URBANA, Ill. — The issue of organic food is a very complicated one, and if you read the last two articles on this subject, you know that there is a lot to unpack in the question of “Is Organic Better?” The original driver behind the push for organic food was a push to be more environmentally conscious about our food and reduce the environmental impact of our food production.
Though there are many environmental concerns, one of the major concerns is the carbon footprint of our food. The term carbon footprint refers to the amount of carbon that is emitted during the production, transportation and for certain foods the preservation or processing of our food. Different foods present different sized footprints, but one of the advantages of organic food production is the potential for the reduction of carbon emissions.
As a whole, organic food has a smaller carbon footprint when compared to traditionally grown produce. Local food grown using non-organic methods has the smallest carbon impact.
I mentioned in the first article that one of the biggest disadvantages to organic food is the labeling. The expense of obtaining an official “Organic” label restricts who is able to afford the certification process. The need to produce a large quantity of food under these practices to offset the cost of the certification process means that the majority of food produced “organically” is done on an industrial scale. This then means that though the certified organic food that you are finding in your grocery stores is using organic practices in the production of the food, they often have a much larger carbon footprint than food that is grown in a small responsible manner that is not able to afford the official label.
Organic food production does not eliminate the use of tractors and other mechanical farming practices. The organic label simply restricts how the food is produced through the restriction of the use of chemical inputs on the fields. Reducing the chemical inputs has a huge impact on the carbon footprint of the food that we eat. The production, transportation, and application of these chemicals are very carbon intensive. Simply by removing these chemicals from the farming practices has a huge impact on the carbon footprint of our food.
In addition to the need for certified organic production to be larger scale production, most of the certified organic food is produced outside Illinois. This further adds to the carbon footprint of the food. The transportation of the food, which is done primarily through over the road trucking, has a very high carbon cost. On the other side of the coin, much of the non-organic food that we eat has a much higher transportation cost. Much of this food is produced outside the country and is flown into the country.
Eating locally grown food can have a huge impact on the carbon footprint of our food. Many local growers and community supported agriculture groups use organic practices when growing their produce. Getting to know your local growers will allow you to know how your food is grown and you will have confidence that you are reducing your foods carbon footprint as much as possible. Farmers Markets are very easy to find and many local grocers have started to carry food produced by local farmers and producers. Find a local grower at www.localharvest.org.
For more information or questions about natural resources, please contact Jason Haupt (firstname.lastname@example.org).
— Jason Haupt, University of Illinois Extension Educator, Energy and Environmental Stewardship
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