Monday, December 17, 2012

Why is agriculture bad for the Earth? Does organic farming make it better?

In my last post, I responded to a CNN article that claimed that organic food was not healthier than conventional food. In the second half of the article, the author mentions a Scientific American article that says that organic farming is no better, and may be even worse, than conventional agriculture.

You can find the article here, but I address each of the articles main points.

1. Organic farms still use pesticides.

Yes, this is absolutely true. There are a number of pesticides derived from natural sources that certified organic farmers are allowed to use. The thing to keep in mind is that organic certification is really the lowest common denominator. There are any number of practices that environmentally conscious farmers use, and the USDA's definition is the minimum that everyone can agree upon. I am certain that there are many farmers forgo certification because they disagree with the USDA's policies and because the cost and bureaucracy of certification puts small farms at a disadvantage.

The best thing to do is to talk to you farmer. That's part of why the farmers market is so great! You get to know the people who grow your food, ask them where their farm is, what their philosophy is, and so on.

2. Organic food is not healthier.
3. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are good.

Please refer to my previous posts where I address this issue and also talk about the Precautionary Principle. 

4. Organic farms produce less than conventional ones, and so take up more land.

I agree with the general logic behind this claim. Not using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers will reduce yield. One way to make up for reduced yield is to increase the amount of land under use. More land devoted to agriculture means less land for forests, grasslands, and so on, which is bad for biodiversity, etc.

However (!!!) this really only applies to monocrop farming. From wikipedia: "Monocropping is the high-yield agricultural practice of growing a single crop year after year on the same land, in the absence rotation through other crops." It is also referred to as factory farming, and factory farming is pretty bad, even if it is organic.

Again, another reason to support farmers markets and CSAs and the rest. Go ask your farmer if they rotate their crops, if they use biological forms of pest control, if they use pesticides and if so, do they sound responsible about it? If nothing else, you may have a short and entertaining conversation with someone with a different perspective on the world, and what is so bad about that?

And really, we've already gone beyond organic. I try to practice FLOSS: fresh, local, organic, seasonal, and sustainable.

Conclusion: certified organic farming is not necessarily better for the environment than conventional, but it probably is in most cases. If you have the choice, buy your food from the farmers market and have a conversation with your farmer about his or her practices.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Is organic food really any healthier?


Back in September, a family member sent me this email:


We're disrupting the ecosystem...aaaahhhhhhh!!!!!! Really?"


There are two main points to address, first that organic food is not healthier, which is the main point of the article, and then the subsequent argument that organic farming is not better for the environment, which I will address in a second post. 

1. Organic food is not healthier
The author reviews studies that show that organic produce did not have any more nutrients than conventional and that while organic produce did have fewer pesticides, the conventional food usually met the allowed standards for pesticides. Further, the author refers to other studies showing that having lower levels of pesticides does not lead to any obvious health benefit.

First, I find it strange that they looked into the nutritional content, given that I have never once read or heard anyone claim that organic food would have more nutrients than conventional. It does not surprise me in the least that they found no difference. Perhaps next time those same scientists will investigate whether or not eating organic food will cause me to pee rainbows or shit bricks of gold.

Now, as for the claim that pesticides have no deleterious effects on us, I would like to point to two pieces of evidence:

A) There have been numerous cases where the FDA approved limit for pesticides was set for the benefit of the chemical companies, not people.

Take the example of one of my personal heroes, Tyrone Hayes ( He was working for a chemical company, investigating the effects of an herbicide called atrazine. He unexpectedly found that even at extremely low levels, the chemical caused major deformities in the genitals of amphibians ( The chemical company, on the other hand, did not seem surprised by Hayes' results and worked hard to keep him quiet and cover up his results. The chemical company intensively lobbied the EPA and conducted a smear campaign against Hayes. No surprise then that the EPA decided its previously stated levels were still A-okay.

B) The burden of proof regarding the safety of a given chemical is on the people when it should be on the chemical company.

The European Union has a much saner approach to this embodied in the Precautionary Principle ( The wikipedia article sums it up quite nicely: "The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action."

For many of us, buying organic food is already an easy alternative to conventional produce, so why take the risk?!

C) Organic food benefits the environment too! It's not all about us!

Okay, I know I said I only had two points to make on this topic. But still, even if I was totally convinced that organic food still had no benefit to me personally, I would still buy it because it is better for the Earth, which brings me to my next blog post:

Is agriculture bad for the Earth? Does organic farming make it better?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Christmas time: The season of consumerism!

Growing up, there was very little pressure regarding the holidays. We always got together with family, but there was never much emphasis on what types of food or how many presents or anything like that.

Goodbye blissful ignorance.

My partner's family is very large and *very* in to Christmas. This year, I have been added to the extended family list and have been asked what I want for Christmas. "Is 'nothing' an acceptable answer?" Trying to find guidance, we asked a newly married couple who are friends of ours. Within two minutes they were arguing over the significance of material goods and where exactly the line was between a gesture of love and utter, crass, materialism.

