Our Hot Mess: Only if it's organic

Lancaster County is known for its Amish, its whoopie pies, and its soil. Now as fun as it would be to discuss Amish heritage or the art of red velvet whoopie pie making, we are going to focus on how to make the most productive non-irrigated soil in the United States even better through a practice known as organic farming.

Organic farming relies on ecosystem management instead of external inputs. Examples of external inputs - the things added to the environment to change some aspect of the agriculture process - include synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, veterinary drugs, genetically modified seeds and breeds, preservatives, additives and irradiation. Organic farming looks past the idea of “more food, more money” by considering potential environmental and social impacts while applying site-specific management practices. Those practices maintain and increase long-term soil fertility and prevent pests and diseases. The FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission - that, like all other commissions, has such a simple, catchy name - says organic farming helps foster “agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity.”

Obviously the main drive of the organic campaign slogan has to do with environmental friendliness, which is further broken into five key aspects: long-term sustainability, soil, water, air and climate change, and biodiversity.

Long-term sustainability is pretty darn simple. Organic agriculture is substantially driven by the medium- and long-term effects of agricultural interventions on the agro-ecosystem. It aims to produce food, obviously, while establishing a balance ecologically to prevent soil infertility or pest problems. Out of the sustainability concept comes the other four environmental drivers.

Organic farming and environmentally friendly soil practices - famously crop rotations, organic fertilizers, and minimal tillage - go hand in hand in hand. These practices encourage the growth of soil flora (e.g., algae) and fauna (e.g., earthworms), which enhances soil structure and stabilizes the natural systems. The domino effect continues with a bunch of complicated things like soil retentiveness and water soil stability that basically just mean less erosion.

With less erosion, we have cleaner ground and surface water. The water is greatly improved by the lack of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, especially nitrate, the biggest culprit among agricultural fertilizers. At the Conestoga Water Plant in the 2014 annual drinking water analysis, the nitrate levels were 7.5 parts per million (ppm), which is just too close to the maximum contaminant level of 10 ppm. And where there are nitrates, there are bacteria and pesticides.

By using organic farming methods and decreasing agrochemical usage, fewer nonrenewable energies are used in the process. Even more interestingly, organic farming methods increase the return of carbon into the soil, helping to reduce greenhouse gas amounts in the atmosphere. And what, my dear Our Hot Mess readers, do greenhouse gases do? That’s right, trap heat and cause climate change. A number of studies show that organic soil has much higher carbon contents, raising soil productivity and carbon storage.

And last but definitely not least, biodiversity, the thing we oh so need but are oh so destroying. The frequent use of underutilized species (like rotation crops) reduces the destroying of agrobiodiversity (all the crops and livestock), leading to an overall healthier gene pool. Diverse, healthy gene pools are vital for the organisms’ abilities to adapt to environmental changes.

Another key thing to note is the food security of organic farming - you know, feeding the world. Contrary to what you’re thinking at this exact moment, organic farming doesn’t just provide food security - it provides more food security. It may be true that conventional agriculture provides more of a guarantee with its maximization of crop production and therefore food security. However, this intense form of agriculture subjects soil to a decline in fertility and production capacity, lowering the potential future production.

Recent studies have even estimated that nearly 40% of intensively cultivated land will be lost by 2050. Um… That’s not good for Lancaster County, whose agricultural cash receipts total $1.07 billion a year. Granted, I’m sure our land will be better off than most, but factoring in all of the other impacts of conventional farming does not create the brightest future for our Amish soil.

So rather than buying lots of conventionally farmed foods, make a point to spend the extra dollar and buy the locally, organically grown quart of strawberries. I know it’s not always financially viable, but every bit helps. Our local organic farmers - of which we have many - need our support as well. Join the movement!

And remember, don’t be trashy!

--Elke Arnesen, LSNews.org Columnist

Edited: BP

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