Environment

The inconvenient truth about the environmental impact of organic farming

The inconvenient truth about t...
New research suggests organic farming has a greater impact on carbon emissions and the climate than conventional farming methods
New research suggests organic farming has a greater impact on carbon emissions and the climate than conventional farming methods
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The climate impact from Swedish wheat and peas produced organically, compared with conventional farming methods
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The climate impact from Swedish wheat and peas produced organically, compared with conventional farming methods
Although direct emissions from organic agriculture are often lower – due to less use of fossil energy, among other things – the overall climate footprint is definitely greater than for conventional farmed foods
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Although direct emissions from organic agriculture are often lower – due to less use of fossil energy, among other things – the overall climate footprint is definitely greater than for conventional farmed foods
New research suggests organic farming has a greater impact on carbon emissions and the climate than conventional farming methods
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New research suggests organic farming has a greater impact on carbon emissions and the climate than conventional farming methods

A new international study into the impact of agricultural land use on climate change has found organic food production is worse for the climate than conventional farming, due to the fact that it needs greater areas of land to grow produce.

The new research developed a novel metric for calculating the carbon footprint of specific land use. Called a "carbon benefits index," this calculation measures the agricultural output of a given hectare of land in terms of volume of product and carbon dioxide emissions. Homing in on the differences between organic food production and conventional food production, the study concludes that due to organic farming's inefficient yields, it generally results in a greater environmental impact than conventional farming methods.

"The greater land-use in organic farming leads indirectly to higher carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to deforestation," explains Stefan Wirsenius, a Swedish researcher working on the study. "Our study shows that organic peas, farmed in Sweden, have around a 50 percent bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed peas. For some foodstuffs, there is an even bigger difference – for example, with organic Swedish winter wheat the difference is closer to 70 percent," says Wirsenius.

The climate impact from Swedish wheat and peas produced organically, compared with conventional farming methods
The climate impact from Swedish wheat and peas produced organically, compared with conventional farming methods

This isn't the first study to raise questions over the greater environmental cost of organic farming recently. As the world's population rapidly grows many scientists are trying to balance the increasing demand for food with better agricultural production methods. A large study published earlier this year called for more efficient "high-yield" farming to better make use of land already cleared for the purpose.

"Our results suggest that high-yield farming could be harnessed to meet the growing demand for food without destroying more of the natural world," says Andrew Balmford, lead author on this earlier study. "However, if we are to avert mass extinction it is vital that land-efficient agriculture is linked to more wilderness being spared the plough."

Although direct emissions from organic agriculture are often lower – due to less use of fossil energy, among other things – the overall climate footprint is definitely greater than for conventional farmed foods
Although direct emissions from organic agriculture are often lower – due to less use of fossil energy, among other things – the overall climate footprint is definitely greater than for conventional farmed foods

Of course trying to calculate the environmental impact of a person's individual diet is a little more complicated than simply suggesting they don't eat organic food. The biggest impact one can individually make is perhaps leaning towards a more plant-based diet.

"The type of food is often much more important. For example, eating organic beans or organic chicken is much better for the climate than to eat conventionally produced beef," says Wirsenius.

And organic meat production presents even more complicated considerations. It may be reasonable to assume organic grass-fed beef is better from an animal welfare perspective, but a 2017 study calculated grass-fed beef requires more land than grain-fed beef, while offering no decreases in comparable greenhouse gas emissions. All this means is that from a carbon emission perspective, conventional animal farming may be better for the environment than organic.

So where does this leave a person who is trying to live the most ethical, environmentally sensitive life possible? It is hard to say, but it is becoming increasingly clear that due to inefficient yields the world's food production could not sustain organic farming on a mass scale without clearing more land.

"Organic food does have several advantages compared with food produced by conventional methods," Wirsenius notes. "For example, it is better for farm animal welfare. But when it comes to the climate impact, our study shows that organic food is a much worse alternative, in general."

The new study was published in the journal Nature.

Source: Chalmers University of Technology

Update (Dec. 18, 2018): After receiving numerous comments questioning the funding of the research, we reached out to Stefan Wirsenius, one of the researchers responsible for the study, for clarification. He reiterated that the research "had no financial support or links to industries and economic interests linked to conventional farming."

49 comments
matthew4506
Does the study take into consideration the damage done to the ecosystem by fertiliser run off into streams and rivers. Many reports state that as the years pass by the yields of fertilised crops fall to levels below organically farmed produce anyway. Does it also take into consideration the decimation of insect biomass pesticides are causing? Or the cost to the general population caused by health problems linked to pesticides entering the food chain? Who paid for this study? Do they have a vested interest in the result? Just a few questions worth considering before concluding that organic is worse for the environment.
Heethaut
“Eat Monsanto products.. or die! good boy...!”
justas
I totally agree with matthew4506! First of all, if we want to save this world, curb the climate change, we have to start from ourselves. This planet is overpopulated, we have to start controlling births, stop thinking about humans as the best and only species and being greedy. This greed is destroying everything around us and ourselves. We think we have no limits but this planet doesn't belong to us, we belong to it!
Mark Mitchell
A plant heavy diet may be an excellent way to "save" the planet but it's also an excellent way to shorten your life, which also reduces the burden on the eco-sphere.
kristoferly
Mark, would you care to cite a source for your claim that a diet high in plant-based foods will reduce your lifespan?
Allaz Fabrice
I am very disappointed that new atlas will put such poor article, really any comment sense would know, for m2 concerning the growing population try permaculture, you will see that we have plenty of land available.Even for the freedom of speech some lies should be published.Did you know cigarettes use to be good for you ....
Abu Abboud
This is totally unbelievable! Does anyone really think you can concoct any bullshit, attach the words "research" or "new study" and it becomes reality??? The question is who paid for this study? Who benefits from the study? Why did that entity find an anti-organic farming study(agenda)? This "new study" asks far more questions than it answers (=a load of bullshit)!
DanW
This article does a bit of cherry picking of the paper to increase the click-bait factor and wind up anyone who actually thinks that it is important to consider just the carbon storage implications of farming. What the scientific paper does say is that meat from ruminants have 100 times the carbon impacts compared to plant based foods. So you can both save carbon and save the environment from the impacts of agri-chemicals by eating less - or no - meat. The paper also says "Organic systems might offer health and environmental benefits we could not investigate with our data set" so really looking at what farming system is better needs a broader perspective. The paper also assumed that organic farming would require the destruction of habitats that are already store high amounts of carbon. What about looking at the conversion of intensive farmland, which has low soil carbon (and more importantly erodes the soil resource), to organic farming with greater soil carbon and stable soils. The paper doesn't consider this option which skews the results. I would also question who funds such narrow minded research
WolfeSA
This is poor research! It excludes consideration of entire pesticides and herbicides value chains and the carbon impact of these. This is how coal gets rated as cheap, no full life cycle accounting is done. We cannot continue to farm intensively, the health and ecosystem costs outweigh the benefits. The world cannot eat a US diet. We would need another Earth to sustain that. Duh!
Fritz
Of course, a cow needs to eat more grass then soy beans. But at digestion it causes much less methane with grass. And so on and so forth... We are exposed to a war between food industry and organic farming. I really hope that more and more smart people step into organic farming because fintech and law are the most IT affected sectors to be replaced by more and more AI algorithms.