The BiG Stink: Organic vs. Conventional, Round 4 – Pollution

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Let’s get this party started. Today will be the fourth and final round (at least for this blog series) of the organic vs. conventional agriculture debate. Before the grand finale, a quick review of the previous posts. In round one I defined conventional and organic farming and explored their impacts on soil health. I found soils subjected to organic methods were less susceptible to erosion, exhibited better water holding capacity, and overall were more healthful in the long term. Round two explored the finer points of land use and crop yields. Currently, organic yields per acre lag behind conventional ones and if organic farming is to compete for a better grasp of soil health, nutrient availability and plant growth is needed. Round three was all about energy- inputs and emissions. Organic methods produced greater crop output relative to energy inputs, as well as fewer emissions per pound of crop compared to conventional farming. So now we are going to unveil our last chapter on the organic versus conventional face-off!  And through what fun prism are we going to examine the debate this time? Pollution.

“Agriculture, be it organic or conventional, is guilty of terrible unintended consequences and crimes against nature. Agricultural pollution is the leading cause of impaired water quality in the US according to the EPA.”

First a preface. This post was supposed to be all about chemical and pesticide runoff from agriculture. However, as I went to research down the internet rabbit hole one thing became clear: agriculture — be it organic or conventional — is guilty of a host of environmental sins in addition to chemical runoff. A quick perusal of the data revealed that runoff from pesticides, sediment, nutrients, metals, bacteria, and pathogens are among agriculture’s crimes against nature. Thus, I broadened my scope and will not only cover chemical pollution, but several types of agricultural pollution with an emphasis on water pollution. Why water pollution? Because agricultural pollution is the leading cause of impaired water quality in the US according to the EPA. America’s 915 million acres of agricultural land (41% of all US land!) are having a massive impact on water quality.

Agriculture often pollutes water by using more water, of all things. During irrigation or rainfall, excess water can wash away sediments into nearby water bodies. A little dirt won’t hurt though, right? Turns out runaway soil wreaks havoc on aquatic life. It can cloud the water, block the sun from aquatic plants, clog the gills of fish, and smother insect larvae. Finally, displaced soil particles can contain traces of pesticides and fertilizers used on croplands.

Before we go any further, let me remind everyone organic does not mean chemical free. Let that sink in. Organic farming has a whole list of USDA approved chemicals for use on crops and I even wrote a whole post about it! Thus, organic agriculture can be just as guilty of chemical runoff as its conventional counterpart. I’m not going to dwell on all the impacts of pesticides in the water supply, but here’s a few noteworthy effects on wildlife: mutations, hormonal imbalances, cancers, sterilization, and lesions. Yikes! All that from something used to kill a bug munching on corn stalks.

Conventional or organic, the biggest difference you can make is changing your eating habits. How about them apples? 

Speaking of corn stalks, fertilizer used to grow those stalks also make their way into the water system. Again, organic does not mean pesticide, chemical or fertilizer free. The manure used on organic farms and the synthetic fertilizers used on conventional systems can be washed into nearby water bodies. The excess nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers fuel algal blooms. Algal blooms (no, that’s not an indie rock band) are actually beneficial in most cases. In fact, they are a crucial component of and basis for food webs. On the flip side, algal blooms gone wild can release toxins and promote the growth of harmful bacteria. These toxins and bacteria can kill fish, shellfish, as well as any birds or mammals that come in contact with any affected water bodies.

Algal blooms don’t just kill with toxins. Large blooms deplete oxygen in the water and create massive “dead zones” where no sea life or fish can survive. Nationwide there are 166 documented dead zones. The most infamous and largest of these dead zones is in the Gulf of Mexico where a piece of the ocean the size of New Jersey is lifeless. On second thought, maybe algal blooms might actually be a death metal band.

So there you have it. Agriculture, be it organic or conventional, is guilty of terrible unintended consequences and crimes against nature. Keep in mind I focused on water pollution. I didn’t touch air pollution or even acid rain. Besides pollution, other environmental impacts of agriculture include deforestation, effects on climate, depleted aquifers and probably a bunch of things I have never heard of. Thus, it’s not fair to call either farming method a “winner” in this series. I think the better term might be “less awful.”

But let’s not heap all the environmental woes on agriculture. Take a step back from agriculture’s crimes against nature and think about the big picture. More than 40% of food grown in the US is never eaten. It’s lost during harvest, transportation, and packaging. It gets trashed at restaurants and supermarkets or gets thrown out by households. The environment is being degraded as 60% of the food that hard-working farmers grew using all those acres, fertilizers, and pesticides is tossed.

So what’s hurting the environment more: organic agriculture, conventional agriculture or consumers driving the expansion of agriculture to sustain their wasteful habits? You want to prevent food waste? Eat local and in season so food doesn’t rot before it reaches its destination. You want to preserve natural resources? Eat less meat and dairy. They’re resource intensive. You want to stop landfill expansion? Eat less processed and packaged foods with disposable wrappers. You want to preserve the environment? Start by reforming your eating habits.

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