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How eco-friendly is organic farming? Is there another way?

How eco-friendly is organic farming? Is there another way?

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Grocery shoppers who care that their food is grown in a responsible and environmentally friendly fashion enjoy plenty of opportunities to buy organic fruits and vegetables — and increasingly they are taking advantage of those opportunities.

The proof: Organic food sales in the United States reached $50.1 billion in 2019, up 4.6% from the previous year, according to the 2020 Organic Industry Survey conducted by the Organic Trade Association.

In comparison, the growth rate for total food sales was about 2 percent.

But consumers who feel that organic is the be-all and end-all for sustainability are missing a bigger picture, says Steve Groff (stevegroff.com), author of “The Future-Proof Farm” and founder of Cover Crop Coaching, which educates farmers and farm advisers about effective cover crop use.

“Any kind of growing method involves a degree of compromise, including organic agriculture,” Groff says. “Organic farmers use pesticides too. They are derived from natural sources, but that doesn’t necessarily make them safer. And most organic farmers still till the soil, which kills the life within it and subjects it to erosion. Organic farming generally is a good system, but it definitely is not the pinnacle of sustainability.”

Unfortunately, Groff says, the agriculture community isn't always good at educating consumers about other forms of sustainability, such as the use of cover crops that he advocates.

Cover crops are plants that are grown not to eat, but to improve the soil. They can suppress weeds, manage soil erosion, control pests and promote biodiversity. In short, they help keep the land in good condition so it can continue to produce cash crops.

Both the agriculture community and the general public have a lot to learn from each other, Groff says.

Some important points worth knowing as farmers decide what to grow, and consumers decide what to eat, include:

• The consumer is right — even when wrong. Anyone who makes a living from the land needs to listen to what consumers are saying. “Unfortunately, many farmers are only slowly beginning to understand the power of those discerning shoppers filling their carts at the market,” Groff says. “Shoppers looking for food they believe is responsibly grown can make or break farmers, and whether those shoppers are right or wrong in their choices isn’t the point. What matters is they think they are right.”

• Perceptions can outweigh reality. Farmers likely would get nowhere if they tried to engage the typical supermarket shopper in a debate about, for example, whether genetically modified foods are good or bad, or whether a product labeled organic is all it’s cracked up to be, Groff says. Instead, farmers need to tell their stories and show those shoppers that they, too, care about responsible farming. “For example, if you explain cover crops to them,” he says, “people who care about the earth are not going to argue against something that protects and enriches the soil, that stops its nutrients from flushing away downriver, and that keeps pollution out of our waterways and nitrates out of their drinking water.”

• Big agricultural companies also have a lot at stake. Major food corporations are aware that climate patterns, for whatever reasons, have shifted, and they see a potential for disruption of their supply chains and production, Groff says. “Those companies whose fortunes are tied to the land have been focusing on a range of progressive practices,” he says. “The soil, enriched with organic matter from cover crops and undisturbed by tillage, holds more water and releases no carbon into the atmosphere. In fact, cover crops take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and deposit it into the soil as carbon, a clear win for the farmer and the climate.”

“Food suppliers are already being mandated to source food from farms that operate with sustainable and environmentally safe practices,” Groff said. “But commercial agriculture today cannot survive on a philosophy of doing absolutely no harm.

“To produce food at a price that people can afford, farmers often must decide what will do the least harm as they await better innovations. The crops must be economically sustainable, too. And that begins with successful cover cropping.”

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