Thursday, September 4, 2008

Why organic matters

An article in the science section of the NY Times earlier this week caused me to think about why organic matters. It's not because eating organic will make you healthier or more righteous. It might make you healthier, and whether or not it contributes to righteousness is not ours to judge. But it will contribute to a lessening of the planetary overload with nitrogen, an important factor in climate change and other environmental impacts.

We've been carboned to death with warnings about the big C, but there is also the big N. Life is made up of many elements, and the nitrogen cycle matters just like the carbon cycle and the water cycle and many other less studied cycles.

Dead areas in the oceans are largely there because of nitrogen run off from crop land fertilized with synthetic fertilizers. Much nitrogen is wasted in growing that favorite source of sweetening and ethanol, corn. The Times article reports that with raising beef about 6% of the nitrogen inputs actually end up in the meat we - make that you - eat. The rest is run off - or gas off.

Plants - except legumes which can fix it from the air - must have nitrogen to grow, and it's in every amino acid. But too much of a good thing is not wonderful.

In organic farming, nitrogen inputs are from natural sources, like composted animal manures and plant material. These forms of nitrogen are both less concentrated and more readily assimilated by the growing plants. Hence much less nitrogen is lost to air and water where it can cause harm.

The reason to choose organic when possible, then, is not about me or you, but about the health of the planet. It's also a reason to push for consideration of nitrogen, not just carbon, in national environmental legislation.

The article points out that one of the reasons no one talks about nitrogen is that environmental activists want simple messages to deliver to their audiences. This is what gets us stuck in the "change a light bulb for Jesus" mentality. Much easier to give people one thing to worry about, and one thing to do, rather than encouraging to them to think about complex topics. But the interplay of environmental stresses and issues is complex. And the impact of one basic human activity, such as eating, on all of them requires careful thought about many impacts.

I'm still struck by the British movement to have the label "organic" reserved for produce which has not been flown in, no matter how it has been grown. Surely somebody there understood the interrelationship of climate change impacts from transportation and from industrial farming. We need more of that kind of thinking.

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