You might sometimes hear the words “agricultural sustainability” tossed around during a conversation that mentions organic food production as a sustainable answer in feeding the globe’s rapidly expanding population.

For some, it might be more than a little confusing defining just exactly what sustainability is, and how to use this measure to determine if organic food production has a sustainable advantage over conventional methods utilized in today’s modern farming practices. 

Perhaps one of the best definitions of agricultural sustainability comes from Dr. John E. Ikerd, Extension professor at the University of Missouri, who offered up this gem:

“An agriculture that uses up or degrades its natural resource base, or pollutes the natural environment, eventually will lose its ability to produce … a sustainable agriculture must be all three – ecologically sound, economically viable and socially responsible. And the three must be in harmony.”



The organic movement has been trying to claim the mantle for sustainability for a long time, but it is extremely limited from many key components. Now, don’t get me wrong. Let me state unequivocally that I’m not saying organic farming is bad — far from it. There are some definite upsides and benefits that come from many organic farming methods. For example, the efforts of organic farmers to move away from monocultures, where crops are farmed in single-species plots, are fantastic; crop rotations and mixed planting are much better for the soil and environment. My goal in this article isn’t to bash organic farms. Instead, it’s to bust the modern myth that organic food production is “more sustainable” in the long run than conventional crop production techniques – which I will prove simply is not the case. Both methods have their individual value in feeding an ever increasing global population.

So let’s get started. A good article came out recently documenting higher groundwater contamination with nitrates under organic greenhouses because they can’t “spoon feed” fertilizer through the drip and depend on compost for which the release is not matched with plant uptake.  This has always be a theoretical limitation for organic.



The article titled “Nitrate leaching from intensive organic farms to groundwater” was written by a handful of soil scientists and appeared in Hydrology and Earth System Sciences. It highlighted this specific finding: “Surprisingly, intensive organic agriculture relying on solid organic matter, such as composted manure that is implemented in the soil prior to planting as the sole fertilizer, resulted in significant down-leaching of nitrate through the vadose zone to the groundwater.” (The vadose zone is the part of earth between the land surface and the position at which the groundwater is at atmospheric pressure.) Elevated nitrate levels in groundwater are hardly a mark of “sustainability.”


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