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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Green Twist on 10 Healthy Eating New Year’s Resolutions

A healthy lifestyle requires a healthy Earth.

If you are contemplating a 2018 New Year’s resolution to eat healthier, consider doing it in an environmentally friendly way that helps Earth be healthier, too.

The top New Year’s resolutions usually fall into three categories: health, money, or time. In the health category, popular resolutions include losing weight, exercising more, and living a healthier lifestyle. I believe healthy eating is the foundation for those three goals. First, no matter what advertisers tell you, you will not lose weight unless you eat healthy, too. Second, eating healthy will give you the energy you need to exercise and lastly, a healthy lifestyle includes healthy eating.

In this post, you can explore ten potential healthy eating New Year’s resolutions that are also good for the planet.

10 Planet Friendly Healthy Eating New Year’s Resolutions

These New Year’s resolution suggestions are about actions not specific food and beverage recommendations. Some may seem weird to you, but I hope you will find a least one that makes you think, “Yes, I can and want to do that.”

Abstain from Aluminum

No substance that you need for healthy eating comes in an aluminum can.

Aluminum is a valuable material that has an enormous environmental footprint. You can read about the process of making aluminum and the environmental issues associated with it in the post, Aluminum Beverage Cans – Environmental Impact. It is incredibly wasteful to use aluminum to make a can that you open, drink the contents, and then get rid of, even if you recycle the can, which most people do not do.

New Year’s Resolution: Stop buying anything that comes in aluminum cans, forever.

Composting Can Change Your Choices

You can make good use of the peels and rinds from all the fresh fruits and vegetables you will be consuming as part of your quest to eat healthier.

Instead of tossing produce scraps in your trash or grinding them up in your garbage disposal, consider composting them to create a nutritious treat for the soil in your yard or your neighbor’s.

The act of putting a spoiled potato or banana in your compost pail could change the way you shop for produce and reduce food waste in your household.

If you think composting is something other people should do, read the post, Composting Made Easy – Tips from an Unlikely Composter (that is I) and then see if you are willing to try it.

New Year’s Resolution: Set up a composting bin in your yard or on your patio and put all your fruit and vegetable scraps in it.

Do-it-Yourself Dining

Preparing and Cooking a Meal to Eat at HomeTake control of what goes into and stays out of your food by preparing your own meals.

You select the recipes, choose the ingredients, read the package/jar labels, season to your taste, and decide on your own portion sizes. Plus, chances are you do not have unpronounceable additives in your pantry that may improve the shelf life of processed foods but do nothing for your health.

When you dine at home or take your lunch to school or work, you can choose foods with less packaging, eat on reusable tableware, and reduce food waste.

New Year’s Resolution: Make at least one meal a week yourself. If one meal a week is too easy, then up the difficulty of your resolution. For instance, if you usually eat lunch out during the workweek; bring your own lunch at least three days a week.

Find it at the Farmer’s Market

Imagine buying a head of lettuce or a peach picked at the peak of ripeness and deliciousness the day before you buy it. Fresh fruits and vegetables are the star attractions at the over 8,600 farmers markets in the United States, which makes it easy for you to choose healthy food.

When you buy food directly from the people who grow and produce it, you are saving energy, water, fuel, waste, and supporting farmers in your own community. If you are worried that shopping at the farmers market might be too expensive or time-consuming, read the post 5 Reasons to Shop at the Farmers Market and then decide if you want to give it a whirl.

New Year’s Resolution: At least once a month, shop at a farmers market near where you live or work. Depending on the climate, farmers markets may operate year round or only in warmer months.

Healthy Hydration Habit

You probably already know that drinking water is important to your health. Keeping water within your reach at all times, in a glass or reusable bottle, makes staying hydrated easier and almost automatic.

In most areas in the United States, tap water is inexpensive and safe to drink. If you do not like the “taste” of your tap water, use a filtering pitcher or install an osmosis system. Before you dash out to the store to stock up on cases of bottled water, please consider its environmental and social implications.

New Year’s Resolution: Stay hydrated without buying water in a disposable container (a recyclable container is still disposable).

Look for Local

The next time you are shopping for groceries, make a point of looking for and buying produce grown locally.

Grocery Market Locally Grown Produce SectionThis makes it easy for you to select fruits and vegetables that are in season, freshly picked and did not travel on an airplane in route to your market. Local meat, eggs, dairy, bread, and processed foods (like spaghetti sauce) are also good choices.

If you cannot find locally sourced produce at your regular grocery store, try shopping at a co-op, natural food store, or family-owned market.

New Year’s Resolution: Once a month, buy only fruits and vegetables that were grown locally or switch from a national brand of a packaged food to a locally or regionally made product.

Make Some Meals Meatless

I think most people know that eating vegetables, beans, fruits, nuts, and whole grains are part of a healthy eating plan, yet Americans do not seem to eat enough of these foods. One simple (but not necessarily easy) way to eat more plants is to devote less space on your plate to meat or to push it completely off the plate. This does not mean you have to start eating tofu or kale, unless you want to, which I do not.

Nowadays, most Americans are far removed from where our food comes from so you may not realize that eating meat has a ginormous and far-reaching environmental impact. Out of the ten suggested resolutions in this post, eating less meat is probably the best thing you can do for your own health and Earth’s.

New Year’s Resolution: At least once a week, for one meal, fill your plate with plants and no meat.

Opt for Organic

For most of human history, farmers grew food organically meaning without pesticides, genetically modified organisms, or sewage sludge and they did not need to wear hazmat suits at work.

Nowadays, thanks to organic food fans demanding and buying organic food for several decades, it is now widely available and reasonably affordable. Farmers markets, co-ops, and CSA shares are good sources of organic food and even national grocery market chains and big box stores are stocking at least some organic food, especially produce.

New Year’s Resolution: Switch to buying the organic version of one type of fruit, vegetable or other food product each month of the year.

Sign Up for a CSA Share

Envision yourself picking up or having delivered to you a box of freshly picked seasonal produce each week during the growing season where you live.

Fresh winter produce from weekly CSA share.If this appeals to you, then consider signing up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) share from a local farm in your area. Some CSAs will include fish, dairy, meat, or other local food products.

New Year’s Resolution: Locate a local farm that has a CSA program and then sign up for one year.

Ugly is Undervalued

American farmers do not even harvest over 10 million tons of food a year because it does not meet USDA voluntary standards for size, shape, and color, which wastes all the energy, water, and people power that went into growing it.

The fledgling ugly food movement is trying to change our perception of what constitutes edible food. This could lead to more food being harvested and made available to feed more people.

New Year’s Resolution: Join the ugly food movement. At least once a month, make a point of seeking out and buying weird and ugly looking produce like three-legged carrots or weirdly shaped apples.

I hope this post gave you some ideas about how you can put a green twist on your healthy eating New Year’s resolution for 2018. You can learn how to make a specific and measurable resolution and get tips on healthy eating by reading the posts New Year’s Resolution – Make it SMARTER and The Secret to Making Healthy Eating Easy.

What is my New Year’s resolution for this year? I am pondering a resolution involving sugar, something along the lines of learning about the environmental impact of the sugar industry or trying to figure out what constitutes a reasonable daily amount of sugar and then eating only that amount. Clearly, this is too broad and undefined for a New Year’s resolution so perhaps I need to reread the SMARTER post myself.

Happy New Year!

Featured Image at Top: Healthy Eating Vegetable Stir-Fry Dish – Photo Credit iStock/Mizina

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