Lessons of the fall harvest
September is traditionally the month of the major harvest.
Of course, there was a time when the harvest involved many people in many communities. Everyone would come together to gather ripe crops…and celebrate the fruits of their labor.
Now, we’re living in an era of industrialized, large-scale farming and processed foods. And the hard work of the annual harvest isn’t recognized by the average Joe.
In fact, the perseverance of local, organic farming is often overlooked—all year-long.
Why actively search for locally sourced meat and produce when conventional foods are so readily available at the grocery store?
Well, that’s where some consumers get it all wrong. Because that search is worth it.
Not only is organic food better for the environment, there’s plenty of research showing it’s also better for our health.
For one, the law prohibits use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and other toxins in organically grown food.
But there’s also scientific evidence that organic fruits and vegetables contain MORE nutrients than their conventional cousins—which results in LESS DISEASE.
In fact, including organic foods as part of your balanced diet is one of the very best things you can do for your health.
That’s why this month, in honor of the fall harvest, I’m focusing on organic farming—what’s occurred in the past, where things are going, and where they still need to go.
(Fortunately, there’s a lot of good news to share on the bigger picture of what’s happening today with organic food.)
I’ll also provide specific examples of what YOU can do to encourage organic farming and more availability of organic foods…even if you live miles away from farmland.
What does “organic” mean?
“Organic” used to be a catch-all phrase that didn’t really mean anything (much like “natural” is today).
But back in the 1970s and 1980s, farmers and consumers who were concerned about false labeling of so-called organic foods lobbied the U.S. government to do something about it.
In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, which required the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop national standards for organic products.
It took 10 years of public input and bureaucratic rigmarole to finally codify those standards. The result is the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), which was established in 2000.
The NOP’s mission is to protect the USDA organic seal, which is only issued to certified organic producers. This ensures that no plant or animal food product can use the word “organic” unless it meets USDA organic standards.1
Those standards state that any food product labeled “organic” must be at least 95 percent organically grown. Products labeled “made with organic ingredients” must contain at least 70 percent organically grown ingredients.
In addition, crops must grow at least three years without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (natural fertilizers are allowed).
Genetically modified (GM) seeds are prohibited. And foods cannot be processed with non-organic additives like artificial sweeteners, flavors, colors, or preservatives.
Organic animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy must come from animals that only eat organic feed, are free-range or have access to pasture at least 120 days a year, and aren’t given antibiotics or growth hormones.
Last but not least, farms that produce organic crops are visited at least once a year by USDA-accredited organic certifiers to make sure they’re compliant.
Organic vs. conventional farming
In the two decades since the NOP was implemented, there have been plenty of opportunities to study the impact of organic farming. That research tends to break down into three categories:
- The contrast between conventional and organic farming
- Organic farming’s impact on human health
- Organic farming’s impact on the environment
Back in 1798, English economist Thomas Malthus predicted the world’s population would eventually outgrow its ability to feed itself.
Since then, big agro-giants have used this dire prediction to help justify unhealthy changes in farming—including the use of GM seeds, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and poor soil-management techniques.
These technical developments have led to greater gross crop yields (the amount of product produced by a given plot). But a four-decade study comparing conventional to organic farming shows that organic farmlands can grow the same amount of food as their conventional counterparts.
In fact, the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial began in 1981 on 12 acres on the Institute’s lands in Kutztown, Pennsylvania.2 Over the ensuing years, the researchers grew grains both organically and conventionally and analyzed the results.
- Organic gross crop yields match conventional, chemical crop yields
- Organic crop yields outperform conventional crops by up to 40 percent during years of drought
- Organic farming uses 45 percent less energy than conventional farming
- Organic farming produces 40 percent fewer greenhouse gases than conventional farming
- Organic crops earn three to six times more profits for farmers compared to conventional crops
- Organic grains have more nutrient density (specifically, protein and amino acids) than their conventional counterparts.
Pretty impressive, right?
And speaking about nutrients…
Organic farming bolsters our health
A variety of studies show that the actual nutrient content of conventional food crops has declined since World War II, when factory farming first became prevalent.
A landmark 2004 study reviewed USDA nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits. The researchers found “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and vitamin C in those crops.3
The authors chalked up these deficits to agricultural practices designed to improve fruit and vegetable traits (size, growth rate, pest resistance) rather than nutrition.
But soil depletion is another big factor. Crops get many nutrients from the soil, yet research shows that post-World War II farming techniques like pesticide use and lack of crop rotation have made agricultural soil much less fertile.4
(I first observed this fact when studying green, leafy vegetables and yellow-orange vegetables during the 1980s as sources of all-important carotenoids, as well as vitamins and minerals.)
Carotenoids, phytonutrients, and other natural compounds help plants stay healthy. Now, an increasing amount of research shows that when humans consume those plants, they also get the benefits of these healthy compounds.
Plus, there’s evidence that plants produce even more of those compounds when they fight off pests and diseases themselves…without the aid of agricultural chemicals.
Meaning that organic crops may contain more beneficial compounds than their conventional counterparts.
In fact, recent research shows these extra nutrients are having a significant impact on human health…
A 2019 review of 35 studies found that people who eat more organic food tend to have reduced inflammation and less risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, obesity, and metabolic syndrome (which is linked to diabetes and cardiovascular disease). They also have fewer allergies and less infertility.
