We’ve all seen organic produce in the grocery store, right next to the regular produce, splashed with an organic label. But other than price, what separates organic food from other kinds of food? Cal Poly Magazine spoke with Matthew Grieshop, head of Cal Poly’s new Grimm Family Center for Organic Production and Research, to learn more about organic food and how it’s grown.
What does it mean for food to be organic?
Traditionally, the organic movement focused on managing soil resources to produce healthy plants. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created the National Organic Program (NOP), which in turn gave us our current definition of organic by creating a standardized list of practices. Producers who are certified organic by the NOP can’t use synthetic inputs, must show a crop rotation plan and demonstrate that they are stewarding the soil and producing food in a manner that aligns with these standards.
Because of the NOP, the organic industry has grown from local markets to retail at Walmart, Costco and other major grocery chains. Now, when a consumer buys a certified organic product, they are getting something that was produced without the use of prohibited fertilizers and pesticides and with attention placed on the stewardship of the soil.
What are some of the specific techniques used to grow organic food?
There are three commonly used organic techniques. One of those is crop rotation, which keeps the environment diverse. Growing the same crop on the same land for years creates problems: it depletes the ground of nutrients the crop needs, attracts pests that like to eat that crop and creates an environment for weeds that like to compete with that crop.
Utilizing organic fertilization regimes like compost, manures or specialized fertilizers created from biological materials like blood meal allows us to keep more carbon in the soil. Carbon helps hold water and nutrients in the soil, which means more of the nutrition you’re putting in the soil actually gets to the plant.
Another core technique is using cover crops, which typically don’t give you a marketable yield, as part of crop rotation. Maintaining a cover crop provides the rotational benefit of mixing up the ecosystem and ensures you have something there to hold the soil, the water and the nutrients in place.
What are some misconceptions you’ve heard about organic food?
I think the biggest misconception about organic food is that it’s pesticide-free. The devil in the detail there is that it’s free of synthetic pesticides. The pesticides, fungicides and insecticides used in organic production are typically plant extracts or microbes, while the vast majority of pesticides in conventional agriculture are synthetic and tend to be much harsher.
What are the benefits of organic food production?
NOP certification has paved the way for consumers to pay growers to use more sustainable agricultural practices. There’s a lot of amazing technology to reduce agricultural impact on the environment that doesn’t get adopted because growers can’t afford to take on that cost unless someone’s willing to pay them.
Because synthetic pesticides aren’t used, there’s a definite reduction in potentially harmful pesticide exposures for farmers and farmworkers, who are typically exposed to large quantities of pesticides.
Organic production practices around pest management tend to be less damaging to the soil than conventional practices. We actively put carbon back into the soil and practice crop rotations — typically at a greater frequency than conventional growers — which promotes healthier soil, which does not leach as many pollutants into the watershed.
How can students contribute to and learn from the organic industry at Cal Poly? Why is this new research center on campus important?
This is a rapidly growing sector and the industry is screaming for talent. They need hardworking, well-trained people who are passionate, and there are real opportunities in terms of post-graduate employment.
We’re just getting started, but we’re going to be providing really good job training and networking opportunities for students who are interested in careers in this sector. I encourage students to reach out to me if they’re interested in organic agricultural projects, summer projects and research experiences.
I find agriculture in general fascinating and fun. What I love about organic production systems is there are always really interesting problems to solve.
Want to support Learn by Doing at the Grimm Family Center for Organic Production and Research? Make a gift now at giving.calpoly.edu.