Comida Organico vs. Comida no organico

ORGANIC VS. INORGANIC

“Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved..”

—International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements

The most basic distinction between organic and non-organic agriculture is that organic agriculture does not use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms.  However, this distinction is not as simple as it might seem, because growing food in a way that is healthy for the environment and for people involves an entirely different set of knowledge and practices than conventional agriculture.  Conventional/industrial agriculture relies on chemicals and machinery to do much of the work, and lays the health and environmental burdens on ecosystems and consumers.

What is a synthetic compound?  Synthetic compounds are not found naturally in the environment, and must be synthesized, or fabricated, by scientists working in laboratories, usually for large agrochemical companies.  Many farmers use synthetic fertilizers to add nutrients to the soil, and synthetic pesticides to kill plants, insects, and fungi, so that all that remains growing in the agricultural field is the crop that is being cultivated for sale.

Pesticides:  The word pesticide can be defined as something that kills (-cide means killer) unwanted life forms (pests). These include herbicides (which kill plants), insecticides (which kill insects), fungicides (which kill fungi), and many other ‘cides.’  Essentially, pesticides are poison!  There is reason to be concerned about spraying poison on the food that we eat, because too much of it can damage our health and cause cancers, and cause grave environmental harm.  Many pesticides don’t kill just one specific pest, but everything in their paths, including beneficial insects and other important components of agrobiodiversity, such as soil microorganisms.  When birds eat bugs that have been contaminated with pesticides, the poisons accumulate in their bodies and cause them to lay infertile eggs, or to die.  This is not just true of birds, but of people and other animals as well.  A particularly worrying problem is that rainwater or irrigation water washes pesticide residues from agricultural fields and into underground sources of drinking water, rivers, lakes, and oceans.  This causes poisons to accumulate in the bodies of fish we eat, and in turn, the poisons accumulate in our own bodies.  Of course, those most at risk for pesticide poisoning are the farmers and agricultural workers themselves who have the job of spraying pesticides over large crop fields.  Sixty percent of pregnant women working in non-organic agricultural fields in California terminate experience miscarriages because of exposure to pesticides [cite].

Even worse, long-term scientific studies have shown that in the long run, pesticides don’t even work!  While at first they do a very good job of killing plants and insects that we think of as pests, a number of things happen that eventually make them ineffective.  Almost always, the pests find ways to outsmart the pesticides, and resistant populations of pests multiply and devour the crop plants anew.  When this happens, farmers have to spend more and more money each year on pesticides, impacting environmental and health damages, while scientists have to constantly come up with new pesticide formulas.  It is a never-ending treadmill!  Another thing that happens is that the pesticide not only kills the pest, but also kills beneficial insects called natural enemies that normally feed on pests.  Without natural enemies to keep them in check, the pests can make a comeback—doubletime.  This can be devastating for crops, as bigger-than-ever pest populations resurge and devour entire fields.

Fertilizers: Fertilizers are another group of inorganic, or synthetic, compounds made in laboratories.  These compounds are meant to provide plants with vitamins and other nutrients, because as plants grow they are constantly feeding off of soil nutrients.  In natural ecosystems, the nutrients get returned back to the soil when the plants die, or are eaten by animals and pooped back out onto the ground.  In agricultural settings, a huge proportion of the plant matter gets boxed up and shipped to grocery stores.  Therefore, it is up to farmers to add more nutrients to the soil if they want to grow more plants.  Unfortunately, synthetic fertilizers are no better for the environment than synthetic pesticides!  They contain unnaturally high concentrations of nitrates, which can ‘burn’ soil microorganisms and degrade the health of the soil.  Even more problematic is that when it rains, these high concentrations of synthetic nutrients wash into waterways just as do pesticides.  This results in eutrophication and algal blooms, which can block sunlight from entering aquatic systems, depleting the system of oxygen and eventually killing all of the plants and animals that live in them.  Have you heard of the ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico?  This is precisely what has happened there:  agricultural runoff containing high concentrations of synthetic fertilizers and animal manures from industrial feedlots (link to that paragraph in biodiversity page?) have been washing off of American agricultural fields, and as a result, have decimated 22,126 square kilometres of marine ecosystems.

Genetically modified organisms:  Genetically modified organisms are not considered organic either.  Like synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, these organisms do not occur in nature, and must be fabricated by laboratory scientists.  Crop plants are altered, on the level of their genes, to be bigger, stronger, higher-yielding, and resistant to attacks by pests or sprayings of herbicides.  While there is continual debate about whether or not genetically modified crops themselves are harmful to our health, we do know that they can have detrimental effects on biodiversity.  Genetically modified crops have extremely low levels of genetic biodiversity, and run the risk of crossing with native strains that are healthier and better adapted to local conditions (see section on maize).

