The Increasing Environmental and Social Costs of Organic Produce

It’s not surprising, but the rapidly-expanding market for organic produce in the United States is having detrimental effects on the environment in the Americas and on small farmers who are falling to the wayside as larger corporations take over.

[E]ven as more Americans buy foods with the organic label, the products are increasingly removed from the traditional organic ideal: produce that is not only free of chemicals and pesticides but also grown locally on small farms in a way that protects the environment.

The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry this year, meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops. And the organic tomatoes end up in an energy-intensive global distribution chain that takes them as far as New York and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, producing significant emissions that contribute to global warming. […]

This is not particularly surprising. Regulating organic food has centered upon the treatment of the foodstuffs themselves rather than on the impact of organic food production on the environment. Additionally, many people in the United States want to feel good about eating organic foods but are unwilling to abandon eating fruits that are not available outside of a particular season; people are accustomed to being able to buy certain fruits and vegetables (such as tomatoes or grapes) in the winter, and they are unwilling to consider that access to such foods outside the typical growing seasons in North America inherently means relying on mass production in South America and other parts of the world, and the subsequent transportation of foods to the United States. And while they have their tomatoes without pesticide in January, many people in other parts of the world are losing access to water and having their livelihoods threatened.

Perhaps the best takeaway part of the article is this:

“People are now buying from a global commodity market, and they have to be skeptical even when the label says ‘organic’ — that doesn’t tell people all they need to know,” said Frederick L. Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. He said some large farms that have qualified as organic employed environmentally damaging practices, like planting only one crop, which is bad for soil health, or overtaxing local freshwater supplies.

Indeed. Just because a sticker or label says “organic” doesn’t mean that there were very real negative impacts on the environment and on communities near organic farms throughout the Americas. Producing food without pesticides and modifications is a good start, but it’s only a first step. The production of all foodstuffs, organic or inorganic, has very real impacts (both positive and negative) on many people far beyond the supermarket, and if people genuinely want to effect change through their purchases, they have to move beyond a simple sticker and really investigate how food is produced. Otherwise, “organic” will come to mean less and less as major corporations and environmental damage take over once again.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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2 Responses to The Increasing Environmental and Social Costs of Organic Produce

  1. lorac says:

    thank you for this thoughtful discussion.
    also, i enjoy reading your blog. i’m learning a lot about our neighbors.

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