Tag Archives: USDA

The BiG Stink: Organic vs. Conventional, Round 1 – Soil Health

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Last time I covered what it means to be “organic” and now I want to know what the label is worth. The BiG Stink asks: Is organic better for the environment? That’s a loaded question with numerous angles and it would take an army of scientists to get to the bottom of it. Since I am not a) an army or b) a scientist, I will cover four specific topics (soil health, energy use, chemical runoff, and land use efficiency) in four different posts comparing organic and conventional methods.  While the conventional versus organic debate will hardly be settled, I hope I can drop some knowledge and get people thinking.

To begin, get to know thy farming method. Conventional farming a.k.a. industrial agriculture a.k.a modern farming is defined by a loose group of characteristics. Conventional farms are typically large scale and cultivate a single strain of a high-yield crop continuously for many seasons. They also are characterized by high energy inputs in the form of pesticides and fertilizers.

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BSC’s John, Faith and Emma visit organic partner farm Wright-Locke Farm in Winchester

Organic farming also has a wide definition. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic farming “preserves natural resources and biodiversity, only uses approved materials, and does not use genetically modified ingredients.” In order to “preserve natural resources and biodiversity” farmers employ techniques such as crop rotation and low-tillage to promote soil health, use of compost and green manure as fertilizer, and mulching to control weeds. For a more in depth breakdown of what it means for produce to be certified organic check out my previous post, “But what does organic even mean?”

Now that each farming method has a definition, let’s get to the good stuff. When it comes to soil health, how do organic and conventional methods compare? For soil to be deemed “healthy” it must function as a living ecosystem that sustains humans, animals and plants. And what’s the number one need of plants, animals, and humans? Water. The soil of organic crops exhibits better water-holding capacity, better water infiltration rates, and better resilience to moisture fluctuations. What does all that mean? Water, water everywhere. Under organic management, the soil system stores 15-20% more water than conventional methods. Stored water becomes crucial during dry spells or intense rainfall, making crops more resilient to extreme weather.

There’s not just more water down there. Soil handled using organic methods contains more soil organic matter (SOM) than soils subjected to conventional till methods. SOM allows soil particles to bind together which prevents erosion and loss of topsoil. SOM also provides substrates to attach heavy metals and pesticides. The microbes and minerals found in soil detoxify, immobilize, and degrade harmful chemicals and reduce runoff. Finally SOM produces nutrients for microbes that boost plant productivity by freeing up nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium for plant uptake.

What about soil subjected to conventional till methods, continuous monocropping and constant synthetic chemical inputs of industrial agriculture? Can you say dust bowl? Lacking careful management, soils can be stripped of their topsoil, become drought-prone, and, well, turn to dust, no longer able to sustain life.

The comparison of soil health of organic and conventional farming is no contest. Organic methods are superior at maintaining overall soil health in the long-term. Organic farming methods such as low/no-till, composting, use of green manure, and crop rotation produce healthy soils that function as physical support to prevent erosion, as a plant nutrient source, as a water source, and as a chemical repository to prevent runoff. While the conventional versus organic farming debate may never be settled, when it comes to soil health, organic farming has it in the bag.

With soil health behind us, next up the BiG Stink crunches numbers to compare the energy inputs of modern agriculture and organic farming. Stay tuned for the 411 on fossil fuel use during agriculture and we’ll discover where all that energy is spent on a farm.

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The BiG Stink: But what does Organic even mean?

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

When you hear organic, what comes to mind? Do you imagine a man in overalls lovingly tending his garden? Enormous produce stickers emblazoned with “organic”? An electric piano? Carbon-based life forms?

The word “organic” has a myriad of definitions, but let’s focus on the term when it’s used around food, specifically when applied to produce (meats and processed foods require their own articles). The straight-from-the-dictionary definition of organic is “grown or made without the use of artificial chemicals.” Pretty straightforward, right? No man-made fertilizers, no synthetic pesticides and you’ve got yourself an organic banana.

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Wrong! The US government (and several other countries) has stringent criteria to be met before a banana can have the “certified organic” sticker slapped on. To be certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), produce has to comply with standards for soil quality, pest control, and weed control.

