In a world degraded by food-like substances, manufactured edible materials and industrially produced fruits and vegetables, the organic labels stands alone as a quality guarantee. Its integrity based on a natural-systems approach stands taller with every revelation of the hidden costs, ecological damage, negative health impacts and chemical dependency of the commodity food approach.
Organic food owes its unique health-giving qualities to its nourishment and home in healthy soil. Chemical farming focuses on maximum yield using any input needed, but organic producers have a whole different approach. It starts with their determination to build healthy soil to create life-giving food for you.
The USDA’s National Organic Standards Board last summer re-affirmed the centrality of soil. It recommended that the USDA’s seven-year-old organic certification cover only soil-based systems, excluding hydroponics and aquaculture. These can be energy-efficient, well-controlled methods, but they can’t create the ecologically complex and self-sustaining food production milieu of well-managed soil.
This concept of regeneration the continuously improving sustainability of a working natural system was the provocative prospect held out by Robert Rodale that still fuels the most innovative thinking of the organic movement. It flies in the face of current agricultural practice, where the continuously diminishing nutrient content of food crops has been the trend for decades, according to USDA statistics. Worse, this loss of food value in crops is coupled with accepted soil erosion, net energy loss, contaminated water and net greenhouse gas emissions.
Former Rodale Institute president John Haberern said throughout the 1990s that a time would come when people would recognize their farmer was as important to their health as their doctor. This prediction showed his confidence in two developments that continue today: a deeper understanding of the critical role for truly healthy food, and a recognition of the limitations of modern medicine due to its focus on fixing sickness rather than enhancing wellness, protecting against environmental insult, and building strong immune systems.
J.I. Rodale, founder of what would become the Rodale Institute, got early inspiration from the UK’s Sir Albert Howard, who was in turn influenced by the traditional farmers he observed in India. Howard’s vision for bringing wholeness back to a fractured agriculture and fractured approach to medicine was that, “Health would describe the ideal condition…in which crop production, animal husbandry and health, as well as human nutrition and health, were all related to a single principle of health in the soil.”
This idea is quite relevant to our current situation of rampant food-related illness and disorders coupled with a dysfunctional medical system geared toward treatment rather than prevention. Testifying before Congress in 1951, Rodale “advocated for a preventative national health policy that addressed as its first item the health of the soil.”
Rodale believed organic farming contained the potential to free individuals from their ostrich-like dependency on doctors. He wrote relentlessly to convince readers that each individual had “the power to control their own health and nutrition” in the context of a “struggle for health autonomy against the medical and agricultural specialists, universities, big business and government bureaucracies encroaching on his freedom.”
How organic soil is different
Individuals taking control of their health can be confident that whole food from healthy soil is still the key. Nutrition is a primary consideration in food choice, and organic choices continue to be validated by nutrition studies from around the world. Researchers continue their effort to grasp the technical complexities of how organic food from healthy soil and natural systems differs from food grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
On that front, a number of existing studies suggest that organic fruits particularly, have higher levels of phytomicronutrients (plant-based substances), although the reasons for this are not fully explained by the research. Phytomicronutrients, especially those from the brassica family, in some studies show potential in reducing the risk of cancer, in stimulating immune function and in anti-viral properties. Virtually all of these natural health boosters are most available in fresh, raw vegetables and fruit.
The latest broad survey of relevant studies was reported last summer from a French government project. These researchers found that compared with non-organically produced crops, organic plant products tend to have more dry matter, more minerals like iron and magnesium, which are critical for calcium uptake, and more anti-oxidant micronutrients such as phenols and resveratrol. Reports from five years of cooperative research in the EU is under peer review for leading scientific journals and is expected to show other areas of positive nutritional differences for organic growing systems.
Much better understood and documented are the multiplicity of positive changes that grow directly and indirectly from faithful use of organic practices on farming soil. It’s the emergence of profoundly different soil quality that drives the logical expectation that plants drawing their vital force from the soil will also be distinctively different.