External inputs: Organic farmers reduce burning of fossil fuels by not relying on heavy inputs of imported material.  It takes a lot of energy to synthesize the inorganic compounds that farmers use in their fields, and even more energy for trucks to drive back and forth and back and forth carrying harvested food from the farm to the stores, and bringing loads of external inputs to the farm.  Moreover, it takes energy to run the tractors and other machines that plough the soil, plant the seeds, spray the chemicals, and even harvest the crops.  Where does all of this energy come from?  It comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which pollute the air we breathe and contribute to greenhouse gases that are partly responsible for climate change.

Now that we know what ISN’T organic, what IS organic?

For thousands of years, traditional mesoamerican farmers have never had the need to label their products as “organic” or “alternative” or “environmentally friendly.”  However, they have practiced a form of agriculture that many people in developed countries like the United States are just now turning to as a positive example of how to grow food without jeopardizing human or environmental health.  Below are some practices that both organic farmers and traditional mesoamerican farmers (who are also organic farmers) use in order to grow food in a way that is more sustainable than conventional farming.

Cultivating diversity: One of the most visually apparent differences that distinguish organic farms from conventional ones is the diversity of plants that are growing.  Cultivating multiple plant species is one good way to avoid pest problems.  Most insect pests only have one or a few plants that they like to eat or lay eggs on.  While monocrops offer pests an all-you-can-eat buffet of their favorite foods, pests have to work a little bit harder to navigate an array of plants that have all different sizes and shapes and colors and smells on a highly diverse farm or garden.  Pest populations seldom explode, because there is not enough of any particular foodstuff to sustain a huge population.  A diversity of plants also strengthens the entire agroecosystem, because each component occupies a different niche and requires different resources, reducing competition.  For example, shallow-rooted species get their nourishment near the surface of the soil, while deep-rooted species dap deeper reserves.  And of course, each component offers some service to other parts of the system.  Nitrogen-fixing legumes enrich the soil with nutrients for other plants, dense leafy plants provide shade for smaller plants, and tall plants provide structure for climbing vines and tendrils.

A great example of this kind of diversity is the well-known ‘three sisters’ intercrop that is the staple of mesoamerican milpas: Corn, beans, and squash.  Beans fix nitrogen, enriching the soil for the corn and the squash.  The broad leaves and low-growing nature of squash shades the soil, making sure that it doesn’t get too hot.  Scientists have discovered that squash plants also help to repel insects.  Corn grows tall and strong, providing structural support for the climbing tendrils of the bean plants.  And all three comprise the basic staples of a healthy, complete mesoamerican diet, which is fortified by a variety of other fruits and vegetables and herbs scattered throughout the milpa.  These including chile, tomato, basil, and many others. (link to plant lists)

Cleanliness: Another basic disease control strategy is simply keeping the area clean by removing diseased and dying plants, and ensuring that living plants are healthy.  Diseases often start out by attacking weaker plants, and then gain strength and spread to stronger plants as well.  Removing unhealthy plants eliminates this possibility.

Reducing tillage:  When farmers till the soil, digging it up to mix in fertilizers or clear fields to plant a new crop each year, this reduces the soil’s ability to hold water and nutrients, and increases its susceptibility to erosion.  Tilling also requires machinery that runs on fossil fuels, which adds pollution to the environment.  On the other hand, keeping a continuous cover of plants allows organic matter to build in the soil, which enriches it with nutrients and helps it to hold onto water rather than turning to dust and blowing away in the wind or sloughing off mountains as mudslides.  A healthy diversity of plant roots, worms, and soil microorganisms do just fine at breaking up the soil and keeping it soft!

Organic methods of pest management:  People all over the world have developed a wide array of practices to help manage problematic plants and insects, without the need to rely on chemical fertilizers.  As described above, plant diversity helps to strengthen the agroecosystem and prevent pest outbreaks.  Crop rotation helps to prevent bacterial and fungal diseases in the plants’ roots, and also ensure that the soil does not become drained of any one particular kind of nutrient.  Crop rotation can either mean planting crops in different places each year, or it can mean planting in the same place but using different species.  Mulching is a practice that prevents weeds from sprouting up by covering the ground with a layer of dead plant material.  This has the added benefit of acting like a blanket over the soil, protecting it from the sun and reducing heat and moisture loss.  If it is done carefully, light fire can also be used to burn away young weeds.

To manage insect pests, farmers can cultivate plants that repel insects, and they can also cultivate plants that attract beneficial insects, or natural enemies, that prey on pests.  Many native, perrennial flowering plants do a great job of this, while fragrant herbs often repel pest insects.  Chickens and ducks do an excellent job of eating bugs and small weeds as well.  Trap crops are plants that distract insects’ attention away from food plants.  In California, lygus bugs, who love strawberries, have been found to love alfalfa even more.  After discovering this, organic strawberry farmers started planting rows of alfalfa on the edges of their strawberry fields to distract the lygus bugs.  Some farmers even vacuum the bugs out of the alfalfa to make sure they don’t cause any trouble!  A variety of traps can also be used, including baited sticky traps or glass jars.

