In Food

Organic or Bust: Can Organic Farming Solve Our Agricultural Pollution Problems?

Posted by: on Feb 27, 2012 | 2 Comments

Once aware what the organic label means and what the major sources of agricultural pollution are, my next question was: when I purchase organic lettuce from the supermarket instead of conventional lettuce, am I making a difference? Does purchasing organic produce (we’ll talk about meat later) actually reduce the amount of pollution entering our environment?

The term organic tends to induce nostalgic images of small farms with happy, carefree cows and fields of crops ranging from greens to berries, root vegetables, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers… In fact, conceptually organic is a lot like the radishes pictured above. They were grown on a farm close to town and purchased at the local farmers’ market. They are certified organic. And I can talk directly with the farmer who grew them. You get the idea. The Sound of Music should be playing in your head about now. However, organic can be and is a whole lot more than that.

Big Organic

I’m sure we’ve all heard of Big Ag, but what about big organic or as it’s increasingly being called, industrial organic? Industrial organic grew from the original organic movement. Traditionally, organic production was intimately connected to the whole process, including how the food reached its final destination. However, as it scaled up, industrial organic inevitably lost sight of some of the ideals. According to Michael Pollan (2006), organic increasingly reflects the system it set out to reform. Some of this change may be attributable to an expanding global market for organic goods as well as new government certification. It also probably has to do with economics and reducing costs.

If we can’t use pesticides, what do we do with those pesky little bugs?

Depending on the farmer, synthetic pesticide use is severely reduced or eliminated in accordance with USDA regulations. Some organic farmers use no pesticides (Yay!). Instead of pesticides, organic farmers use a variety of pest control methods. These methods include cultural controls, such as mechanical weeding, crop covers, and crop rotation; biological controls, using natural predators to control pest levels; and plant breeding (Chandler, 2008). Crop rotation, for example, works by alternating crops that are not a food source for the other’s pest population, which interrupts the life cycle and reduces the population. Most of the time these methods are part of an integrated pest management (IPM) plan. They are usually used in conjunction with one another as part of a whole farm system approach.

However, even these practices have their drawbacks. Biological controls can be problematic. Sometimes farmers introduce non-native control species. These non-natives can have adverse and unintended consequences (USFWS). For example, non-native species could become a predator to a beneficial species. Additionally, controlling weeds through tilling can damage the environment:

“The heavy tillage–heavier than in a conventional field–destroys the tilth of the soil and reduces its biological activity as surely as chemicals would; frequent tilling also releases so much nitrogen into the air that these weed-free organic fields require a lot more nitrogen fertilizer then they other wise might” (Pollan, 2006).

Plants still need fertilizer

Plants require nutrients to grow. They get those nutrients from the soil, manure, synthetic fertilizers, and cover crops. However, nutrients can be harmful, polluting ground and surface waters whether they come from synthetic fertilizers or organic manure. Both types of fertilizers have nitrogen and phosphorus. In excess, these nutrients contribute to water contamination. Therefore, whether organic or non-organic, farmers should manage nutrient inputs carefully, applying only as much as the crop needs.

Nutrient management is

“the practice of using nutrients wisely for optimum economic benefit, while minimizing impact on the environment” (EPA).

Proper nutrient management involves regular soil testing to determine nutrient content. It also means regular tests of manure inputs to ensure the correct amount is applied. Additionally, plants require different amounts of nutrients at varying times during their growth. So, nutrients should be applied at the right time. If nutrients are applied in the proper amount at the proper time, less will sneak their way into our water. This practice can be applied to both organic and conventional farms, reducing pollution from either.

Energy debate

Energy inputs come from synthetic fertilizers made from petrochemicals, processing, warehousing, packaging, refrigerating, and transporting food. Industrial organic does reduce the energy inputs from synthetic fertilizers by not using them. However, the largest share of energy use comes from processing, storing, packaging, refrigerating, and transporting (Hopp, 2007). Industrial organic farms do not reduce these energy heavy inputs. The local food movement sprung up as a response to these heavy energy inputs, focusing particularly on the long distances food travels (the average product travels 1500 miles before reaching your plate (Halweil, 2002)).