Soil intended for organic crops must not have been treated with prohibited methods for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited methods include use of sewage-sludge based fertilizers (no humanure!) and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Prohibited methods also include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, except ones given a USDA pass. There is a list of approved synthetics organic farmers may use under specific circumstances. A quick perusal of the list revealed chemicals such as sodium hypochlorite (street name: bleach) and neurotoxin methyl bromide (which will be removed from the list by 2017) that may be used under certain conditions on organic farms.

While most synthetic pesticides are prohibited from organic farming, organic does not mean pesticide free. Pesticides derived from natural sources are fair game according to the USDA and conventional and organic farms use many of the same pesticides. Furthermore, organic-approved and synthetic pesticides have similar relative toxicity distributions when tested by the EPA.

“While most synthetic pesticides are prohibited from organic farming, organic does not mean pesticide free.”

Don’t forget that “natural” (as in natural sources of pesticides) has no clear cut meaning according to the USDA or the FDA and the definition is up for interpretation. Because natural is relative, some surprising fungicides and pesticides can be organic approved. Also, natural does not automatically mean safe for consumers or the environment (here’s looking at you, cyanide).

Let’s recap. To receive USDA organic certification, produce must not contain GMOs, must not be treated with humanure, must not be subjected to unapproved pesticides and fungicides, and must be grown on soil that has been free of prohibited items for at least 3 years.

Certified organic does NOT mean produce is free of pesticides, suspected neurotoxins, or synthetic substances. If that’s hard to keep straight, check out this rad video with cute drawings to guide you.

So what was the point of this post? To educate consumers and lift the curtain surrounding America’s organic certification. To emphasize that organic might not mean what consumers think it does. And most importantly, to encourage consumers to always, always do their research, especially when it comes to what goes into their bodies.

The BiG Stink: Eating by the Bucket

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Let’s debut “The Big Stink” with something we all do quite often: eating. This everyday activity has been plagued by the endless health claims of fad diets, “superfoods”, and public health misfires. Eggs are evil cholesterol orbs. Acai berries for life. Fats are bad; nevermind, only some fats are bad. This continued intellectual food fight has resulted in a confused public (and I’ll bet some gross meals too).

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“Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” -Michael Pollan

Two very different voices have ushered in Round 2016 of the food fight. The first contender stepping into the (onion?) ring was Dietary Guidelines for Americans jointly published every five years by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Department of Agriculture (USDA). The guidelines are the basis for school lunches, dietitian recommendations, and food labels. They are jam packed with statistics, infographs, and incredibly specific recommendations.There’s also an exhaustive table listing acceptable consumption of macronutrients, minerals, and vitamins. This is all great information, but it wasn’t meant for average Joe to use as a handbook for healthy eating. The Guidelines were created for professionals to advise patients to consume a healthy diet. The message was clear: Johnny Public needs a doctor to tell him what to eat.

A very different message was proclaimed by author and delicious food activist Michael Pollan. In December of 2015 the PBS documentary “In Defense of Food” aired. The documentary, based on Pollan’s 2008 book of the same title, answered the question: What should I eat to be healthy? While the government’s Guidelines relied on a barrage of information filtered through professionals to solve the riddle, Pollan’s entire message was summarized in 7 words- Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Boom (well, that last one’s not part of it).

“If it’s a plant, eat it. If it’s made in a plant, don’t.”
– Michael Pollan

Food, Pollan contends, is not the packaged monstrosities found in the center aisles of one’s local grocery. Those things packed with hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn michael pollansyrup, and wrapped in plastic are factory creations, not delicious healthy food. Food is all
the things found around the outside aisles of that same store such as vegetables, dairy products, meats, and fruit. “If it’s a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.” The information Pollan presented is the same found in the Guidelines. He just put an engaging bow on it and added a call to action: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

I don’t want to infringe on Pollan’s genius, but I’m gonna put out my own call to action: Eat by the bucket. I’m not suggesting you eat with a bucket at your side or use the bucket for measuring portions. I mean eat things that can go in the BSC bucket. If it grows it goes and everything Pollan and the Guidelines define as healthy food can be tossed in your bucket and composted (minus meat and dairy!). So here’s the unofficial BSC guide to healthy eating: If it’s good for the bucket, it’s good for you. And that’s a food fight knockout.