Is Organic Food Really Better for the Environment?
When you walk into any farmers’ market, you’re greeted with signs that say “Certified Organic” in bold letters. Despite being far more expensive than its non-organic counterparts, organic agriculture has become the most popular type of alternative farming, not only in the United States but also globally.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), as of 2012, organic farming accounted for 3 percent of the total sales within the country’s food industry. Even in European countries like Finland, Austria, and Germany, governments have been busy implementing plans and policies that aim to dedicate 20 percent of land area to organic farming. In South Asia, Bhutan has ambitious plans of going 100 percent organic by 2020. Meanwhile, Sikkim, a state in north-eastern India had managed to go 100 percent organic in 2016.
The gradual shift towards organic farming has been mainly because we as consumers have become increasingly concerned about the health impacts of accidentally consuming pesticides and chemical fertilizers. During the 1990s, the USDA first standardized the meaning of the term “organic” — basically, farmers do not use any form of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides to grow their produce.
Organic farming is widely considered to be a far more sustainable alternative when it comes to food production. The lack of pesticides and wider variety of plants enhances biodiversity and results in better soil quality and reduced pollution from fertilizer or pesticide run-off.
Conventional farming has been heavily criticized for causing biodiversity loss, soil erosion, and increased water pollution due to the rampant usage of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. However, despite these glaring cons, scientists are concerned that organic farming has far lower yields as compared to conventional farming, and so requires more land to meet demand.
A polarized debate
Not surprisingly, the debate over organic versus conventional farming is heavily polarized in academic circles. Of late, the conversation about organic farming has shifted from its lack of chemicals to its impact on greenhouse gas emissions. In December 2018, researchers from Chalmers University of Technology published a study in the journal Nature that found that organic peas farmed in Sweden have a bigger climate impact (50 percent higher emissions) as compared to peas that were grown conventionally in the country.
“Organic farming has many advantages but it doesn’t solve all the environmental problems associated with producing food. There is a huge downside because of the extra land that is being used to grow organic crops,” said Stefan Wirsenius, an associate professor at Chalmers. “If we use more land for food, we have less land for carbon sequestration. The total greenhouse gas impact from organic farming is higher than conventional farming.”
Soon after the paper was published and widely covered by various news organizations globally, several researchers criticized the study. Andrew Smith, a chief scientist at the Rodale Institute, lashed out in a post saying that it was “irresponsible to extrapolate a global phenomenon based on two crops grown in one country over three years.”
Smith also added that more data should be included and analyzed before making conclusions. Commenting on this, Wirsenius said, “It is true that we had a small comparison between organic versus conventional farming based on Swedish statistics. This is because Sweden is one of the very few countries that has statistics that include the yields from organic and conventional crops.”
“It would have been better with bigger sample size and that is a valid concern,” he added.
It is estimated that by 2050, the demand for food is going to increase by 59 to 98 percent due to the ever-increasing global population. A major challenge for the agriculture business is not only trying to figure out how to feed a growing population, but also doing so while adapting to climate change and coming up with adequate mitigation measures.
Some scientists continue to be concerned that with limited land areas that will be available for farming, it might not be sustainable for industrialized countries to go 100 percent organic. A recent study published in the journal Nature Communications concludes that the widespread adoption of organic farming practices in England and Wales would lead to increases in greenhouse gas emissions. This is mainly because agricultural yields would be 40 percent lower.
The researchers argued that with fewer crops being grown locally, these two countries would have to import more food supplies. However, if England and Wales did not solely rely on organic farming, and both countries’ farmers used this alternative form of farming on a smaller scale, it could result in a 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions.
“For organic farming to be successful, agribusinesses would have to find the balance between the costs involved and also, its carbon footprint, while taking into consideration the overall need to meet the high demands for food,” said Alexander Ruane, a research physical scientist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and an adjunct associate research scientist at the Columbia University Center for Climate Systems Research. “That’s tough because the goal of organic farming in developed countries currently is about meeting the needs of those who can afford the luxury to buy the highest quality food. If the needs of this luxury interfere with the need to feed the entire population, then you have the potential for conflicts.”
The blurry line between “good” and “bad”
Making matters more complicated, some experts worry that the term “organic food” is not always properly regulated. As more large corporations get involved in organic markets, researchers claim that this shift to the mainstream has “led to the weakening of ecologically beneficial standards”. It may also limit organic farming’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
While researchers and the general public remain divided on whether organic farming is more sustainable than conventional farming, Sonali McDermid, an assistant professor at the department of environmental studies at New York University, says that it is very hard to generalize across any farming systems or label conventional or organic farming as “good” or “bad”. “They have very different manifestations, depending upon where you go,” she said.
“An apt example would be the case of a farm involved in the production of organic berries in Central Valley, California. While they are not using additional land area or chemical inputs like in conventional farming, they are using other really strong inputs like sulfur,” explained McDermid. “This can be harmful to farmworkers as they need to wear proper suits and protective gear even though it is not chemically synthetic. Despite that, it is just as powerful in some cases.”
McDermid is also concerned that some agribusinesses can farm uniformly without any biodiversity and still call themselves organic. Whereas in developing or emerging economies — for example in India — farmers tend to follow a far more traditional definition of organic farming.
“In India, organic farms grow lots of different crops at the same time. They grow plants that can naturally keep pests away and don’t use powerful inputs like sulfur. Instead, the farmers use plants and biodiversity to help regulate their cropping systems,” said McDermid.
Indian farmers who grow organic crops also make their fertilizers by filling a field with legumes that they grow in rotations. Once the legumes have fully grown, the farmers manually plow them into the ground. That results in larger quantities of nitrogen being pumped into the soil, as opposed to only using manure or even worse, synthetic fertilizers.
McDermid said that in some areas of the developing world, organic farming can actually boost yields over conventional farming because it doesn’t rely on so much water and chemical inputs. These practices also build soil fertility and lead to less pollution.
Experts maintain that in the heated debate over organic versus conventional farming, there needs to be more information available for consumers when it comes to labeling and even understanding the certification processes in industrialized countries like the U.S.
“A huge fraction, if not the majority of organic goods sold at supermarkets in the U.S. is probably industrial,” added McDermid. For now, in the developed world, the industrialization or commercialization of organic farming has resulted in a lot of difficulty for both consumers and researchers, who are trying to understand what the goals of this booming industry are.
To eat organic or not to eat organic
In the U.S., even sustainability experts continue to be unsure of whether food items like fruits and vegetables with the “certified organic” labels are in fact, genuinely organic or not. McDermid said that even she sometimes feels uncertain about what to buy in the supermarket.
That being said, both Wirsenius and McDermid agree that it is far more environmentally sustainable to eat organic chicken instead of beef that was produced conventionally. Yet, consuming large portions of organically produced meat will still have a bigger environmental impact than eating conventionally produced crops and fruits.
Taking into consideration the high costs involved in going 100 percent organic, especially when it comes to buying fruits and vegetables, McDermid said if you can afford to spend extra, she would recommend buying them.
It might also help to look for organic food that was grown locally. For instance, several community gardens grow organic vegetables that are sold in nearby farmers’ markets.
Keeping that in mind, there’s no need to feel guilty or under pressure to spend extra for organic produce. “I would never put that kind of pressure on anybody. It’s really unfortunate we’re in a situation where agribusinesses focus only on yields, which makes an alternative form of farming comparatively much more expensive,” sighed McDermid.
While the organic versus conventional farming debate rages on, there is one clear way to lower the environmental impact of your food, and it won’t hurt your wallet: reducing the amount of meat in your diet.