Buying organic dog food protects the planet
A desire for more environmentally-sustainable agriculture sparked the the organic food movement, and many people choose organic options because they want to protect the planet. It seems intuitive that substituting more natural alternatives for synthetic substances would have environmental benefits. However, there is some counter-intuitive evidence and conflicting perspectives about the extent to which organic food is better for the environment, partially due to the major difference in agricultural practices within organic-certified farms. Farmers face real and evolving challenges to produce more food on less land, and the different tools at their disposal - whether organic or conventional - all come with environmental and economic tradeoffs. While organic may not be a silver bullet, we believe that the evidence demonstrates organic agriculture has a net positive impact on the most critical environmental issues, and see buying organic-certified ingredients as an important part of creating a more sustainable and humane agricultural system.
Organic agriculture differs from conventional agriculture in three major ways that have important environmental implications. It eliminates the use of natural-gas based fertilizer, increases crop and insect biodiversity, and reduces the use of synthetic pesticides.
GROWING PLANTS WITH GAS
Plants require a variety of soil nutrients to grow, most of which can be provided through natural or synthetic sources. Nitrogen is the most important soil nutrient, as it is used in large volumes as part of the photosynthesis process. Despite being the most common element in our atmosphere (the air we breathe is ~80% nitrogen and only 20% oxygen), most plants cannot use the nitrogen in the air and rely on bacteria in the soil to convert the nitrogen to a usable form (called nitrogen fixation). Industrial agriculture - particularly the practice of growing corn in the same field every year - depletes nitrogen from the soil as it is absorbed into the plant faster than the bacteria can generate it.
As a result, nitrogen is often a limiting factor to growing more crops and synthetic sources are in high demand. Nitrogen fertilizer was developed in the early 20th century and is now used in growing about half of the world’s food. It is typically manufactured using natural gas to do the work of the bacteria that “fix” the nitrogen in the air into a usable form for the plants. The widespread use of natural gas in fertilizer production has a huge greenhouse gas footprint, not only due to the processing, but because it causes nitrous oxide - also known as “laughing gas” - to release from the soil into the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide has about 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, the more well-known greenhouse gas.
In addition to avoiding nitrous oxide and other warming-causing synthetic fertilizers, organic agriculture also benefits from the application of eco-friendly land management practices like the use of cover crops and compost to fertilize the soil. Legumes - the group of plants that includes peas, chickpeas, and most beans - actually add more nitrogen to the soil than they consume and are frequently used in sustainable crop rotation systems. These practices improve soil quality and soil health, defined as the ability for soil to support crop growth without becoming degraded or otherwise harming the environment. Soil from organically-farmed land contains more carbon, nitrogen, and biomass compared to soil that is farmed conventionally with nitrogen fertilizer.
KILLING WEEDS AND EVERYTHING ELSE
The second benefit of organic farming on the environment is the promotion of biodiversity, or the variety of living species, on the 900 million acres of US farmland. Conventional farming practices like cultivating a single crop species over thousands of acres (“monocultures”) and applying high levels of pesticides often create ‘dead zones’ in which very few species can thrive.
Organic farming practices enable higher biodiversity on and around farms, with an average of 30% higher species richness compared to conventional farming. It has the largest impact on crop and insect biodiversity, which supports other ecosystems and provides natural resistance against disease and pest infestation. This is a relatively new field of research that can be difficult to isolate and quantify, but the vast majority of studies find a beneficial effect of organic agriculture on biodiversity.
Over 40% of all U.S. land is used for agriculture, and that agricultural land acts as a habitat for many species, including those under threat of extinction.
PESTICIDES IN OUR WATER
A third benefit of organic agriculture is the reduction in groundwater contamination and ecosystem disruption related to the use of pesticides. Pesticides are the chemical compounds that are used to kill or deter insects, rodents, fungi, and weeds that damage crops. Pests often develop resistance to pesticides after years of use, which requires the continuous development and application of new pesticides. While government agencies like the EPA and USDA have safety review processes that help protect humans and the environment from pesticides with clear-cut toxicity, new pesticides can create unforeseen health and environmental issues that take years to manifest.