Then, my partner struck upon a genius idea! "Why don't you ask your Secret Santa to donate to a cause?" This year, in addition to protesting Black Friday by not buying anything (also, a great excuse to be lazy!), I am also asking my new Secret Santa (my boyfriend's stepmother's sister's husband) to donate a small amount to any of a list of charities.

Crisis averted! Now on to planning a zero-waste holiday party! (See for more cool posters like this one).

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Hair Care

Recently I posted this on Facebook:

"I switched over from regular shampoo to Dr. Bronner's soap in order to be more environmentally responsible. Suddenly I've been getting compliments about how fabulous my hair looks. Who knew that being good to the Earth and being pretty could coincide?"

One of my friends asked:

"Do you just use plain apple cider vinegar for the rinse or do you mix it with something? I hear that stuff can do a lot of great things!"


My sister said: "I use 1/2 oz to 1 oz apple cider vinegar to 7 oz of water in a 8 oz squirt bottle."

I said: "I use a bottle cap's worth, straight, then rinse it through my hair. I thought I would be able to smell it, but no! I only do it once a week, but thicker hair might want it more often. Absolutely the best de-tangler ever."
Several months into using Dr. Bronner's soap, I have a few more recommendations. First, there are four scents: regular, almond, lavender, and peppermint. The scents are actually the essential oils, and with peppermint and lavender you get some natural antiseptic properties. The peppermint smell is very strong and particularly invigorating for your morning shower. On the other hand, if you use Dr. Bronner's as a body wash too, you should be careful with using it around your private parts... it can be very, err, bracing. 

Second, I have found that even using the apple cider vinegar, I can get a lot of buildup, so I have started alternating between conventional shampoo and the Dr. Bronner/apple cider vinegar combo. This is definitely not the best solution, but I guess it is a starting point.
Third, you can buy Dr. Bronner's at Trader Joe's or you can go online ( and check out their other products (e.g., bar soap, lotions, etc). 

Okay, but what's wrong with regular shampoo?

Good question. There is nothing obviously wrong with shampoo, until you look a little deeper. Conventional shampoos are designed to have a very long shelf life, in fact, they are chock-a-block full of synthetic preservatives. They are bad for the environment because they take a long time to break down. If you're a backpacker, you're probably already familiar with Dr. Bronner's or something similar because it is good form to use biodegradable soap (and only a very little bit at least 20 meters from the nearest water source).

There is also growing evidence that these synthetic preservatives, particularly parabens, are bad for us. There is preliminary evidence that these chemicals mimic estrogen and could lead to breast cancer or the surge in early puberty among young girls ( While there is nothing conclusive yet, my philosophy is 'Let's not take the chance when there is such a great alternative readily available.'

Online resources

A while ago a friend wrote me this:

" I wanted check in with you on a website (EWG-environmental working group). I am really trying to become a more responsible consumer and have been all about documentaries to raise my awareness, but I am having trouble trying to establish credibility with online stuff. Are there site you recommend I start? I am really trying to get others in my family involved, but don't know where to start directing them."

Here is my response:

"Yeah! EWG is a great place to start. Their information on sunscreen, household cleaners, and cosmetics is always top-notch, as are their reports on water quality.

My sister is addicted to Etsy (, which is an online marketplace for regular people who make their own products by hand (especially clothing, jewelry, art, and decor). When I shop there I further restrict the list of vendors to those in the United States only.

Also, Clutter Free Services maintains a list of places in the Bay Area where you can donate used durable goods (e.g., sports equipments, magazines, medical equipment [those crutches you no longer need], etc). This is great when I want to get rid of something, but feel too guilty to throw it in the trash.

Although not an online resource per se, I must recommend "No Impact Man." It was a blog that developed into a book and documentary. It is the most inspiring environmental book I have ever read (and trust me, I've read a lot). I've made a lot of changes to my life that were surprisingly easy and probably a lot healthier for me anyway.

Okay, hope that's enough for now!"

Saturday, November 17, 2012


You are in the checkout line at the grocery store, and you just realize you've forgotten your reusable bags. Which is more environmentally friendly: paper or plastic?

Or, you're reading the news. So-and-so said that this new environmental legislation is bad, but someone else said it is good. Well, which one is it?

Don't you wish you could ask someone you know and trust about these sorts of things?

Many of my friends come to me and ask me these sorts of questions. This blog is an attempt to record my answers and make them available to the wider community.

Despite the title, I'm not an expert, but I'm trying to become one! Currently I work as a research analyst at a non-profit and I've dedicated my adult life to environmental topics. I have my BA in Environmental Studies and my MA in Communication Studies with an emphasis on environmental communication. I've interned as a journalist in Sacramento covering state politics, as a research assistant at an environmental law firm, and as a sustainability coordinator at my university.

I don't believe in a one-size-fits-all policy. I believe that everyone can find a solution that works best for them, but the main thing is to think about the environmental effects of your choices in the first place. So, please, send me your environmental dilemmas!