People are taking an interest in where their food comes from and how it was grown- which is awesome- but it has led to a flood of misinformation about what it truly means to grow food well.
Popular words and phrases like organic, all-natural, sustainable, and heirloom are thrown around as hallmarks of farmers who did something right.
But what do those terms mean, and do they matter?
Poor farming practices are shortcuts that destroy their environment to the point that the environment can no longer sustain normal, healthy growth. Examples include using excessive chemicals, over-tilling, and monocropping.
So, how do these affect our foods, and how can we avoid making the same mistakes in our gardens?
Hierarchy of Poor Farming Practices
Poor farming practices are a result of large-scale farming.
Grain crops do the most damage to the environment because they are in the highest demand. Corn, wheat, and other cereals are used in foods, packaging, fuels, plastics, and many other products.
When demand is high, suppliers have to streamline the production process; they simply don’t have time for nature to handle irrigation, pest control, or fertilizing.
Poor farming practices stem from monocropping, planting large fields of the same plant.
For example, the United States is the largest producer of strawberries, producing almost 1.5 million tons each year. (source) It is impossible to grow that many berries in an organic, sustainable manner without completely overhauling the world of commercial agriculture. In order to keep up with demand, farmers have to take shortcuts.
Monocropping creates a target for pests and pathogens.
A large field of sunflowers is much easier for pests and diseases to find than wild sunflowers intermingled with other weeds and flowers.
Imagine a weevil finds a wild sunflower. The weevil may destroy the seed head and cause the flower to die, but if it is surrounded by native weeds and trees, the weevil’s life cycle is contained. Plus, birds and beneficial insects in the environment will eat the young insects.
Now imagine the weevil finds a sunflower field. As the weevil infects one seed head, the insects start to reproduce and move on to the surrounding flowers. A lack of trees and native plants make it difficult for birds and beneficial insects to keep the population in check. Soon, an unstoppable swarm of weevils grows and moves across the field and decimates the crop.
Without pesticides, large monocrops would be destroyed, and pest populations would spiral out of control.
Fields must be weed-free to prevent contamination in harvested crops and reduce water and nutrient competition.
In nature, weeds don’t exist. Plants are intermingled, and each plant serves a purpose in the ecosystem. Some plants feed butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Leafy plants feed grazing animals, while flowers and trees produce nuts and seeds for rodents.
In commercial production, weeds compete with crops for water and nutrition, and some can get caught up in harvesting equipment and contaminate grain crops. Herbicides eliminate weeds, which eliminates competition.
Weeds have different types of root systems that grow to different depths. Deep taproots break up blocky soils and promote aeration, while fibrous root systems prevent erosion. In a monocrop, all of the roots have the same structure and grow to the same depth, which creates a layer of soil underneath the root zone called a hardpan that becomes impenetrable.
In natural environments, plants shade the soil and prevent moisture loss and nutrient leaching. Dead leaves also add organic matter to the soil. All of these benefits are lost when herbicides are used to control weeds.
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When herbicides and pesticides kill insects and plants, the soil loses organic matter, and microorganisms die off.
Healthy soil is the key to healthy plants and produce. Apples grown on fertile soil will be more nutritious than apples grown on overworked, dead soil.
Dead plant material decomposes into bulky organic matter that gives soil a dark, crumbly texture. Soil with a healthy texture is able to drain easily while still holding onto moisture, and it can also bind to nutrients to increase fertility. Weed control decreases soil organic matter, which results in poor fertility, which is why farmers have to use synthetic fertilizers.
Earthworms, beetles, bacteria, and other living organisms break down organic material and transform it into nutrients, while also increasing porosity and preventing compaction. When soil dies, it loses the ability to regulate pH, bind to nutrients, and hold on to moisture, which is why farmers have to use supplemental chemicals and irrigation.
How Poor Farming Practices Affect Food
Many commercial crops end up in inedible products, like packaging or fuels. While these practices negatively affect the environment, they don’t affect our foods.
Pesticides and herbicides are linked to many health problems, but not all chemicals are harmful.
Pesticide has become a dirty word for food-savvy consumers. However, not all pesticides are directly responsible for health problems, and not all pesticides are dangerous.
For example, diatomaceous earth is a common “natural remedy” for many pest problems, but it is a chemical that controls pests, which makes it a pesticide. The term natural remedy is misleading. Most of these remedies are naturally-occurring orbiodegradable chemicals. Almost all “natural remedies” for pest problems are simply chemical pesticides with little to no risk for the applicator:
- Peppermint oil, tea tree oil, and other essential oils are chemical pesticides
- Oil and soap sprays are chemical pesticides
- Vinegar is a chemical pesticide
All pesticides create a chain reaction that can harm the soil, but biodegradable chemicals do not carry the same risks as synthetic chemicals.