For example, atrazine is an effective herbicide (weed killer) developed in the 1960s that is now the second most-used pesticide in the United States. In the last twenty years, numerous studies have demonstrated that it can act as an endocrine disruptor in humans and cause birth defects with enough exposure during pregnancy. Atrazine is notable for its persistence in soil and ability to leach into groundwater, and atrazine levels regularly spike above the EPA maximum in major waterways like the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri Rivers. The suspected health concerns, particularly for those living near agricultural areas, as well as its propensity to wash into groundwater culminated in a ban on atrazine in the European Union in 2003 - fifty years after it was first introduced.
The introduction of new pesticides can also have unforeseen consequences on critical animal species like bees. Synthetic insecticides are leading suspects in the collapse of bee populations that imperils global agriculture and ecosystems.
Organic agriculture does not eliminate the environmental risks from pesticide usage as the guidelines allow the use of pesticides produced from natural sources that can also be highly toxic and contaminate soil and water. However, the application of pesticides is much lower in fields using sustainable farming practices more prevalent in organic agriculture, like crop rotations and mixed planting, which builds more natural resistance to pests than conventional monocultures. In addition, the organic certification program adds an extra layer of review and regulation for the pesticides allowed in organic agriculture.
IS GENETIC ENGINEERING SUSTAINABLE?
The prohibition of GMO crops in organic agriculture has a more mixed immediate impact on the environment but brings significant long-term sustainability benefits. GMOs are not intrinsically harmful to the environment and some genetic modifications can lessen the environmental impact of agriculture by improving yield and creating substance-less resistance to pests and disease. For example, the introduction of a strain of corn with genetically-engineered insect resistance is associated with a reduction in the application of a popular insecticide.
However, the most common GMOs were developed to enable the use of more herbicides. These herbicide-resistant strains lead to more widespread application of herbicides and exacerbate the negative effects on biodiversity and groundwater contamination. Genetic engineering is also an inherently static and short-term solution to pest and disease management, as weeds, insects, and bacteria evolve to overcome the artificial genetic defenses of GMOs. The strain of insect-resistant GM corn mentioned above is rapidly losing efficacy and a new GM strain with higher anti-insect toxicity has been developed to replace it.
The ‘whack-a-mole’ game in which new GMO strains with more extensive genetic alterations must be developed to combat evolving pest threats is not sustainable, especially given the long testing period that each new GMO variant should undergo to ensure safety. Organic agriculture generally takes a more dynamic and sustainable approach to combat crop-killing pests, such as planting genetically diverse crops and attracting natural predators.
ORGANIC ANIMAL AGRICULTURE
While Petaluma does not purchase animal products for our foods, the majority of agricultural land is used to raise and feed livestock, and organic standards play a part in reducing the large environmental footprint of animal agriculture. Most of the benefits of organic animal products come from growing organic crops to feed them, as organic standards do little to address the direct greenhouse gas emissions from the animals (cow burps and waste ponds) or animal welfare issues. In fact, most organic meat comes from animals raised in facilities nearly identical to conventional “factory farms” where animals experience dense crowding and limited real outdoor access. While some ranchers have established more sustainable and ethical livestock production systems, it requires close attention to pasture management that goes far beyond current organic guidelines.
THE DRAWBACKS OF ORGANIC
While we use organic ingredients to support the many benefits of organic agriculture, we understand that it is not a one-stop solution to the ecological harm of food production. Growing organic foods is generally more resource-intensive than conventional alternatives due to lower crop yields, which means that we need more land, water, and fertilizer to grow the same amount of conventional food. There is massive variability in the productivity and sustainability of organic farms (just as there is with conventional farms), and many organic farmers are able to deliver equal or higher yields than neighboring conventional farms. Developing direct partnerships with farms utilizing sustainable practices will always be the best way to support more eco-friendly agriculture, but an organic certification acts as a helpful proxy for enhanced sustainability when buying direct is not feasible.
Using organic ingredients is just one of the methods we have to support holistic and sustainable agricultural systems, and the selection of ingredients and suppliers plays the largest role. Organic chicken has a much larger footprint than conventionally-grown chickpeas. We also choose to avoid crops like corn, soy, and wheat in our recipes, as these crops are over-cultivated and even organic versions are usually grown intensively as monocultures.