Is Organic Always Sustainable?

On Mexico’s arid Baja Peninsula, the organic agriculture sector is thriving, thanks in no small part to booming demand for year-round organic produce in America. But as Elizabeth Rosenthal points out in The New York Times, our growing appetite for all things organic carries an environmental cost: intensive irrigation. Every ton of organic produce exported from Mexico contributes aquifer depletion in a place where water resources are already scarce.

In its original formulation, the organic model implied local, seasonal food grown on a small scale, without chemicals or pesticides. But as more and more Americans buy produce certified as organic, we are increasingly removed from that ideal, raising a pertinent question: Is organic always sustainable?

From Rosenthal’s article:

“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.

In southern Baja, where more than a third of the aquifers are categorized as overexploited by the Mexican water authority, growers are becoming more and more conscious of conserving water, with sophisticated irrigation systems and shade houses. New farms are being focused in “microclimates” near underexploited aquifers, such as in the shadow of a mountain.

(via NYT)

Photo: Marcus Yam / The New York Times

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