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Wandering around the supermarket, you won't find many clues to the environmental impact of the food you eat. However, sometimes all natural foods do more damage to the earth than minimally processed alternatives.

Russia has a great tradition of natural foods. A huge percentage of the population is directly involved in organic farming.

In Soviet times, county houses called dachas were places where outstanding workers in similar professions could gather to relax. They could fish, they could play games and sports, and they could collect mushrooms and berries. In Nikita Kruschev's time, nearly everyone could aspire to having a dacha, a tiny plot of land on which to grow vegetables to relieve food shortages for the nation. Eventually it became customary to build a small summer house on the land. In the turbulent times of the 1990's, a dacha became a place to grow potatoes, maybe tomatoes, cucumbers, fruit, and berries, all of it entirely organic, and all of it entirely beneficial to the earth. Not only do Russians not use pesticides and toxic fertilizers that have to be hauled in from chemical plants in their garden plots, they eat what they grow. There is no transportation of food that doesn't also serve to transport the humans that eat it.

There is a very different pattern in much of the rest of the world. Organic farming isn't always a benefit to the environment when food is not eaten by the people who produce it.

How can it possibly be destructive to the environment to eat organic foods?

  • Organic farming is friendlier to wildlife, but yields are lower. More land is needed, and even organic agriculture displace creatures living in the wild.
  • Organic food isn't available everywhere. If you drive your gas-guzzling SUV to the Whole Foods Store or farmer's market in another city, your carbon dioxide footprint increases. It may be that less carbon dioxide is generated by shipping your strawberries from Chile to Pennsylvania than by driving to the market to buy them. And if local production requires growing food in a greenhouse, non-local food may be much, much more environmentally friendly, especially when the energy needed to make the materials to build the greenhouse is considered.
  • Not everything about genetic modification is necessarily harmful. Organic labeling rejects all genetically modified foods, but some food crops are genetically modified so they use less fertilizer and water. Sure, big farms in America depend on GMO grains that can be grown in fields that are sprayed with glyphosate (RoundUp) to control weeds. It can't be a good thing that nearly all our bodies contain glyphosate as a result. Engineering the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene into grain really does kill migrating butterflies. However, modifying a yellow squash so it doesn't get the virus that causes it grow deformed and mottled green after the plant is bitten by a stink bug, or modifying a plant so it needs less water or makes better use of sunlight, is not inherently environmentally destructive. 

Of course, if you really want to eat naturally, enjoying all the benefits of organic food, while reducing your burden on the planet, you can always do what millions of Russians do. Keep your own organic garden. Till your soil by hand. Tend your plants every day. Love your land and it will love you back. But if a dacha is not in your future, what do you do?

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Michael LePage. Stop buying organic food if you really want to save the planet. New Scientist. 30 November 2016.
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