Somewhere in Vermont a cow is leashed to a milking machine to be used three times daily. Because never see a blade of grass in her lifetime, she is given corn with supplements (Paarlberg, 2009). Her feet rest on bare cement and her head, tail, and sides each brush up against cement confines. Her milk will be ultra-pasteurized before being shipped thousands of miles across the country (Feenstra, 2006). And on the packaging will be a picture of a fat and happy bovine, chomping on freshly pulled grass under blue sky and the heading “Horizon Organic Milk”.
Organic used to epitomize a healthy, harmonious relationship between the people and the land. It was a farming ideal, a lifestyle, rather than label it has become today. This was due in part to the growing demand for organic food; eventually, the government chose to regulate the use of the term organic to maintain standards for consumers. However, instead of protecting the integrity of organic foods produced by small farmers for decades, the new standards became a list of minimum requirements used by monolithic food corporations to grow organic foods- but in a different way. Unfortunately, corporately grown organic food allows for a lot of gray area in the food industry, such as disregarding other aspects of farming and production. Yet these over-looked aspects of farming, which are not required of a company to be organic, are just as important when considering their effect on the environment and our health. A system of food production is required which once again looks at the whole health of the land and people together.
In comes sustainable farming. Sustainable farming addresses farming as a whole, as a lifestyle which emphasizes effective natural resource management, and what is best for people and the land from start to finish. The entire process of raising and growing, to distribution and packaging, is planned with regard to its various consequences, unlike big, corporate organic which focuses on meeting minimum requirements for maximum profit. Sustainable practices often lead the conscientious farmer to pursue old-fashioned organic ideals, regardless of their organic certification. (Best, 2010). Although organic farming is often perceived as being the same as sustainable farming, sustainable farming is more desirable because it offers the best resource management, land stewardship, and promotion of an all-over lifestyle of sustainability.
Sustainable farms focus on preserving resources such as water, energy and soil, unlike giant organic farms which are not required to employ effective resource management. A corporate organic farm can use as much as water as is available without any accountability; their focus is the end result of organic produce. This depletes a precious resource and strains local water supplies- which other people and animals rely upon. One example of sustainability is that of the Sunshine Farm in Kansas. They have demonstrated success in using mainly reclaimed water (water which is treated at local water facility and reused) to irrigate their crops, which greatly reduces dependence on fresh water. (Baum, Patzek, Bender, Renich, & Jackson, 2009). Another way sustainable farmers conserve water is by planting crops which thrive naturally in the local climate. Instead of planting whatever crop is highest in demand and forcing it to grow in unnatural conditions by drenching it with water, sustainability looks at planting the right crop for the land (Parton, Gutmann, & Ojima, 2007).
Another method of effective resource management is the choice to use sustainable energy in the form of wind and solar power in farm operations. This minimizes reliance on diminishing supplies of fossil fuels. Corporate run organic farms often do not pursue wind or solar power due to their potentially high initial start-up cost. However, sustainable farms recognize the importance of using clean alternative energy, which does not require stripping the land of resources and putting pollutants into the air, which justifies the cost of such systems (Best, 2010).
Good land stewardship is integral to sustainable farming, as opposed to large organic systems which do not employ such stewardship moral to the same degree. Good stewardship of the land incorporates rotational crops, maintenance of soil, and diverse use of small areas of land (Burtt, 2008). Rotating the crops planted in the same parcel each year protects nutrients in the soil by using different nutrients according to the crops needs, and then returning nutrients to the soil as the crop waste breaks down. This requires less supplements added to the soil and promotes the natural health of the soil. Sustainable farms will plant in upwards of four to five year rotations verses the smaller two or three year rotations of larger farms (Considine, 2008). The soil and crops are supplied with needed nitrogen, as well as enabled to break pervasive pest cycles and create natural pest control (Baum et al., 2009). By planting cover crops such as clover or oats, the farmer is able to prevent soil erosion, inhibit unwanted plant growth, and provide food for farm livestock (Burtt, 2008).
