Much of the tomatoes, peppers and basil sold in the U.S. at this time of year hail from Mexico, where their farming can stress water supplies and create CO2 emissions from long transportation chains, according to a New York Times report.
According to the paper, the Baja Peninsula has become the center of a booming organic export sector in Mexico, as farmers meet U.S. demand for inexpensive, organic tomatoes during winter months. The area supplies retailers including Trader Joe’s and Fairway.
But some wells have run dry this year, preventing subsistence farmers from growing crops, and the Mexican water authority has classed over a third of aquifers in southern Baja as overexploited.
Mexico’s organic tomatoes are shipped as far as Dubai, and farms in Chile and Argentina are also growing organic food for export to the U.S. during winter.
Frederick L. Kirschenmann at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University said some large organic farms also have been planting only one crop, which has a negative impact on soil health.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic label was originally intended to not only prohibit synthetic fertilizers and pesticides but to protect soil health and water levels. But the label has few specific requirements for soil and water.
Some organic standards are beginning to look beyond pesticides, fertilizers and hormones. Swedish certification program Krav requires that greenhouses use at least 80 percent renewable energy. Last year the USDA started requiring that cows graze in the open at least part of the time, for their milk to receive organic certification.
Last month research by the University of Victoria found that organic eco-labels for seafood are often better indicators of a product’s green credentials than industry eco-labels or those assigned by retailers such as Whole Foods or Marks & Spencer.
As organic production generally results in less use and discharge of chemicals and usually has stronger restrictions on waste management than non-organic fish farming, such seafood benefits from a green knock-on effect that may not have been the principle aim, the report said. It described the U.S. National Organic Standard as the greenest seafood eco-label of all.