going organic to halting climate change and regaining and preserving public health.

Before I get into the take-aways from the book, I should explain the difference between chemical and organic farming for those who are unfamiliar. Chemical, or “conventional” farming, the current paradigm that dominates 99% of the earth’s farmland, is more or less an attempt to control nature. Single farms typically grow one crop, most often a commodity crop like corn or soy, in what is called a monoculture. Synthetic fertilizers, chock full of the exact ratio of nutrients that will allegedly promote rapid growth, replace natural soil. Making this fertilizer uses an enormous amount of fossil fuel, and thus is responsible for the emission of lots of greenhouse gases. Synthetic herbicides and pesticides are also used heavily on conventional crops, especially genetically modified herbicide resistant crops. In conventional livestock breeding, animals are typically fed growth hormones and antibiotics. All this to supposedly ensure the highest yield of food possible. Organic farming, on the other hand, is an attempt to work alongside nature to grow food. No synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, or genetically modified organisms are involved. Fertilizer is made from the composting of livestock manure and plant matter unused from the last harvest. A variety of crops are planted and animals raised on the same farm and different crops are rotated year to year on each field. I completely acknowledge that the way I described the two painted organic farming in a much better light, but once you know the facts it is hard to argue that it is better for any reason than to make money for shareholders of chemical companies.

Now, here are the main points Rodale wants readers of her book to spread around, with my commentary:

  1. Chemicals are not necessary to grow food. I think this is obvious given the variety of organic foods that are available today.
  2. Agricultural chemicals poison our food, soil, water, and air. The exact human health consequences of the pollution are very difficult to pinpoint, but the evidence that people who live near farms have much higher rates of a variety of health problems is quite damning. And scientists have found evidence that pesticides such as glyphosate can be carcinogenic.
  3. Agricultural chemicals destroy the soil’s natural potential to sequester carbon, meaning that switching to organic farming could prevent the accumulation of a huge amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and do a ton to mitigate climate change.
  4. Organic foods are healthier in that the prevalence of chemical farming is ensuring the progression of global warming and all of the public health problems that go with it, including the eventual suffocation of the human race—sorry that statement was so blunt but I definitely agree with Rodale on this one.
  5. Organic foods are safer. This goes along with the absence of potentially toxic chemicals thing, but it’s also really important to think about the implications for antibiotic resistance, to which chemical farming is contributing horrifically.
  6. Organic farming over time is actually more productive than chemical farmingOrganic farms experience less soil erosion and the crops’ roots are deeper, so that when weather is not ideal organic farms exhibit higher yields than conventional farms.
  7. We can and must feed the world through organic farming. If we continue to spread chemical farming to developing countries, it will accelerate the collapse of our environment.
  8. Organic is more important than local in terms of carbon emissions. Local organic farming is ideal, but there is no reason we should stop trading internationally for foods we cannot grow here. Furthermore, fair trade with farmers in the global south will help them out of poverty.
  9. Organic farming increases and protects biodiversity. The toxic chemicals have threatened many species’ abilities to reproduce and survive, plant and animal.
  10. Growing organic is not going backward. This is a common misconception; modern organic farming can use the best of modern technology to work with nature instead of trying to beat it.
  11. Chemical farming eliminates jobs. Chemicals enable farmers to cultivate more land with less labor. Not only that, but a job on such a farm is inherently unsafe because of the toxic chemicals. You should see the masks conventional strawberry pickers wear.
  12. Government subsidies are the reason for the low prices of chemically grown foods. Without these subsidies, conventional foods would be much more expensive because of how much it costs to produce the chemicals. So as I wrote about in my last post, conventional foods end up being artificially cheap up front and costing us much more in the long run.
  13. It’s not too late to change. It is possible to regenerate our chemically destroyed soil with organic cultivation, and any mitigation of climate change and pollution extends the time we have on this earth.

The Hidden Costs of Cheap Food

One of the first barriers to eating healthy people always bring up is the cost. Unfortunately, processed food, per calorie, does tend to be cheaper than whole foods. And even when the whole food is cheaper monetarily, it costs a lot more effort and time to prepare than the processed food. In my perfect world, subsidies for meat and corn and soy would be removed and fruits and vegetables would be subsidized (among other policy changes) so that a healthy diet would be much more affordable, but right now the question is not only why does eating healthfully cost more, but also why are we willing to spend only so little on food? Americans spend the lowest percentage of their income on food (about 10% on average) of any country in the world. We all understand that food is a basic necessity, and hopefully you understand that healthy food is absolutely imperative in order to have a chance at leading a healthy life. I can only speak for myself, but there are many luxuries that I would forfeit if it meant I could live a longer, happier life freer from chronic disease.