Not to mention, there’s equally impressive research on the link between organic farming and environmental health…
Positive impact on the planet
In addition to producing more nourishing food, research shows that organic farming better withstands the growing worldwide challenge to feed more people—without destroying the environment.
For instance, a new study conducted over five years in Spain shows that organic wheat farming emits fewer greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane than conventional wheat production.6
It may have to do with the synthetic fertilizers used in conventional chemical farming. A 2020 study found that global nitrous-oxide emissions were largely related to agriculture—particularly the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.7
Interestingly, while organic farming may help reduce climate change, there’s also evidence that it can thrive as a result of climate change. Factors that favor organic crop production include uncertain or more extreme weather patterns, the growing scarcity and expense of energy supplies, and restrictions on water supplies for irrigation.
And perhaps most importantly, as studies often warn, the pesticides used on conventional crops can kill bees, butterflies, and birds. That, in turn, can lead to less food production and diversity.
Good news on the horizon
All of this shows that organic farming is KEY to the survival of not only our population, but our planet.
The good news is, more and more young farmers are turning to organic farming as a viable way to make a living—as shown in the USDA census of agriculture and farming (which is conducted every five years).
Currently, we’re relying on data from the 2017 census, until results from this year’s census roll in.8
Of course, the USDA report tends to highlight problems with agriculture (there are plenty). For instance, there’s an indication that midsized farms are being swallowed up by corporate giants. And the USDA is appropriately concerned about the loss of midsize farms and the jobs they provide.
But there’s still some good news hidden inside its 820 pages. Specifically:
- The number of small farming operations (less than nine acres) skyrocketed by 22 percent from 2012 to 2017, up to more than 273,000 farms.
- The number of farmers younger than age 35 rose 11 percent to about 285,000.
- People with 10 years or less experience in farming made up 27 percent of all farmers.
- The number of organic farmers jumped from about 14,000 to 18,000, an increase of 29 percent.
- Total sales of U.S. organic products nearly doubled. The average organic farm sold about $401,000 worth of goods in 2017, compared to about $218,000 in 2012.
These findings suggest that younger farmers on small farms are making a difference.
At the same time, some consumers are clearly demanding more organic produce and meat, eggs, and dairy products—making organic farming a promising career option.
That means in more places across the country, Americans will have the option to buy organic fruits, vegetables, eggs, cheese, milk, and meat from small farms in their own communities.
And that’s exactly where YOU can help…
Making a commitment to buying organic food from local growers (and the stores and restaurants they supply) can directly encourage more small, independent farms in your area.
If possible, I suggest purchasing foods that were grown (or raised) within 50 miles of the point of sale. It’s also important to note that many of these farmers may farm organically—but are small enough that they don’t want to go through the hassle and expense of USDA organic certification.
So, I suggest finding a local farmer’s market or nearby farm stand and talking directly to the farmers. Ask them questions about how they grow their produce or raise their cattle and poultry.
You’ll make a new connection and help support a neighbor. As a result, both of you will help improve your own health and the health of the planet…organically!
SIDEBAR: DIY organic farming
Along with supporting local organic farms, you can also grow your own organic produce.
And the late-August, early-September season is a perfect time to start your fall vegetables and herbs!
If you don’t have a green thumb or your own back 40 (plot of land), don’t despair. Many fall plants are easy to grow and can be planted in containers on a patio or balcony—or even inside your home.
Here are my favorite cool-weather veggies:
I also like to plant the following fall herbs:
Most of these grow best from seeds, and can weather early frosts. In fact, the root vegetables can be harvested throughout the winter, depending on your climate.
There’s even an added bonus: Weeds don’t thrive in the fall like they do in the summer, making it easy to avoid chemical weed killers. Plus, many garden pests don’t like cooler temperatures, meaning you won’t be tempted to use toxic pesticides.
A quick internet search will turn up many useful tips for how to manage your own patio or backyard garden, from cultivation through maturity.
SIDEBAR: Micozzi family farming
My family has a long history with local farming.
My grandfather had an 11-acre farm that supported a family of 14 during the Great Depression and through World War II. It provided eggs, milk, butter, ham, produce, and other foods for the local community.
More than 20 years ago, my uncle took over the farm and switched to organic and grass-fed practices.
Of course, my uncle is getting older (like many of our farmers). But as I mentioned, small, independent, organic farms (like my uncle’s) are making a comeback across America.
In fact, my daughter successfully operates a small-scale organic farm and local farm stand called Cozzi Family Farm in Rockport, Massachusetts. In addition, my family has had a small horse boarding, training, riding, and leasing business. So we take part in the USDA’s agricultural census when requested.
3“Changes in USDA food composition data for 43 garden crops, 1950 to 1999.” J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Dec;23(6):669-82.
5“A Systematic Review of Organic Versus Conventional Food Consumption: Is There a Measurable Benefit on Human Health?” Nutrients. 2019 Dec 18;12(1):7.
6“Determining the environmental and economic implications of lupin cultivation in wheat-based organic rotation systems in Galicia, Spain.” Sci Total Environ. 2022 Jul 13:157342.
7“A comprehensive quantification of global nitrous oxide sources and sinks.” Nature 586, 248–256 (2020).