The New York Times ran an important story about a growing shift in the organic agriculture industry away from sustainable practices. There are still no synthetic chemicals, but large farms growing organic crops often use monocrop agriculture, an inherently unsustainable practice that erodes soil quality, or use water resources so heavily that local aquifers become depleted.
The Times explains more:
The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry this year, meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops. And the organic tomatoes end up in an energy-intensive global distribution chain that takes them as far as New York and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, producing significant emissions that contribute to global warming.
But it's a complicated issue, as The Times story, which is based in part on a trip to Mexico, further explains:
Many growers and even environmental groups in Mexico defend the export-driven organic farming, even as they acknowledge that more than a third of the aquifers in southern Baja are categorized as overexploited by the Mexican water authority. With sophisticated irrigation systems and shade houses, they say, farmers are becoming more skilled at conserving water. They are focusing new farms in “microclimates” near underexploited aquifers, such as in the shadow of a mountain, said Fernando Frías, a water specialist with the environmental group Pronatura Noroeste.
They also point out that the organic business has transformed what was once a poor area of subsistence farms and where even the low-paying jobs in the tourist hotels and restaurants in nearby Cabo San Lucas have become scarcer during the recession.
Organic Vs. Conventional
Organic agriculture, even when produced on large-scale farms that are not necessarily sustainable, is still ultimately better for the environment than conventional agriculture, according to most experts. But conventional agriculture is not a baseline to be working from. A small car produces fewer emissions than a large SUV, but that doesn't mean everyone should be looking to cars as a sustainable means of transportation.
What this Times story does is point back to the argument for getting to know the farms in your area and buying from them whenever possible. You eliminate the emissions associated with transporting food the long distances that imports have to travel; chances are good that if a farm (organic and local farms are best) sells at farmer's markets and other small, local venues, it is using more sustainable practices than its large-scale counterpart; and when you buy locally, you're just about forced to also buy in-season produce.
As The Times story points out, the demand for tomatoes in the middle of winter is part of what drives the demand for importing tomatoes from far-away places that don't have the water resources to grow tomatoes on a large scale.
(Buying locally also allows you to eliminate some packaging waste, since imported organic produce often comes wrapped in plastic, like in the container above, or since many supermarkets do the extra packaging themselves to distinguish organic produce from conventional.)
So: by eating locally and in-season, you don't have to worry about whether the farm supplying your organic produce is depleting the water and soil in far-away places in ways that defy one of the founding principles of organic agriculture—sustainability.