Sales of organic products have increased by a whopping 20 percent in the past decade making it the fastest growing agricultural sector. Consumers are motivated to buy organic because they want to reduce their exposure to pesticide residue, hormones, and antibiotics. But organic produce isn’t just good for your health, it’s also good for the health and well-being of the farmer that produces your food and the planet.
A Farmer’s Pesticide Exposure
While consumers come into contact with pesticide residue found on fruits and vegetables, farmers and farm workers are exposed to the actual pesticides. With more than 17,000 pesticide products (including consumer products) on the market today, it’s become unrealistic for the Environmental Protection Agency to test all of them. In fact, the agency only tests one percent of chemicals in commerce today.
Most recently, two former farm workers sued Monsanto claiming that its signature weed killer Roundup caused their cancers. Enrique Rubio, who was a farm worker in Oregon, Texas, and California claimed that exposure to Roundup caused his bone cancer. He filed a lawsuit alleging that spraying fields with the herbicide was a substantial and contributing factor to his cancer diagnosis in 1995. Judi Fitzgerald filed a lawsuit in the federal court of New York claiming that exposure to Roundup during the 1990s caused her leukemia over a decade later.
Protecting Soil and Water Quality
While in the short term farmers may think that depending on a chemical regimen to grow crops is easier, over time, heavy use of pesticides can damage the soil and environment. For example, many genetically modified seeds like Roundup Ready corn, soy, and cotton have become resistant to the herbicide Roundup. As a result, farmers dump inordinate amounts of it on their crops. In fact, according to the EPA, in the past two decades, use has increased by 7 million pounds.
While the crop itself may survive the onslaught of pesticides, the biodiversity surrounding the crops does not and the soil itself becomes a dead zone. Once the soil becomes overly depleted, the food produced on the land also suffers. For example, fruits and vegetables can become depleted of vitamins and minerals. What’s more, pesticides seep down into ground water as well as into lakes and streams. Whether as a result of pesticide drift or runoff, these chemicals can pollute water supplies. Pesticides cause the growth of toxic algae blooms, which can also cause water contamination and, in some cases, even cut off drinking water supplies to certain areas.
Organic Farming Is More Profitable
Organic farming is also better for farmers financially. A new study, published in Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), found that organic farming is 22 to 35 percent more profitable than conventional farming. Not only does organic farming demand a higher price tag from consumers who value both the health and environmental benefits of better food, it doesn’t require expensive petroleum-based synthetic fertilizers.
Nitrogen fertilizers are the single biggest energy consumer, representing over 40 percent of the energy cost for a conventional farmer. These fertilizers require large amounts of petroleum to produce and transport. In the end, the average net return for organic farmers is $558 per acre per year versus $190 per acre per year for conventional farmers. And after all that input, the crop yields are basically the same.
If the actual societal price of conventional farming was included in the consumer price, (for example, the cost of cleaning up polluted water systems and crop subsidies), then the cost of conventional farming would be a whole lot higher, but those farmers would still be unlikely to see the majority of the profits.
Organic produce has a positive impact on society from producer to consumer. It requires fewer pesticides which means farmers aren’t exposed to poisons that can be detrimental to their health both immediately and later on in life. It also means that farmers actually get to farm, using age-old methods like cover crops, beneficial insects, and crop rotation to maintain soil biodiversity.
Traditional farming methods are something of an art form and they deserve a fair wage. Once farmers do the work to transition their farm to organic, they deserve to be compensated for the effort–especially when it means we get to enjoy the delicious and healthful products from all of their hard work.