There are also a good number of perfectly natural substances that farmers can dust, spray, or sprinkle in their fields to repel or kill pests.  Neem, spinosad, soaps, borax, garlic, clove, and citrus oil, chili extracts, vinegar, and various other homemade remedies can all be put to use in managing a variety of different pests.  Other options include lime sulfate, copper, potassium and sodium bicarbonate, pelargonic acid, and boric acid.  Fungi and bacteria, such as Bacillus popillae and Beauvaria bassiana, can be used to kill problematic plants.

Organic methods of fertilization: Plants need vitamins and minerals to be healthy just like people.  Plants take their nutrients from the soil, and if we remove those plants (to eat, sell, or harvest them for other uses), we need to be careful to return nutrients to the soil so that other plants can grow.  One way to do this is to add compost, which is a rich source of many nutrients from decomposed food scraps, leaf litter, animal manures, and other organic waste.  See the page on compost for more information.   Certain plants also help to enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen, a critical nutrient for plant growth, from the air.  Special associations between soil bacteria and the roots of leguminous plant species like beans and peas, take nitrogen from the soil and put it in the ground where other plants can absorb it through their own roots.  These plants are sometimes called green manure, because manure is also a rich source of nitrogen.  They can be planted in-between crop plants as an intercrop, or they can be planted during a fallow period between crops or in rotation with crops, in order to give the soil a chance to replenish before another crop is planted.  Minerals like rock phosphate and greensand can be added to soil as a source of potassium, and lime and sulfur can be used to adjust the level of soil acidity, or pH (link to soil page).

Are there differences in yield and quality between organic and inorganic?

This is often the most important question a farmer will ask him or herself before deciding to grow food organically or not.  The answer all depends on how.  Clearly, planting a monocrop of organic tomatoes is not going to produce very high yields, because the extremely low level of agrobiodiversity will make the tomatoes susceptible to pest outbreaks.  However, if many of the above practices are employed, like including a wide diversity of plants, it is likely that the entire system will be more robust and produce more.  Organically grown food is also better for our health, because it does not contain residues of toxic pesticides.  Some research even suggests that organically grown foods contain higher and more complex levels of nutrients than non-organic foods.  This may be due to a healthier soil system, which provide the plants with all of their own nutrient requirements.  Plants need good food just like people, and it all starts from the ground up!  And of course, we shouldn’t forget that the environmental benefits of organic agriculture (such as erosion control, biodiversity conservation, and reduced pollution) are an important component of the in the increased quality of organic over inorganic food.

How can you tell if something is organic or not if you didn’t grow it?

● If you can, ask the person who did grow it.  This might not be possible at supermarkets where produce arrives in boxes every day, but if you buy your food at local markets, the people who are selling the fruits and vegetables usually know how they were grown.  Plus, buying locally means helping to reduce the pollution that results from transporting foods across long distances.

● Sometimes, fruits and vegetables have stickers on them that tell you if they are organic, and/or where they were grown.  Packaged foods that are made with organic ingredients usually say so on the label.  A law that went into place in 2006 ensures that all products in Mexico claiming to be organic must be certified by an internationally recognized organization.

● Sometimes you can get an idea just by looking.  Do some of the lettuce leaves have bite marks in them, or do some of the tomatoes have wormholes?  Believe it or not, this is a good sign!  It is an indication (but of course not a 100% guarantee) that the plants were not doused in chemicals to kill off every last trace of insect life.

● When plants are grown conventionally and inorganically, this usually (but not always) also means the crop has low genetic diversity.  Do all the tomatoes look like they are same size, shape, and color?  Or are some smaller than others, some odd-shaped, and some different shades of red?  Genetic diversity amongst a population (say, for example, a population of squashes) is often reflected as a diversity in the shape, size, and colors of its members.

Why does organic food usually cost more?

The real question here is:  Why doesn’t industrially-grown food cost more?  If the price tag on a kilo of conventionally-grown beans reflected the environmental costs and the human health costs that result from non-ecological farming practices, it would certainly cost a lot more!  Who pays for the fish that are killed when nitrogen leeches into waterways, and who pays for the dirt that blows away in the wind, and who pays for the cancers that are caused by ingesting pesticides?  Can we put a price tag on these things?  The price of many foods that are grown on a massive scale are sold at a relatively low price.  This is because there are no rules that say farmers have to pay for the consequences that occur downriver our outside of their property lines.  Farmers who are concerned about the environment and about human health must take these costs into account, and that is why they are reflected in the price.  But you get what you pay for!  Paying a little bit more means keeping your body free of pesticides, and supporting those who are working to conserve the integrity of the environment.

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