I think it goes back to that whole immediate gratification thing. We see the merit of cheap food to be saving money and time now and being immediately satisfied by whatever fat, sugar, and salt-filled creation we happen to be buying. But if you think that price of that burger is really all you’re paying for convenient, tasty, empty calories, think again. Maybe minimally processed food costs a few more dollars a day now, but industrially produced animal products, processed food, and even industrially produced fruits and vegetables are costing us a lot more in the long run:

Obesity and related chronic diseases: The majority of Americans are regularly and sometimes almost exclusively eating these cheap animal products and nutritionally devoid calories that in turn encourage them to overeat and develop obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and a host of other problems. The health care necessary to manage those problems costs a lot more than the price of a healthier diet, not just for the individual, but for the taxed public.

Antibiotic resistance: One of the ways farmers give us super cheap meat is by increasing the growth rate of livestock by routinely feeding them antibiotics regardless of whether the animals are sick. As I have written before, this practice promotes the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that cause nasty infections in humans that may soon be impossible to cure. Unlike obesity, antibiotic resistance is an acute public health concern. Every day more people are dying of antibiotic-resistant infections—is that worth cheaper meat to you?

Farm and foodservice worker abuse and poverty: Another unsavory way we get cheap meat, produce, and restaurant food is the downright abuse and underpayment of farm and foodservice workers. For those foodservice workers who are paid the federal minimum wage, that is not even a living wage, especially that of tipped workers, which is much lower. Often, though, undocumented immigrants are working in meatpacking establishments and picking fruits and vegetables in the field, and farmers can get away with paying them less than the minimum wage for backbreaking, unsanitary, and sometimes dangerous work. And as I have also written before, this business systematically discriminates against women and people of color.

Livestock abuse: There are a whole slew of shockingly awful practices that abuse millions of animals in what are commonly called “factory farms” across the U.S. These technically termed “concentrated animal feeding operations” pack thousands of animals together in the tightest quarters imaginable where they barely have space to breathe, let alone perform any of their instinctual, natural behaviors. Chickens in this situation essentially stand crowded around in their own filth pecking each other, sometimes to death. When it comes time for slaughter, the typical procedure is anything but humane. I have a more detailed post on this topic too.

Pollution, ecological disruption, and climate change: The current system of industrial agriculture that is designed to get the highest yield of crop and meat at the lowest cost is also perfectly designed to pollute our air and water and increase greenhouse gas emissions and natural resource depletion. Chemical fertilizers destroy the soil’s natural potential for anything to grow and runoff into bodies of water leading to dead zones. Chemical pesticides are almost certainly poisoning farmworkers and beneficial bugs and probably at some level poisoning us eaters. The amount of waste that comes from factory farms is so great that it cannot be disposed of sanitarily, so it too ends up polluting the air and water. When these practices unintentionally cause the endangerment of any species of plant or animal, that is a disruption to an ecosystem whose consequences we cannot predict. Conventional farming, especially meat production, also leads to the use of monstrous amounts of water and fossil fuels and consequently proportional carbon dioxide emissions. Factory farmed cows also contribute directly and greatly to methane emissions. These greenhouse gases are unequivocally accelerating climate change and making this planet harder and harder to survive on. Maybe our demand for cheap food won’t affect how long we can survive on earth, but it is surely shortening that time for future generations.

I do believe it is the responsibility of our government to make healthy, ecologically sound, and socially just food the default choice, but even then truly sustainable food may cost more than we’d like, when you account for the costs of preventing all of the things I just described. I guess it depends on your priorities.

As always, I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading!

Shalom Israel, Hello BODYSHRED

I’m now officially back for the summer! Back from where, do you ask? The Holy Land! I had an incredible 10 full days in Israel with 38 other American college students and 7 Israeli soldiers on a free Birthright trip. I could go on and on about it, but in an effort to be relevant to my blog, I’ll just write about some notable food experiences I had. Basically, I learned that the Israeli diet is much healthier and more sustainable than the American diet — not a big surprise, usually anyone’s is.