Herbicides are not talked about as often as pesticides, but they still carry risks for the consumer. Herbicides are usually selective, meaning they kill specific weeds but do not harm the target crop. This means your food has likely had herbicide sprayed on it at some point during its life.
Commercial chemicals each have a window of time where they may cause damage to a consumer. Although the timing is different for all chemicals, most cannot be applied within the final weeks of harvest. After this time has passed, the active ingredients have either degraded or washed away and should not be dangerous to consume.
The true danger with these chemicals is that farmers either use them too close to the harvest date, or they overspray and there is more chemical on the produce than recommended by pesticide manufacturers, making the safety data irrelevant.
Poor farming practices eventually lead to poor or dead soil, which drastically reduces the nutrient content of mature produce.
Plants use nutrients to form leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, stems, and roots. While plants can form these structures with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, also known as N-P-K, the plant will suffer without supporting nutrients to help build immunity and form healthy tissue.
Most synthetic fertilizers are various ratios of N-P-K, where nitrogen supports leaf growth, phosphorus supports root growth, and potassium supports the plant processes like photosynthesis. However, there are 10 other nutrients that plants need to form healthy tissue:
The nutrient profile of produce is directly related to the available nutrients in the soil as well as the pH value. If the pH value is not slightly acidic- somewhere between 6 and 7-, some nutrients may be unavailable to plants, while others will be too available and result in toxicity. Both pH and nutrient content fluctuate drastically when organic matter and organic life is reduced due to poor farming practices.
So, kale grown in rich, healthy soil is more nutritious than kale grown in poor, overworked soil, even if the commercial crop looks more attractive.
How to Identify Foods Grown with Sustainable Farming Practices
First, let’s define sustainable:
Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
This is the most misunderstood, overused word in marketing. The assumption surrounding the word is that sustainable growing methods are good for the environment, but this is simply not the case.
If I can reliably purchase synthetic fertilizers each year and spread them at the same rate each spring, then this is technically a sustainable fertilizer schedule. However, it is certainly not beneficial for the plant quality.
In fact, the most sustainable approach to procuring food is to forage for wild fruits and vegetables, but this is hardly practical. All farming practices are unsustainable on some level.
The more accurate measure of farming practices is the size of the farm.
Small farms are able to incorporate more natural growing methods, while larger farms have to employ shortcuts to keep up with demand.
Another hot label is organic. What does organic mean?
Something that is or was living.
All apples are organic, because all apples have a life cycle. However, the assumption surrounding this word is similar to sustainable; growing methods that produce healthy, non-toxic produce.
Fortunately, organic is a term that is regulated, so manufacturers must apply for organic status and pass an inspection before they can use the word on any labels. But, organic still doesn’t mean what you think it means.
Let’s take applesauce made with organic apples. This term ensures that at least 70% of the ingredients are:
- Free from unapproved chemicals
So, organic applesauce may have non-GMO, pesticide-free apples, but the other 30% of ingredients do not have to be certified organic.
Compare that to organic applesauce, which ensures 95% of the ingredients are organically grown.
The only way to have a product that is 100% organic is to look for the labels that claim they are 100% organic. These terms are not marketing ploys. Any term claiming organic status is based on the industry standard
And yet, even the 100% organic products may still be exposed to chemicals. The USDA has a list of chemicals approved for organic growers, and although these are generally safer for the consumer, the use of chemicals still causes the chain reaction of poor soil quality and other damaging farming practices.
Furthermore, organic doesn’t always mean healthy. No matter how many organic potato chips you eat, they are still potato chips.
Two other popular terms among health-conscious shoppers are heirloom and all-natural.
Heirloom plants are strictly defined as open-pollinated varieties at least 50 years old, so heirlooms cannot be GMOs. Learn more about heirlooms here.
All-natural is another term that is meaningless in the world of agriculture. It is unregulated and carries zero weight in the world of agriculture. A mop could be labeled “all-natural” and the manufacturer wouldn’t be breaking any laws.
So, how do you find truly healthy plant-based products?
Simple- find local growers. All poor farming practices stem from large-scale production, so find growers who serve local communities.
This doesn’t mean find the closest commercial farmer near you. Rather, find small farms that sell directly to consumers and offer a variety of produce items.
Walk through farmer’s markets or browse online groups to find small growers, and ask them about how they grow their crops. If they light up as they talk about their latest worm bin project or how they just found a free source of horse manure, you’ve found gold. Growers who are passionate about the soil, companion planting, beneficial insects, and other practices that mimic nature are going to produce the healthiest, most environmentally-friendly fruits and veggies.
Poor farming practices are a necessary evil; but that doesn’t mean you have to eat poor-quality fruits and veggies. If you can’t find a local grower, consider growing your own food and getting involved with your local gardening community.
For more information on growing nutritious, high-quality fruits and vegetables, visit Thriving Yard’s Complete Guide to Active Composting.