Note: This article is part of EcoWorldly’s series on food and agriculture around the world. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, this week EcoWorldly writers are exploring environmental issues related to bringing food from the farm to your dinner plate.
Sellers of organic products all say the same thing: their products are better for our health and for the environment. So if you’re planning on chowing on organic cranberries, yams and free-range turkeys this Thanksgiving, rest assured that your meal is good for you and Mother Earth on a different level. Organic farming also uses less water than commercial farming methods.
Large quantities of water are used for farming around the world, and some environmentalists argue this has contributed to the global water crisis. According to PeopleandPlanet.net, over two-thirds of the freshwater used by humans annually around the world is used for crop irrigation. In Africa, for example, the Nile River loses 90 percent of its water for irrigation purposes before it reaches the Mediterranean Sea. In Asia, which contains two-thirds of the world’s irrigated land, 85 percent of available water is used for irrigation. And in California, 80 percent of the water withdrawn for state water projects is used for agriculture. The remaining 20 percent is used for residential, commercial, institutional and industrial use, according to a report released by the environmental research and advocacy group Pacific Institute.
The massive amount of water consumed by the farming industry worldwide has been a source of controversy. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a 2001 publication AAAS Atlas of Population & Environment stated:
“Most irrigation schemes around the world are extremely inefficient. Typically, less than half the water reaches crop roots. Much of it is misdirected or evaporates. Meanwhile, over-irrigation combined with inadequate drainage is causing an accumulation of salt that is reducing yields in many of the areas under irrigation. Sometimes there are major ecological impacts. Irrigation projects developed by the former Soviet Union in Central Asia to grow cotton have dramatically emptied the Aral Sea, destroying fisheries, depopulating large areas and causing epidemics of disease.”*
Unlike large-scale industrialized farming, which contaminate local soil, rivers and drinking water sources, organic farming rarely leads to such devastation.
A study released by Cornell University Professor David Pimentel in 2005 reported that organic farming produces the same corn and soybean yields as conventional farming and uses 30 percent less energy and less water. Moreover, because organic farming systems do not use pesticides, they also yield healthier produce and do not contribute to groundwater pollution.
In addition to its conservation of water, organic farming has also been praised for the economic opportunities it creates for farmers in developing countries. Those farmers have found international markets for their organic products. In draught-ridden India, organic rice farmers have also found that using less water is financially practical. Indian rice farmers cited in a 2007 World Wildlife Foundation study claimed that the system of rice intensification (SRI) helped them yield more crop with less water.
Organic farming practices produce positive results for farmers and consumers. One more item to think about when you’re preparing your Thanksgiving feast.
(For more information on connections among irrigation, agriculture, and poverty around the world, click here.)
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service