Organic Food – Healthy Soil is Good for the Environment

Buying organic food is good for the soil and good for the soul.

Why should you shell out extra money to buy organic food? One reason is that healthy soil is important to your wellbeing, possibly in more ways than you think.

The soil is like different neighborhoods connected to each other by invisible underground roadways. Neighborhoods have their own vibe that depends on their location, climate, and building materials. Community residents vary widely, are mostly microscopic, and live in high-density housing. All inhabitants have jobs they perform on a regular basis for no financial gain or personal glory.

These communities form the surface of the Earth and support the plants that provide our food. The soil is essential for life. Yet, humans have paved over, poisoned, and even disappeared countless soil communities, endangering ourselves in the process.

Imagine watching your way of making a living, your way of life, literally blowing away in a cloud of dust. That is what happened during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s when severe drought, poor soil conditions, and high winds blew away the topsoil of over 100,000,000 acres of farmland. Tens of thousands of farmers lost their homes and their farms and millions of poverty-stricken people migrated away from the Great Plains in search of work. United States agriculture was decimated and the Great Depression worsened.

1930s Dust Bowl - Baca County, CO - Photo Credit D.L. Kernodle, U.S. Library of Congress
1930s Dust Bowl – Baca County, CO – Photo Credit D.L. Kernodle, U.S. Library of Congress

Belatedly, the federal government took action by forming the Soil Conservation Service to help farmers and land managers learn about the soil and how to keep it healthy and in place. They also oversaw projects across the country aimed at reforesting the land and preventing erosion.

“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

It seemed as if soil communities were finally earning some attention and respect.

But then in the aftermath of World War II, chemical manufacturers needing new lines of business began producing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and leaning on the government to convince farmers to apply these products to their farmland. Crop yields increased and so did air and water pollution. Pesticides killed crop pests and everything else from soil organisms to birds. This was the beginning of industrialized agriculture and a new assault on the soil.

Fortunately, there were other people and farmers taking a different path. Over several decades, they learned about the soil and experimented with holistic practices for keeping soil healthy without heavy doses of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. This led to the modern organic food movement that gained support during the 1970s when Americans were fed up with air, water, and land pollution and were taking to the streets demanding action.

It took a couple of decades, but eventually, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act leading to the USDA’s National Organic Program that standardized what substances can and cannot be used to grow organic crops, raise organic livestock, and make processed organic foods. It defines farming practices for keeping the soil healthy, reducing pests and weeds, and raising livestock animals without preemptive antibiotics.

Now that you have some background let’s talk about the soil. Then you can decide whether buying organic food (at least sometimes) is worth it to you.

What Constitutes Healthy Soil?

“Soil is a mixture of organic matter [remains of plants and animals and their wastes], minerals, gases, liquids, and organisms that together support life. The Earth’s body of soil is the pedosphere, which has four important functions: it is a medium for plant growth; it is a means of water storage, supply, and purification; it is a modifier of Earth’s atmosphere; it is a habitat for organisms; all of which, in turn, modify the soil.” —Wikipedia

Healthy soil is alive with activity. Bacteria produce antibiotics, fix nitrogen (convert it for plants to use to form chlorophyll), and decompose materials to be recycled as plant nutrients. Fungi spread miles of filaments that transport nutrients and information among plants and trees. Larger organisms like ants and earthworms aerate the soil and mix things up as they move about.

These soil communities feed plants, absorb, hold and release water, maintain low levels of pests, pathogens, and salinity, and resist degradation and erosion.

If you grab a handful of healthy soil, it will hold together unlike dirt that will fall through your fingers.

Why is Healthy Soil Important for Growing Food?

At its most basic level, healthy soil provides a physical support system for plants. It holds together but is not tightly compacted allowing roots to grow and spread anchoring the plants above.

Healthy soil contains a wondrous network of microscopic organisms that deliver minerals and nutrients to plants so they can grow and thrive. Rainwater and irrigation water percolates through the spaces in the soil created by the aerators and then gets absorbed and released to the roots of the plants. Plants also receive assistance in fighting off pests and diseases.

