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

Related Posts

Resources

Organic Food – What Does the USDA Organic Label Mean?

USDA Organic SealIf a banana or a box of cereal display the USDA Organic seal, that means it’s 100% organic, “Right?” Well, not necessarily.

As long as the banana is a whole unprocessed piece of fruit it is 100% organic. The cereal is a multi-ingredient processed food that may or may not have been made entirely with 100% organic ingredients. And yet, they both carry the USDA Organic seal. Confused? I was.

In this post, we’ll learn how the USDA categorizes organic food for marketing purposes via the National Organic Program (NOP) and attempt to answer the question, “What does the USDA Organic label mean?”

Two previous posts covered NOP basics that readers may find useful for understanding terms in this post. Organic Food – USDA National Organic Program gives an overview of the NOP and describes the role of certifying agents. Organic Food – USDA Rules and Regulations explains organic production and handling requirements and the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

USDA Organic Categories and Labeling Rules

The USDA regulates how organically produced and handled raw and processed agricultural products (food, non-food crops, and livestock feed) is categorized and labeled. We’ll focus on food for people.

Organic food falls into 1 of 3 categories: 100% organic, organic, or made with organic (specified ingredients or food groups).

Organic Fruits, Vegetables, and Packaged Food from Author's Kitchen

Use of the USDA Organic seal is voluntary, however, there are specific rules for which products may bear the seal and what may be said on labels and packaging.

The weight or fluid volume (excluding water and salt) of organic ingredients is used to calculate the percentage of organic ingredients in a given product which determines its category.

I pulled some examples of organic raw and processed foods from my pantry, fridge, and kitchen countertop to illustrate various organic labeling methods.

100% Organic

All ingredients must be 100% organic. This is easier for say an apple than a jar of peanut butter. The name of the product may be modified with the words 100% organic. The USDA Organic seal and name and seal of the certifying agent may be used on the product or package.

Fresh Produce

The 100% organic carrots, red cabbage, spinach, broccoli, and radishes in the photo are part of our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share from Los Osos Valley Organic Farm, a local certified organic farm. The twist ties perform two functions; keeping like items together and identifying the certifying agent, CCOF (Certified California Organic Farmers).

Organic Broccoli, Carrots, and Red Cabbage with CCOF Twist Ties

Honey

On the Natural Directions 100% Organic Honey bottle, the USDA Organic seal is prominently displayed on the front and the words 100% organic are used to modify the name of the product. For good measure, the word organic appears in a red banner. The back label lists the ingredients as organic honey and identifies the certifying agent, PCO (Pennsylvania Certified Organic).

Natural Directions 100% Organic Honey with USDA Organic Seal

Organic

Products labeled organic must contain not less than 95% organic ingredients. The remaining ingredients may be non-organically produced if not available in organic form and must still comply with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. The name of the product may be modified with the word organic and organic may be used to preface organic ingredients. The USDA Organic seal and name and seal of the certifying agent may be used on the product or package.

Bread

The bag containing Dave’s Killer Bread displays the USDA seal and the name and seal of the certifying agent, Quality Assurance International. The ingredients are prefaced with the word organic, e.g. organic whole wheat, organic sunflower seeds, organic flaxseeds, etc. Although it’s not strictly necessary because genetically modified organisms are prohibited in organic food, the front of the bag sports the words “GMO-free.”

Dave's Killer Power Seed Bread with USDA Organic Seal

Made with Organic

The made with organic designation is for products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients. The other ingredients may not be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation. The organic ingredients may be prefaced with the word organic, for instance, organic wheat. The USDA seal may not be used; however, the name and seal of the certifying agent may be used on product packaging.

Energy Bar

The Crunchy Peanut Butter Clif Bar package says, “Made with Organic Oats & Peanut Butter,” in the upper right-hand corner and lists some organic ingredients on the back, like organic rolled oats and organic peanuts. Per USDA regulations, the USDA Organic seal is not used on the package but it does say, “Certified Organic by QAI” on the back.

Clif Bar Made with Organic Ingredients and Bunch of Organic Bananas with USDA Seal

Multi-Ingredient

Technically there is a fourth category; products containing less than 70% organic ingredients. In this case, NOP production and handling requirements only apply to the organic ingredients. No organic seals or statements may be made on the packaging. Organic ingredients may be prefaced with the word organic, e.g. organic cane syrup.

Organic Food Label Challenge

You are now armed with the necessary information to be a savvy organic food shopper.

Try this the next time you are in the grocery market. Look for 5 whole or processed foods that exhibit the USDA Organic seal or the word organic. Read the labels and ingredients lists (for processed foods), and identify which of the categories each item belongs in. Then choose one of the items you examined, buy it and try it.

Related Posts

Resources