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Does Certified Organic Mean What We Think It Does?

Food
Does Certified Organic Mean What We Think It Does?
Organic carrots and radishes at a farmers' market. carterdayne / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Brian Barth

There's something of a civil war brewing in the organic movement.


On one side are industry boosters boasting about how organic has gone mainstream. These folks are fine with a Big Ag version of organic agriculture — enormous monocrop fields and global distribution to every Walmart across the land. On the other side are purists who feel that the spirit of organic — building healthy soil, promoting biodiversity, focusing on small producers and distributing regionally — is no longer represented by the USDA certified organic label (hence the various alternative organic labels popping up).

The USDA certification has never explicitly required any of those things, however. Instead, organic rules focus primarily on substituting natural fertilizers and pest control methods for chemical ones. But even here things aren't quite as they seem.

Does Organic Mean Toxin-Free?

Not entirely. USDA standards allow the use of several dozen synthetic chemicals on certified organic farms, although most are fairly benign substances, and those that aren't tend to be heavily restricted in the ways that they can be applied (certain synthetic fertilizers are also permitted in limited circumstances). More of an issue is that some of the naturally derived substances permitted for use as pesticides are used in unnatural concentrations that make them highly toxic (to creatures such as bees, for example). Rotenone, a notoriously toxic but naturally derived pesticide, was on the list of permitted substances until last year.

Does Organic Mean Local?

Not at all. Organic products constitute around five percent of food sales in the U.S., but only about one percent of U.S. farmland is organic, suggesting that most organic food is imported. Organic certification does not take carbon footprints into account — and it's fairly clear that organic grapes flown in from Chile have a larger environmental impact than their locally grown but conventional counterparts.

Does Organic Mean Grown on a Small, Diversified Farm?

The organic standards say nothing about size and little about diversity. Things such as hedgerows for habitat are encouraged by the standards, but there is nothing in the rules that prevents organic farmers from planting monocultures fence line to fence line.

Does Organic Mean Livestock Roam Free and Forage on Grass?

This is an extremely contentious topic between Big Organic and the purists. Organic livestock must be provided access to the outdoors and, depending on the species, must receive a portion of their diet from foraging. But there are a lot of convoluted rules — some would call them loopholes— regarding how those requirements can be met. The bottom line is that it's possible to stick to the letter of the organic law and run a livestock operation that differs little from a confined animal feeding operation, aka factory farming.

Does Organic Mean Topsoil is Restored?

Rebuilding topsoil that teems with microbial life was the foundation of the organic movement in the 1960s. This was a response to the sterile, eroded soil that 20th-century conventional agriculture methods left across the planet. The inconvenient truth is that organic agriculture requires frequent cultivation to control weeds, leaving it bare and susceptible to erosion. In the 21st century, conventional agriculture is increasingly based on the use of herbicide-tolerant GMO crops that have vastly reduced the amount of tillage required, cutting down significantly on erosion (at the cost of greater herbicide use, however). Erosion as a result of frequent cultivation isn't much of an issue on a small diversified farm, but large monocultures of organic produce are likely to lose more topsoil each year than well-managed conventional ones.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

A large patch of leaked oil and the vessel MV Wakashio near Blue Bay Marine Park off the coast of southeast Mauritius on Aug. 6, 2020. AFP via Getty Images

The environmental disaster that Mauritius is facing is starting to appear as its pristine waters turn black, its fish wash up dead, and its sea birds are unable to take flight, as they are limp under the weight of the fuel covering them. For all the damage to the centuries-old coral that surrounds the tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean, scientists are realizing that the damage could have been much worse and there are broad lessons for the shipping industry, according to Al Jazeera.

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A quality engineer examines new solar panels in a factory. alvarez / Getty Images

Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.

The frozen meat section at a supermarket in Hong Kong, China, in February. Chukrut Budrul / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Imported frozen food in three Chinese cities has tested positive for the new coronavirus, but public health experts say you still shouldn't worry too much about catching the virus from food or packaging.

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Although heat waves rarely get the attention that hurricanes do, they kill far more people per year in the U.S. and abroad. greenaperture / Getty Images

By Jeff Berardelli

Note: This story was originally published on August 6, 2020

If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.

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