How Do Organic Farmers Help Keep Soil Healthy?

Farmers who market their food with the USDA organic seal are required to adhere to the USDA organic program standards and be certified by a third party organization. Good stewardship of the land is at the core of organic farming.

Like people, healthy soil needs year-round care.

Organic Farm Cover Crop Plots at University of Minnesota
Organic Farm Cover Crop Plots at University of Minnesota – Photo Credit Jim Riddle, University of Minnesota

For instance, if the soil is left bare and exposed after crops are harvested it is subject to being relocated without its consent. Rain can cause the soil to run off fields and wind can pick up the unprotected soil and fly away with it. Organic farmers protect their soil by planting cover crops, an apt name for crops grown to cover the land between rotations of income-producing crops.

Cover crops can also provide food for the soil. Leguminous plants like peas, beans, lentils, clover, and vetch are especially good at returning nitrogen to the soil. This so-called green manure acts as a natural fertilizer for plants. Other plants and animal wastes are composted and used on fields to feed the soil.

Maintaining biodiversity is important for soil and plant health. Organic farmers rotate crops and plant a variety of crops together making life more difficult for pests who can devastate a monocrop field. They also incorporate buffer areas of native plants that attract and provide habitat for pollinators, birds, animals, and predator insects that eat crop pests.

These are just a few of the ways that organic farmers contribute to keeping the soil healthy.

Why is Healthy Soil Important to You and Your Family?

Well, of course, there is the food. However, there are other benefits that might not readily come to mind when you think about healthy soil and organic farming.

In addition to providing water for plants and preventing erosion, healthy soil acts as a sort of time-release water purification and refilling system. As water seeps through the soil, it filters out impurities and pollutants. Depleted soil cannot perform this function. The water continues its downward journey through rock layers and refills groundwater basins in its path. You could be one of the many people whose drinking water comes from a groundwater basin.

Organic Farm Buffer Zone with Pheasants Forever Sign
Organic Farm Buffer Zone with Pheasants Forever Sign – Photo Credit Oregon Tilth

Healthy soil eliminates the need for synthetic fertilizers, which are applied heavily on industrial agriculture fields. Besides nourishing the dead soil so that it can grow plants, these fertilizers run off into streams, lakes, and oceans creating dead zones where nothing can live. People rely on riverbanks and wetlands to prevent flooding. If these areas are dead, there is no protection.

When the soil is healthy, it eliminates the need for industrial strength pesticides. Spraying these poisons causes air pollution and runoff from fields causes water pollution. Widespread and heavy use of pesticides has had other unintended consequences. Pests have evolved quickly resulting in “super pests” requiring evermore powerful poisons. I am unconvinced that there is any safe level of exposure to pesticides for anyone and I do not believe farm workers should be required to wear masks and hazmat suits to work.

You may not realize that along with retaining moisture healthy soil grabs and holds onto carbon helping to keep it sequestered in the ground and out of the atmosphere.

Certainly, certified organic farmers are not the only farmers living in harmony with the land and contributing to maintaining healthy soil communities, but they have gone the extra mile to certify (prove) that they do.

Buying Organic Food Supports Healthy Soil

While reading this post, I hope you learned something about how important healthy soil is and how organic farming helps soil communities stay healthy.

You can promote healthy soil by choosing to buy organic food, at least some of the time.

Organic Tomatoes in a Paper Bag with Fresh Produce in the Background
Organic Tomatoes in a Paper Bag with Fresh Produce in the Background – Photo Credit iStock/mrPliskin

The purchase price of organic food is often higher than its taxpayer-subsidized industrial counterparts and prices may vary widely depending on the type of food and where you buy it. Be a savvy shopper and check prices at farmers markets, co-ops, farm stands, grocery markets, and even big box stores.