Windbreaks are also essential to a sustainable farm, and often overlooked by bigger organic farms, which will cut down such greenery in the desire to use as much land as possible for planting to maximize profit. Windbreaks, or shrubs and trees strategically planted to break the wind around planting areas have proven effective in the protection of soil erosion and help control the runoff of agricultural water into streams and lakes (Pearson, 2007). They also protect the farm buildings, which reduce energy consumption, provide housing for wildlife, help shelter livestock from the elements, and can provide fruits or nuts to the farmer. (Baum, et al., 2009). As an added benefit, the wood from windbreaks can be used around the farm. In conjunction with windbreaks, no-till farming, where the ground is not plowed before planting, leaves the soil (and the nutrients) intact and less likely to blow or wash away (Pearson, 2007).
Because they frequently have smaller parcels of land than corporate organic farms, sustainable farmers are able to allow their livestock to graze on cover crops. These practices provide nutrients to the soil in the form of natural fertilizer as well as providing natural food for the animals. This makes for healthier livestock which are eating their natural diet, instead of being given food that may not be as natural or healthy for them to eat. Corn, whether organic or not, is often given to live stock as feed. However, a variety of grasses are much healthier for the animals to eat.
Pesticide use is another concern for big organic operations. Organic is marketed as pesticide free- however, over 20 chemicals have been approved for use in organic farming. And not only are they approved, but their use is not limited or monitored (Chrzan, 2010). Besides being misleading, over use of these chemicals can harm the consumer as well as have adverse environmental effects. Use of these chemicals will sometimes exceed several pounds per acre- which translates into a few hundred percent more additives per acre than non-organic farming (Burtt, 2008). Sustainable farming practices ensure that any additives used are done so with consideration of their excessive use, effects on the land, the water, the animals and people which will be consuming the harvested foods.
A further mark of good stewardship of the land is the protection and maintenance of watersheds. While sustainable farming will work to maintain or improve the integrity of watersheds, large organic operations offer hinder and detract from watersheds by using too much water, not focusing on water runoff, and not providing effective soil management which erodes soil which would ordinarily keep farm water from overflowing into watersheds. The protection of watersheds means clean, viable water for wildlife, livestock, plants, and people. (Guttmann-Bond, 2010). It also means the water will be protected with future generations in mind.
Another important difference between corporate organic and sustainable farming practices is the lifestyle emulated by the two. While a farm may be organic, their cows can be housed in concrete, fed organic food that is not wholesome and nutritious, and treated without dignity despite marketing schemes by the corporations that would convince consumers otherwise (Paarlberg, 2009). Unfortunately, workers on organic farms can be treated much the same way. Sustainable farming strives for harmony between the land, animals, and people. What is best for the land, the animals, and the people is more important than high profit margins.
One can purchase organic apples at Trader Joe’s; however, they are packaged in plastic cartons. The packaging of foods is important in the overall health of the environment and people, as packaging materials often contain chemicals which are unhealthy for consumers, are not recyclable, and leach toxins into water supplies as they break down (Sullivan, 2009). However, many sustainable farms will consider the sustainability of packaging and seek methods which will have the least impact on the environment and use the least amount of non-renewable resources. These packages often recyclable, reusable, or compostable such as glass and cardboard. (Sustainable Table Issues, 2009).
In the efforts for sustainability, many farms offer community supported agriculture, or CSAs. CSAs are shares of produce delivered from the farm to the buyer. By offering CSAs, farmers are able to provide consumers with fresh, locally grown, healthy, pesticide and additive free foods which are often competitive in price or cheaper than similar foods sold in grocery markets (Sullivan, 2009). Small sustainable farms are often not marketable in large grocery stores which rely on industrial organic farms to provide produce, and often, organic offerings in stores have to be ultra-pasteurized, such as organic milk, to withstand the long distance travel (Feenstra, 2006). Buying locally is much fresher; also, by buying produce grown in season, the consumer is eating food that contains more nutrients and requires fewer resources, from start to finish. Add the amount of fossil fuels required import organic bananas and grapes from Chile and the impact on resources is much larger than buying locally grown, sustainably produced, non-certified organic foods (Yan, Liding, Xinfeng, Haifeng, & Yihe, 2009).
It is clear: sustainable farming trumps organic. Sustainable farming encompasses a vast array of food production techniques which are ecologically friendly whereas industrial organic food production can only certify the end-product. Because sustainable farming practices the best resource management, land stewardship, and emulates a lifestyle of conscientious living not compatible with methods used by corporate organics, it is the more desirable method of farming. Organic does not equal sustainable.
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