One of the most frustrating aspects of the organic food “debate” is the fact that the conversation seems to be stuck debating whether organic food is more nutritionally dense than conventionally-grown food. So when studies come out showing that you won’t get more vitamins from eating organic, conventional growers use that to bash organic farming. They call it elitist, unnecessary, and even imply that organic consumers are… well, jerks.
The problem is that the question of whether or not you can get more vitamin C from an organic orange is completely irrelevant. Maybe, maybe not. But there’s no question that avoiding pesticides and herbicides is healthier than eating food coated in them.
On a larger scale, focusing the conversation almost entirely on individual choice and individual health also misses the mark. Whether or not organic food is that much healthier for consumers in the long run, there’s no question that organic farming is healthier for the planet.
Case in point? It turns out industrial farming is draining the soil of phosphorus — an essential nutrient necessary for agriculture and life itself. That’s not an exaggeration: human beings, like all other life on earth, depend on phosphorus to create healthy cells.
Throughout history, farmers traditionally maintained phosphorus-rich soil by composting plant waste and using manure fertilizer. In the mid-20th century, that all changed. We started mining phosphorus from the Earth itself and using chemical fertilizers instead. It’s not hard to understand why: just sprinkling a little phosphorus on your field is cheaper and a whole lot easier than composting.
There are just two problems with this approach. The first is that the large amounts of phosphorus aren’t completely absorbed by crops. It leaches into nearby waterways. It spreads into lakes and rivers. And once it’s there? It causes algal blooms that create dead zones in the water, devastating the local ecosystem.
The other obvious problem is that we’re running out of phosphorus to mine. And when the world starts to run out of cheap phosphorus in the coming decades, the world’s poorest people are going to starve.
The good news is we can avoid this catastrophe. It won’t be easy, but a combination of consuming less meat, reducing food waste, and shifting to farm techniques that conserve soil nutrients will help recycle phosphorus instead of wasting it. In the next couple of decades, agriculture will have to become more sustainable in order to survive.
So the next time someone tries to tell you that eating organic is elitist, trendy, or doesn’t make a difference… Let them know you’re just doing your part to help the rest of the planet.
Photo by Pat Dalton