As a proponent of pesticide- and GMO-free farming, I find that I've morphed into an advocate for USDA Certified Organic products and produce. Why? The organic certification is the best way you can ensure that food is free from genetically engineered ingredients, synthetic herbicides, growth hormones or antibiotics, and chemical fertilizers. Indeed, the organic classification is one of the most rigorously defined and enforced label in our modern food system—much more so than the ambiguous marketing term, “natural.”
But while my belief that organic farming automatically equates to sustainability is correct (as the lack of lab-made pesticides and herbicides infallibly benefit the environment over conventional farming), a recent article in the New York Times illuminates the unfortunate limitations of organic farming.
The piece explains that during winter the majority of organic tomatoes sold in the United States are grown in the Mexican desert, just south of the United States border on the Baja Peninsula. While these farms comply with all the USDA Organic Certification mandates, and are regularly inspected, they are taxing the already-limited water resources in the desert. Tomatoes require intense irrigation, and wells must be dug deeper and deeper to meet water needs.
According to the New York Times, "Experts agree that in general organic farms tend to be less damaging to the environment than conventional farms. In the past, however, 'organic agriculture used to be sustainable agriculture, but now that is not always the case,' said Michael Bomford, a scientist at Kentucky State University who specializes in sustainable agriculture." What’s more, the resources used to transport produce such as organic tomatoes from Mexico to the United States emit vast amounts of fossil fuels—a practice that won’t win the approval of environmentalists.
But organic farming in Mexico has its merits. The practice is astronomically more responsible than conventional farming because farmers can obtain a higher price for their produce, organic agriculture boosts the local economy. Additionally, because the relationship between the United States and Mexican farms are dually invested not only in the profits of organic farming but also the continued usability of the land, researchers and environmentalists have the opportunity to work collaboratively to protect the landscape for future’s sake.
While the issue of water irrigation on Mexican tomato farms is certainly pertinent, frankly, it could be worse. We could be dealing with chemical swamps. Or acid rain so potent nothing can grow at all in the region. I not only applaud the organic farming initiatives in Baja, but the continued (and growing!) market for organic produce.
In essence, organic farming is hard. Really hard. But why don’t we support a return to the crux of organic agriculture by praising the true spirit of the practice: To synergistically live and respect the eco-system that provides food for us in the first place.