Dr. Universe,

What are some of the challenges of growing organic food?

– Sabrina, 11, Scarsdale, N.Y.

There are all kinds of different things to think about, along with a few challenges, when it comes to growing organic food.

My friend, Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, is a soil scientist at Washington State University who works with many different farmers and knows a lot about what it takes to produce food that is organic.

First, she told me about seeds. Whether you want to grow a pepper plant, a flower or any other crop, when people grow organic food, it all starts with organic seeds.

Once you have your organic seeds, you’ll want to put them in some healthy soil. People who grow organic food must keep track of everything they put into the soil.

“They can use anything that’s considered natural, unless it hurts people or the environment,” Carpenter-Boggs said.

The seeds will grow up into a small plant called a seedling, and their roots will grow deeper down into the soil. When the leaves start to form on the plants, that’s often when insects will show up. They like to chew on plant leaves or lay their eggs in the plants. That can sometimes make the plants sick.

One challenge for growers is that they have to find ways to manage the insects and keep the insects from causing damage to the plants. They can’t use most products made by humans to kill the insects.

But one thing they can do is bring other insects that like to eat those pesky pest insects into the field or garden. We can actually find lots of beneficial insects on farms — from pollinators to the pest-eaters.

It’s also important for people growing organic foods to pick just the right varieties of plants for their farm. The plants need to be able to grow well in a particular climate or environment. Those are just a couple examples of the challenges farmers sometimes face, but Carpenter-Boggs said there are actually about 90 pages of rules that people who grow organic food must follow.

“Every year, the growers have to prove they’re following the rules,” she adds. “They keep track of everything they do, everything they buy, everything they feed to their animals, every fertilizer, anything that they put into the soil and even the seeds that they buy.”

As people grow organic food, they often learn how all of these different elements on the farm work as a whole system. They may also try out different techniques they learn about through research to help grow better fruits and veggies. That’s good news for all of us who like to eat dinner.

While farmers and farm workers may face challenges, they work hard knowing they’re bringing food to people who need it. Who knows, maybe one day you will help us learn more about growing organic food and maybe you’ll even have an organic farm of your own.

What does ‘organic’ mean?

Here’s a definition from the United States Department of Agriculture: “USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible. Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest.”


Have a science question? Ask Dr. Wendy Sue Universe, WSU’s resident science cat and writer, by email at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu, on her website at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu, via Twitter at @AskDrUniverse or at facebook.com/AskDrUniverse.

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