December 14, 2006: My research internship
at The Rodale Institute is ending. As I look toward the next
steps in my life, I also consider the future of organic food
There are many issues for organic agricultural researchers
to work on. Organic crop production is not a perfect system.
The nitrates created by a legume cover crop or coming from
compost can leach into the groundwater just like those from
synthetic fertilizers. It is our responsibility to devise
innovative organic ways to provide nitrogen and other nutrients
for our crops without polluting our waters.
Another issue that we must continue to improve on is tillage.
Organic farming systems’ heavy reliance on tillage creates
a dangerous potential for soil degradation and topsoils loss.
We do so much to nurture the soil through cover crops and
other practices—our focus now needs to be on protecting
those soil investments. The no-till organic system being developed
at Rodale is a leading example of this priority. However,
no-till organic is not a continuous-use system. We must also
look at reducing our tillage when our rotation does not call
for no-till. New weed management techniques must be tested
before reduced tillage can be a viable organic option. And
although new implements will need to be used, we also need
to turn our focus away from mechanical weed control. Using
different practices such as allowing weed flushes before planting
will help us find ways to realize organic reduced tillage.
These practices may be as old as frost seeding or may be ones
not yet dreamed of.
Another step organic agriculture researchers must take is
toward reducing energy use. As worries about peak oil grow
and global warming edges to the brink of catastrophe, more
and more of the world is looking toward biofuels. It is the
organic community’s responsibility to make sure these
biofuels are truly “green energy.” Tensie Whelan,
Executive Director of the Rainforest Alliance, says “green
energy is a lamentable misnomer” if more forests are
cleared to plant corn, switchgrass, sugar cane, or soybeans
for these new fuels. We need to make sure that crops intended
for fuel are grown in a responsible and sustainable manner.
It would be an oxymoron for corn grown for ethanol to be produced
with petroleum-based fertilizers. For this reason, organic
agriculture must be at the forefront of the burgeoning biofuel
Along with true green energy, the organic community has much
to offer to combat global warming. Practices commonly associated
with organic agriculture—cover crops, composting, and
others—are carbon sinks, keeping carbon from entering
the atmosphere where it can contribute to global warming.
The organic community has an opportunity to take a leadership
position in preventing disastrous global climate change.
Lastly, for the organic world to sincerely grow, we must
refocus our definition. The current organic designation is
too beholden to comparisons, namely what organics is not.
We commonly answer that organic agriculture is not using pesticides
and is not using synthetic fertilizers. But as conventional
agribusinesses move away from these chemicals and toward biotech,
organic crop production needs to represent not just an alternative
but also a better choice. To convince farmers and consumers
that we are the better choice, we need to focus on what organic
agriculture is—improving soil health and building organic
matter, promoting natural biodiversity, and getting excellent
yields—not by using bought products but by utilizing
During my internship at Rodale, I have had the opportunity
to concentrate on and study these goals. Now that my internship
is ending, the next step is to research, teach and promote