I realize that paying more for organic food may not fit easily into everyone’s budget so here are a few ideas on how you can support organic food in various ways.

  • Select one fruit or vegetable and start buying the organic version all the time or at least once a month.
  • Buy all organic fresh produce once a month or as often as you can.
  • Switch to organic milk, butter, cheese or the dairy product of your choice.
  • Try buying organically raised chicken, pork, or beef. It is expensive so you may find yourself eating less meat and more plants, which is good for you and the environment.
  • Support healthy land and people in your own community or region by purchasing organic food grown or raised locally.

I look forward to the day when all food is grown organically and everyone can afford it. I hope you will join me in buying at least one organic food item if you can, so we can inform the agricultural community at large that we want to eat food that is healthy for us and the planet.

Featured Image at Top: Close-up of Onions Growing in Soil – Photo Credit iStock/YuriyS

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Can Eating Ugly Fruits and Vegetables End Hunger and Food Waste?

Beauty is only skin deep is true for food, too.

Stopping food waste at the farm is a positive step towards ending hunger in the United States. Eating ugly fruits and vegetables is one way you can help.

Thinking about issues as far-reaching and multifaceted as hunger and food waste can be overwhelming. You may feel like you cannot do much about them. The thing is that even if a problem is huge and complex you can learn about a small aspect of it and then take action.

For this post, I chose eating ugly fruits and vegetables because I believe that our perception of what constitutes edible food influences our decisions all along the food chain.

This post provides a 30,000-foot look at hunger, food waste, and the environment so you can get a grip on the big picture. It also includes a section on food aesthetics and ideas about how you can participate in the ugly food movement.

For readers wanting more information, you can find links to reports, articles, and videos at the end of the post.

A 30,000-Foot Look at Hunger, Food Waste, and the Environment

I have a love hate relationship with data and statistics. Information is necessary for identifying problems, figuring out what is causing them, and measuring solutions to find out whether they are working or not. What worries me is that the people counted in statistics can too easily become just numbers in a database instead of living breathing people with lives and loved ones. Please keep this in mind as you review the information below.

Hunger

Over 42 million people in the United States live in a food-insecure household, which is government-speak for these people do not have enough food to eat on a regular basis. It is hard to get your arms around 42 million people (13% of our population), but chances are you know one or more of these 42 million people, even though you might not know they go hungry sometimes (one of these people could even be you).1

There are many reasons that people go hungry in the United States mostly having to do with not having enough money to buy healthy food or not having access to it or both. One part of the problem is that affordable fresh fruits and vegetables are not available and affordable for everyone.

Food Waste

The United States spends over $218 billion (yes, billion) growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food that is never eaten.Reducing food waste even 15% would be enough food to feed 25 million Americans.4

Farmers do not even harvest over 10 million tons of food a year.2 These fruits, vegetables, and other crops are left to rot in fields and orchards, fed to livestock animals, or sent to landfills. One in five fruits and vegetables do not get eaten, at least not by a human.3

Environment

Putting food on American tables eats up 10% of our total energy budget, uses 50% of our land, and gulps 80% of our freshwater, yet 40% of the food in the United States goes uneaten.4

Farmers apply tons of synthetic chemicals and toxins to food crops during all stages of growth including fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and a host of other substances intended to either promote growth or kill something. Land, air, and water pollution cause life and death problems like cancer in people, ocean dead zones, and bee colony collapse. 5, 6, 7

As you can see, these are serious and huge issues.

Next, let’s bite off a manageable chunk (pun intended) of the food waste problem that we can do something about.

Food Aesthetics – Picky, Picky

Your food selection criteria are highly influenced by the federal government and food distributors and retailers.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture issues voluntary food grade standards and most food distributors and retailers adhere to these standards even though they are not required to (in most cases).

These standards cover a wide variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy products, and grains, both fresh and processed. The standards determine what are acceptable sizes, shapes, colors, and other attributes depending on what kind of food it is. The general idea is that standardizing food quality and appearance makes it easier to market food and provide customers with what they want.

