The Real Cost of Conventional Farming
In the last post we took a look at the health risks associated with conventional farming practices.
Today we’re going to talk about how the increasing use of pesticides affects our planet.
Pesticides like to travel.
Part of the problem with agricultural chemicals is that they don’t stay put. An organic farm that neighbors a conventional farm will likely have to deal with a little cross contamination. That’s an annoying and frustrating problem, but the issue goes much farther than that.
Arctic polar bears are suffering from high levels of pesticide exposures. (1)
DDT has been detected in the fat of Antarctic Penguins, even though it was banned in 1972. (2)
It’s also detected in the water melting off the glaciers in Antarctica. (Oh, by the way, the glaciers in Antarctica are melting.)
I don’t think any of the folks who developed or used DDT back in the 1940s ever imagined that it would have such lasting and detrimental effects, spanning so much of the planet. Clearly we need to start exercising a little more caution before we go spraying poisonous chemicals willy nilly.
Speaking of melting glaciers…
We’ve got an issue here on our planet involving rising levels of carbon dioxide.
Side question: Are there still people who think global warming isn’t a thing? I think we’ve all come to some agreement on this by now, right?
We already know about the evils of gasoline, fracking, and deforestation. Most of us are making small lifestyle changes here and there to make things more sustainable, but conventional farming methods are feeding the giant CO2 monster too.
In a healthy planet, vegetation helps keep carbon dioxide levels in check.
Plants draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and into the ground, and release oxygen in return. (Anyone remember this from second grade science? My teacher made us go outside and breathe on trees…)
Healthy soil is alive—full of microorganisms like beneficial bacteria and fungi. Some of these fungi actually help the soil to retain more CO2. (3)
When we spray the soil with toxic chemicals like pesticides and fungicides, we are essentially reducing the soil’s ability to absorb CO2.
Less co2 in the ground = More co2 in the air.
These pesticides and fungicides are also killing off the microbiome in the dirt. Without those little helpful critters, the soil becomes depleted and dead, which creates a need for more fertilizers to sustain plant life.
On top of all this, synthetic fertilizers are produced using large amounts of petrochemicals. Bleh.
A better way.
When we use organic fertilizers like compost, we are actually increasing the amount of carbon that the soil can store. Over time (and over more vast areas of land) this can significantly reduce the amount of CO2 floating around in the atmosphere. (4)
Organic farming is actually regenerative farming because it brings the soil back to a healthy state of balance, absorbs CO2 from the air, and ultimately reduces our planet’s carbon footprint.
It also provides humans with food that isn’t covered in toxic chemicals. Win win!
What about feeding the planet?
One of the big arguments for the use of conventional farming practices is that our population is growing so rapidly that we wouldn’t be able to feed everyone if we didn’t use all these chemicals.
Some of the folks who are responsible for creating agricultural chemicals like to defend their stance with arguments like this one from John Emsley:
“The greatest catastrophe that the human race could face this century is not global warming but a global conversion to ‘organic farming’-an estimated 2 billion people would perish.”
It’s a crock.
You can read in more detail about why it’s a crock here.
Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute explains, “There are actually myriad studies from around the world showing that organic farms can produce about as much, and in some settings much more, than conventional farms.”
Even if these chemicals did increase yields in the short term, it seems unlikely that those high yields could be sustained by such an environmentally depleting process.
We’ve got poorly maintained soil so depleted of nitrogen that it’s unable to grow anything, dead zones in our oceans, pesticides in our drinking water, and our pollinators are dropping like.. well.. bees.
The landscape that we are creating doesn’t sound like a utopia where we are all well fed.
When we buy conventionally grown foods, we are contributing to this process.
Futhermore, a surprisingly large percentage of the food crops grown in the US aren’t even grown for human consumption. Most of the staple crops like corn and soy are fed to animals or converted into biofuels and other chemicals, so the idea that we are desperately trying to grow enough food to feed all the humans is unfounded.
Halweil explains, “To date, hunger has been due primarily to inadequate income and distribution rather than absolute food scarcity.”
The seemingly humanitarian argument for solving world hunger with “food technology” falls apart pretty quickly under light scrutiny.
Counting the Cost
You may have noticed that organic produce tends to cost a little more than conventional. I have heard people talk about organic farmers “demanding a higher price” for their products, but is it because they’re greedy elitists who charge more just because they can? Usually not. You would think cost of growing organic food would be lower than conventionally farmed food because organic farmers don’t have to pay for all those petrochemicals… But that would be overlooking one major game changer:
Subsidies. (Or a lack thereof.)
Thanks to the Farm Bill, most conventional farmers receive quite a bit of compensation from the government in the form of subsidies. Conventional corn farmers sell their corn for much less than it costs to produce it, and then the government sends them a check to make up for it.
Organic farms don’t qualify for those subsidies. (Weird, eh?)
It’s a little unfair to our health, and our planet, to make the less healthy option more affordable–but that’s essentially what’s happening.
If conventional corn wasn’t subsidized, it would likely cost much more than organic corn. Organic farmers don’t have to purchase pesticides, fertilizers, and equipment for handling those chemicals. I would imagine that those elements would all add to the overall cost of production, if it weren’t for the government bearing the financial burden.
“It may be tempting to buy the cheap foods that the government is “paying you” to eat … but this choice will come back to haunt you in the form of health problems and increased medical bills later on.” -Dr. Joseph Mercola
When you buy organic food, you are paying for the actual cost of food. You are also supporting a regenerative, sustainable farming system, and potentially setting yourself up to save on healthcare costs later in life.
Eating organic also guarantees you don’t get any exposure to GMOs. And THAT is a whole different topic for another day, my friends.
Do you make an effort to eat organic? Why or why not?