The Rodale Institute has championed the link between soil health and healthy food for more than 60 years and has been scientifically comparing organic and non-organic practices for nearly three decades. The Institute released a report in 2008* explaining the regenerative capabilities of organic agriculture as a solution to confront global warming, illustrating just how profoundly it differs from chemical-dependent ways of growing food.
In general, organic crop-production methods do not use synthetic pesticides and herbicides, protecting soil and water from additional insult of these toxic products. Organic farmers are required to have an ecological farm plan covering all aspects of their management, including fertility, pest management through biological practices and benign products, enhancement of biodiversity in soil and the landscape and strict documentation of food quality control from field to store.
Core practices include crop rotations and the creative use of cover crops. By carefully selecting the sequence of crops grown in a field over a period of years, organic farmers both build up organic matter, provide some or all of the nutrients needed for their cash crops, derive weed suppression effects and over time, often eliminate chronic insect damage to the crops. This has been our experience, as we have not used synthetic fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides on our fields for more than 30 years. We have much healthier soil in our organic plots, producing corn and soybean yields that are comparable to our non-chemical plots in most years, and actually out-producing them in dry and wet years due to improved soil tilth and structure.
Cover crops are grown primarily to benefit soil health or a succeeding crop. They may provide fertility (free nitrogen compounds are fixed by legume crops); sponge up residual fertility in soil after the growing season to prevent it from leaching away; serve as beneficial insect habitat or alternate food source; suppress weed germination and deter soil-borne crop diseases through a mulching effect; hold soil in place to prevent erosion; filter water runoff; and provide pollination support through their flowering phases. Cover crops boost life and biological complexity throughout an organic farm, adding resiliency in chang-ing conditions and vitality that can be captured in the food produced.
While regeneration and the U.S. organic standard calls for improving soil quality over time, the UK and US government statistics indicate that levels of trace minerals in non-organic fruit and vegetables fell by 28 to 76 percent, depending on the crop examined, between 1940 and 1991. This time period tracks the rise of chemical agriculture and its predictable results. Crops uptake minerals, trace elements and other nutrients, but chemical agriculture relies primarily on chemical fertilizers with a few major elements. Moreover, herbicides and insecticides degrade the very soil microorganisms and living ecosystems that organic systems nurture and depend on.
Adding to growing list of documented health risks from using toxic pesticides to produce food, new risks from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food crops are also coming to the fore. Citing several animal studies, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) said in 2009 that GMO foods “pose a serious health risk in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune function, reproductive, metabolic, physiologic and genetic health,” called for a moratorium on their production and marketing, requested a ban on GMO foods and advis-ed physicians to consider the role of GMO foods in their patients’ disease processes.
Healthy soil in organics enhances the healthfulness of food and avoids the risks of pesticides and GMOs. Yet the parallel practices that organic farmers use to create balanced, self-sustaining systems also contribute synergistically to improve the healthful aspects of the crops produced. These include adapting crops to local conditions by saving open-pollinated seed and focusing on improvements to heirloom varieties already known for taste and disease resistance. Farmers producing for fresh sale to discerning buyers can further improve their healthful offerings by selecting cultivars for nutrient content more than shelf life, picking closer to optimum maturity and bringing a wider variety of fruit sizes to market. When more people demand organic, more farmers have opportunity to farm well.
“Can you imagine what will happen when a farmer, a nutritionist and a doctor get face to face and realize they are connected to each other in the chain of health,” Anthony Rodale asked in 1995, when he was the board chair of the Rodale Institute. The Institute continues “to lead the way into a future where what’s good for people and what’s good for the earth are seen as the sameâ€”where there needn’t be any trade-offs. If we feed the soil, the soil will feed us. It’s nature’s way.”
A contemporary of Anthony’s grandfather, J. I. Rodale, was Mohandas Gandhi. He also encountered fierce opposition while persistently seeking to change hearts and minds by championing a new paradigm of true wholeness. The increasing interest in truly healthy food based on the best insights into nutritional wellness from organics, and the best science documenting the risks from food produced in non-healthy soils, bear out the truth of Gandhi’s sage observation: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
To health – through healthy soil!
Vol 29 Issue 4 page 18