Standards probably do make buying and selling food easier for everyone in the food system, except perhaps for farmers. Unfortunately, it also creates picky food shoppers and leads to mountains of edible food decomposing in fields and landfills across the country.

In all likelihood, you grew up eating these calibrated fruits and vegetables. I did. Today as you and I push our shopping carts around the produce section in our local grocery stores our learned preferences and biases influence our selections.

Faced with a scarred nectarine or a three-legged carrot we may frown and not actually view it as an edible piece of food. It is not our fault; after all, we received training from a powerful industry with a massive advertising budget.

Beauty is Only Skin Deep is True for People and Food

It is not easy to overcome automatically avoiding foods that do not match your preconceived notion of acceptable food appearance. Like changing any habit, it requires making a different choice repeatedly until it becomes routine.

Take a potato for instance. Once you peel, cook, and mash a potato it looks like mashed potatoes regardless of what the whole potato looked like at the store. If you consistently buy potatoes with odd-looking bumps, at some point they may just register as potatoes in your mind instead of imperfect potatoes.

Below are photos of some ugly carrots I bought. I sliced two for a snack and cut up a few to use in a stir-fry vegetable dish. Can you tell which of the ugly carrots I used?

Wider acceptance of so-called ugly fruits and vegetables could lead to several positive outcomes.

  • Farmers – harvesting ugly crops and selling them at discounted prices increases revenue and reduces food waste in the field.
  • Cooks and Chefs – buying and incorporating ugly food into recipes and menus reduces costs, builds market demand, and helps spread the word.
  • Food Shoppers – requesting and buying ugly produce builds market demand at the retail level making fresh fruits and vegetables more widely available and affordable.
  • Food Retailers – expanding offerings to include ugly food brings in additional revenue, creates goodwill, and reduces food waste.
  • Food Non-Profits – keeping more food in the system at a lower cost enables organizations to provide healthy and nutritious food for a larger number of hungry people.

Okay, sounds good, now what?

What Can You Do?

You have an opportunity to join the fledging ugly food movement in the United States and take part in reducing food waste and building market demand for ugly and affordable fruits and vegetables. Here are a few ideas to help you get you started.

  • Buy ugly produce when you can find it at the store or farmers market. Do not worry if you cannot bring yourself to buy a really weird looking fruit or vegetable, start with something easy like a curvy cucumber.
  • Ask the produce manager or store manager at your local grocery market if they have imperfect looking produce for sale and if not ask them to try stocking it.
  • Sign up for an ugly food box service that delivers to your home or workplace or that you can swing by and pick up. Keep it local.
  • Make a tasty dish using ugly produce and share your recipe and before and after pictures with your friends and family and on social media.
  • Volunteer to pick ugly crops donated by a farmer, pack boxes with ugly fruits and vegetables at a food bank, or help make meals with ugly produce at a shelter.

Your willingness to buy and eat ugly fruits and vegetables may not end hunger and food waste in the United States, but you can be part of the ripple that can turn into a wave of change.

You never know, you might begin to look at a bruised apple or a container of leftovers in a whole new light.

Featured Image at Top: Pile of Raw Ugly Carrots – Photo Credit Shutterstock/farbled

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References

  1. Food Security Status of U.S. Households in 2015, USDA Economic Research Service, 2016
  2. A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent, ReFed, 2016
  3. How Californians Are Fighting Food Waste on the Farm, at the Store and at Home, by Danny Jensen, KCET, 04/05/17
  4. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, by Dana Gunders, NRDC, 08/2012
  5. As Trump’s EPA Takes Shape, Here’s Your Pesticide Cheat Sheet, by Elizabeth Grossman, Civil Eats, 02/02/17
  6. “Dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico is biggest ever, by Ian Hendy, The Conversation, 08/11/17
  7. Is America’s most common pesticide responsible for killing our bees?, Alison Moodie, The Guardian, 02/05/17

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