The local food movement is based on the belief that reducing food miles, the distance food travels from farm to fork, reduces energy inputs and therefore pollution from petrochemicals. Ideally a local organic farm uses fewer inputs and less energy to process, store, pack, refrigerate, and transport the food. However, not everyone agrees. Local food physically travels fewer miles. But when considering the volume of produce shipped from industrial organic farms, it’s questionable whether the local farm or the industrial farm uses less energy per individual head of lettuce. In a local system, trucks are smaller and trips are shorter, but there are more trucks and more trips (Mariola, 2008).

Perhaps because the local food movement is so popular, transportation, as a method to reduce energy inputs, tends to get the most attention. However, production, processing, and household storage and preparation account for a greater portion of energy use than transportation (Martinez et al., 2010). Either way, the energy use of an industrial organic farm may not be all that different from that of a conventional large-scale, Big Ag farm. Until we rely on more sustainable sources of energy, energy sourcing for all farming will contribute to pollution.

Does purchasing organic reduce pollution?

Organic can reduce pollution, especially synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Integrated pest management and nutrient management strategies are in line with the organic belief system and are therefore more likely to be applied by organic growers. While there are some practices allowed by the USDA organic certification (heavy tillage) that can have negative effects on the environment, organic growers are aware of these issues and are taking steps to eliminate the drawbacks through new methods. Increasingly, organic is looking for no-till and no chemical methods of weed control. A study from 2002 revealed that organic systems reduced fertilizer and energy inputs by up to 53% and pesticide input by 97% (Mäder). The same study found enhanced soil fertility and higher biodiversity rendering the systems less dependent on external inputs.

By its nature, farming changes and affects the environment. By farming, we are attempting to control and alter landscapes and ecosystems to produce the plants and animals we find valuable. No farming system will have zero impact. However, organic does reduce negative impacts. When I can, I choose organic at the grocery store or more preferably the farmers’ market.


Chandler, D. (2008). The consequences of the ‘cut off’ criteria for pesticides: Alternative methods of cultivation. European Parliament: Brussels. Retrieved from:

Halweil, B. (2002). Home grown: the case for local food in a global market. Prugh, T. (Ed.) Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute.

Hopp, Steven L., Kingsolver B., and Kingsolver, C. (2007). Oily food. Animal, vegetable, miracle: A year of food life.

Mäder, Paul; Fliebbach, Andreas; Dubois, David; Gunst, Lucie; Fried, Padruot; Niggli, Urs (2002). Soil fertility and biodiversity in organic farming. Science, 296, 1694-7.

Mariola, M. (2008). The local industrial complex? Questioning the link between local foods and energy use. Agriculture and Human Values, 25(2), 193-196.

Martinez, S., Hand, M., Da Pra, M., Pollack, S., Ralston, K., Smith, T., . . . Newman, C. (May 2010). Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues Economic Research Report 97 (pp. 1-87): United States Department of Agriculture.

Pollan, Michael. (2006). The omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. Penguin Books: London.


  1. Beth
    February 29, 2012

    I’m very impressed at this article. It’s well written and gives me a little more information beyond what I’ve had so far. One of the parts of the discussion I had today with my husband about organic is whether or not organic has more nutrients than regularly grown food.

    A few years back, local potato farmers introduced an asian beatle to eat pests on the potato plants. Now we have those darn beatles all over, dying in our walls and man, do they stink. Still, I suppose it’s better than all the spraying they would have to do.

    I’m impressed by how the organic movement has grown, and how the prices of some of the produce has actually gotten competitive. Still, it’s too expensive sometimes to buy organic on a budget for two adults and two large food vacuums to afford good organic even when it is available! Thanks for sharing this great info!

    • Hali
      February 29, 2012

      Thank you, Beth. Ideally the farmer will use natural and native controls and avoid introducing new species. However, as you know this isn’t always the case. And the control that is introduced can become a pest itself! But I do think avoiding spraying pesticides is a good thing. I think I’d rather have a bug around than a chemical.

      From what I understand so far (I’m in a vegetable crops class right now), the nutrients are directly related to the soil quality and how long the fruit is allowed to mature. If the fruit is picked too premature then it’s nutrient content will suffer. Unfortunately, because most fruits/vegetables are shipped long distance, many are picked immature. So, local food that is picked the same day it’s sold may have better nutrient content. I also think the nutrient content can suffer if the nutrients aren’t present in the soil. Organic is supposed to offer better stewardship and therefore hopefully better soil quality. So, it’s possible. I’ll have to look for studies on nutrient content.


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