An abundance of vegetables: The first night at our hotel, we ate dinner, and oh boy, was it different than what you’d see at an American hotel. There was, of course, a hot buffet of your typical meat, potatoes, rice type of dishes, but just a few feet away were multiple tables of the most beautiful spread of vegetables I’ve ever seen- salads of dressed cooked carrots, eggplant, roasted peppers (drool), zucchini, cabbage, and more, plus your normal salad bar and hummus (chickpea spread), tahini (sesame seed paste), and baba ganoush (delicious spread made from eggplant and tahini). I quickly learned this was typical Israeli fare and I ate it up (figuratively and literally). Why can’t we have this at home??

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Falafel: That’s a picture of the first one I had in on the trip — I had many more after that. This classic Israeli street food is everywhere. If you don’t know, falafel are balls of fried chickpeas that have been ground up with herbs, lemon juice, etc. To make a meal out of it, you stuff it in a pita along with hummus, tahini, and your choice of a variety of diced vegetables like cucumber, tomato, onion, cabbage, pickles, parsley, and the BEST eggplant I’ve ever tasted. I love that this vegan meal is so satisfying and so common all over the country. While falafel is fried, this Israeli “fast food” is REAL food, much better than anything you could get at McDonald’s.

Salad for breakfast: You heard right, folks. Unlike the often sweet, carb-centered American breakfast of bagels, muffins, pancakes, fruit, oatmeal, etc., Israelis will eat an assortment of raw vegetables and eggs. I was really amazed to see salad on the breakfast buffet at our hotels. I tried it one morning, but decided I preferred my more American breakfast. I did eat a lot of shakshuka though, an Israeli dish of eggs baked in tomato sauce. It’s delicious, and I plan to try making it this summer. Disappointingly, there was usually no fruit at breakfast, but I do love the idea of getting your veggies in first thing.

They eat seasonally: I found this out because I could not for the life of me find a banana. At home I usually eat a banana every day, because of course American grocery stores get them from warm places far away where they can grow them year round. Bananas are grown in Israel, funnily enough, but because they weren’t in season when I was there, they weren’t really available. It is much more sustainable to eat based on what can be grown locally by season, but I guess I’d have to get used to a lot fewer bananas. :/

A REALLY cool organic farm: I totally forget what the place was called, but lucky for me, we actually had a scheduled visit to this awesome organic farm. They explained all these really cool techniques they use to keep pests out without using chemical pesticides, like growing their tomatoes in these tent-like structures.

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It was so unfortunate that I can’t stand raw tomatoes, because they had an incredible variety that everyone could taste. We also tried orange, yellow, white and purple carrots. They all tasted like normal carrots, but they had me dreaming about rainbow roasted carrot dishes. Fortunately, I love strawberries:

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They grow them above ground and in the tent thingy to minimize pests! Take note, American industrial agriculture!

Their farmers markets rival any I’ve seen in the States: Just take a look

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Above is halva, a kind of cake make from sesame seeds — it’s sweet, but takes some getting used to.

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And that above is the best chocolate rugelach I have ever tasted, at Marzipan, a renowned bakery in Jerusalem.

Phew! And that was just the food! I was so sad to leave (a lot because of the food, mainly because of the people on my trip), but now I’m back home and on to my next endeavor, Jillian Michaels’s BODYSHRED workout program.

For those of you who don’t know, Jillian used to be a trainer on The Biggest Loser. She has a podcast that I listen to every week, not just about fitness and nutrition, but about healthy mind-body living in general, confronting your demons and how to be your best self and all that. I know it sounds really corny, but what I love about her is that she’s so down-to-earth. She makes no ridiculous claims about  a miracle low effort way to get in shape or lose weight; she says this is going to be brutal but it’s going to be effective. I’ve been a cardio fiend since I started working out, always neglecting strength even though I preach how important it is. I decided to do BODYSHRED so I could get out of my comfort zone and get really toned and strong, while still keeping up my aerobic stamina. It’s an 8 week program: 6 workouts per week with one rest day. The workouts vary from day to day and week to week so you don’t strain any one muscle group and so you continue to challenge yourself. I’ve done four days of it so far, and it is the most grueling thing I’ve ever done, even though each workout is only 30 minutes long! After the first day I was unbelievably sore, and I really questioned whether I wanted to continue. But then I remembered that the point of this was to get out of my comfort zone. So I’m gonna kick and scream through it, and I promise before and after pics at the end. All I gotta say is, after all this I better be friggin shredded.