Is Organic Food Worse for the Environment?
Most of us know there are many health benefits to eating organic food. But is the farming practice all that healthy for the environment? A new study suggests organic food might have some serious consequences for the environment when compared to conventionally produced food. Here’s what it found.
STUDY: ORGANIC FARMING COMES WITH A ‘CARBON OPPORTUNITY COST’
Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have found organic food has a greater impact than conventionally farmed food on the environment because it requires more land use. And this results in higher carbon dioxide emissions. In organic farming, yields are typically lower for the same area of land, primarily because the farmers don’t use potent synthetic chemicals to promote growth, according to a news release on the study.
“The greater land-use in organic farming leads indirectly to higher carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to deforestation,” researcher Stefan Wirsenius says in the news release. “The world’s food production is governed by international trade, so how we farm in Sweden influences deforestation in the tropics. If we use more land for the same amount of food, we contribute indirectly to bigger deforestation elsewhere in the world.”
For instance, the researchers cite organic peas farmed in Sweden as having a 50 percent higher impact on the climate than conventionally farmed peas because of lower yields per hectare. Organic meat and dairy products also contribute to higher emissions, as they use organic feed.
The study applied a new metric — the “carbon opportunity cost” — to evaluate the impact of land use on carbon dioxide emissions. “This metric takes into account the amount of carbon that is stored in forests, and thus released as carbon dioxide as an effect of deforestation,” according to the news release. The researchers note that previous comparisons between organic and conventionally farmed food didn’t often take this impact into account, likely because scientists didn’t have an appropriate measurement like the carbon opportunity cost.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS?
While organic farming does typically take more land to produce the same yields as conventional farming, there’s much more to the story of how it influences the environment. And it’s certainly not all bad news.
Organic farming practices have the potential to improve the environment over the long term. “It aims to produce food while establishing an ecological balance to prevent soil fertility or pest problems,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “Organic agriculture takes a proactive approach as opposed to treating problems after they emerge.”
For example, organic farming involves practices — “such as crop rotations, inter-cropping, symbiotic associations, cover crops, organic fertilizers and minimum tillage” — that help to improve soil and support flora and fauna, the FAO says. These practices enhance nutrients in the soil, subsequently boosting crop yields, as well as improving biodiversity in the environment. Plus, organic agriculture works to decrease water pollution by avoiding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. And, of course, this leads to many beneficial health effects for humans, as well.
Furthermore, many organic agricultural practices actually work to return carbon to the soil, which helps to combat climate change, according to the FAO. Plus, it reduces nonrenewable energy use by avoiding chemicals produced with high levels of fossil fuels. Still, even with its environmental benefits, more research and innovations must occur before organic farming can efficiently feed the global population without causing substantial damage through deforestation.
SO WHAT’S A CONSUMER TO DO?
The question becomes: Which type of agriculture should we support as consumers? And the answer might have more to do with which foods you eat.
One study created 500 hypothetical scenarios for feeding the world population in 2050 with the farmland we already have now (i.e., no further deforestation). It found that lower-yield organic farming could work for the world if more people adopted plant-based diets. If everyone went vegan, the study found our existing farmland would be adequate 100 percent of the time. And 94 percent of the vegetarian scenarios were a success, as well. But only 39 percent of the scenarios were successful when everyone adopted a completely organic diet (including people who consumed meat and dairy), and just 15 percent worked when everyone ate a Western-style, meat-based diet.
The researchers from the carbon opportunity cost study also alluded to food choices as being more important than weighing the climate impact of organic versus conventional. “Replacing beef and lamb, as well as hard cheeses, with vegetable proteins such as beans, has the biggest effect,” according to the news release. Moreover, if you’re a meat- or dairy-eater, organic farming often has higher animal welfare standards (though not always), which is a concern for many people.
Still, it’s not realistic to expect the entire world to go vegan. But what we can do now is aim to purchase our food from producers that are working to better the environment. And for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, that still means buying organic. “By opting for organic products, the consumer through his/her purchasing power promotes a less polluting agricultural system,” the FAO says. Organic farming might need to adapt some of its practices to improve yields, but its benefits for the environment are too great to ignore.