From the Series
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.
Organic spices are also gud for ur health nd environment also… because i m person using organic spices
Omg really that is very wrong organic food is has healthy I think you need to think it over
Edit GMO food is better for everything
Correct me if i’m wrong, but are you saying it’s good because you buy it?
if i’m right than are one of the side effects bad spelling?
you spelled the following words wrong, “gud”, “your”, “and”. the rest is just not english.
Yes is good but It is very expensive
Please consider both the Price and the Cost. The price is the few cents (the delta between commercial and organic produce) but the Cost is the enduring and cumulative dangerous effects on much of the life on this planet. Which includes our children and grand children.
Marty The best thing for our children and the environment is to have a lot less children. I’m one of the believers that organic farming, at least as it’s done in the west, will mean that more land will need to be converted to farm land just to feed millions of new mouths being born. Yes conventional farming can be bad for the environment but organic isn’t a long term solution, only less people is.
Kristin, though the population is growing and we need to consider that, we currently produce enough food globally to feed everyone despite not everyone having access to food. The solution is not about population control so much as it is about food access.
Conventionally there were no artifical poisons added to the soil. It should read traditional or chemical farming, that way there is no confusion when people choose thier food.
They can choose chemicaly altered , genetically modified or artifically manured, or traditional and unaltered.
yo, kristin, your a genius!!! i will start lowering it tomorrow this is a great idea!!!!!
Another example of misunderstanding. Organic will greatly more impact and hurt our future generations with greenhouse gases, loss of crops, and stripping soil of minerals leaving it less useful.
This is an old discussion. We must try to look @ things in a circular way. Which is the final outcome to buy regular food (so much cheaper), buying an hamburger @ McDonald (so tasty)…
A. If you are a young person, you are storing in your body-fat all the toxins that you are eating. They can increase the incidence of hormonal changes (with for ex. growth anomalies ) attention span problems, intestinal lining irritation, and a series of other correlated problems that make youth more susceptible to less healthy lives.
B. If you are a woman in reproductive age you are at risk of breastfeeding your baby a milk that’s less healthy, because for breastfeeding your body prepare itself to the task using all the fat that you have stored. So more toxins you have in your fat cells, more toxines you trasmit to your growing embrio/baby.
At the end: how much will it cost you to be a less healthy person/a-person-at -risk of many common patologies?
And what is preferable in the long run?
Just food for thought, and maybe we can start an honest and respectful discussion about it!
Very true. It’s like the problems with high processed foods / non-organic, much like heavy metals in water (lead, mercury, etc) – the high processed foods mixed in with lots of synthetic chemicals gives not only unhealthy lives / costly “health care” (health care that is often more part of profiteering system as more part of problem than true “health”) yet increased costs via increased mental problems / unhealthy brain etc. functioning that correlates strongly for societal maladies like increased incidence of violence and whatnot diseases, nevermind the huge and increasing ecological costs such as destabilized climate related ecology.
Be more specific what do you mean toxin. So many things can be called toxins it is such a vage term.
It is not good a large amount of this is lies/avoiding facts
What if we stop growing corn for ethanol and stop growing crops for China?
What a dumb question. Of course it is. Its the Glyphosate that is destroying people.
I would have preferred your answer w/o the ‘dumb’ part….
What leads you to that conclusion? IARC currently holds a minority viewpoint that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen. Both the US EPA and the European Environmental Agency came to the conclusion that it isn’t. The epidemiological data don’t indicate a relationship between glyphosate and cancer. Of course, it’s possible we just haven’t had sufficiently large study populations, since the cancers of interest are exceedingly rare, and research groups like mine are continuing to investigate the connection, but so far, a connection hasn’t emerged. Unfortunately, lawsuits like the one in the SF Bay Area that sided with the plaintiff skew public opinion, despite the lack of scientific evidence. I have no opinion on Monsanto or whoever else is producing glyphosate these days, it just irks me a little when people make claims that aren’t backed by data. Anyway, if there’s better literature that I’ve overlooked, please share! 🙂
Plus there are wide variety of ailments besides cancers that have largely increased (increased while we generally have been throwing trillions at non-prevention of ailments caused by “abundance of synthetics” / unhealthy practices). Not to diminish the costs and problems of cancerous results.
This didn’t age well
Please provide one scientific reference that will confirm your accusations.
I’ll die of old age waiting for this.
I would much rather wait for organic than have an abundance of synthetic
Very true, abundance of synthetic has not only messed with mindfulness, yet lots of populations are overweight and many in various cultures are throwing out 25 to 40% of foods.
What’s the difference between synthetic and organic fertilizers and pesticides?
Me too — but organic is here now!
Interesting points made in the article and challenges to organic farming methods. I think its not just important but, key and critical for us (specifically representing both science and higher education) to resist narrowing our view of food production on this planet to a comparatively fine slice view as this example held in a vacuum. I doubt any of the contributors to this effort would challenge the key role insect pollinators play in survival of most plant eating species on the planet, or the facts associated with the increasing threat on honey bee populations from non organic food production methods, though this was not mentioned at all in the article. Once the pollinators fail both methods; toxic chemical-based and organic food production will fail. That alone should be reason enough for solid science to adopt both scrutinizing examination and a healthy skepticism for methods chemically divergent from those found in our natural bio-system. When unbiased science and a logical comprehensive overview is applied in the absence of the pressure from greed-driven large corporations we’ll move toward solid life-supporting solutions
I don’t eat organic to help the planet. I eat organic to stay healthy.
Hi Jen, I think it’s equally as important of a health consideration to think of the environmental impacts; soil erosion, water pollution, greenhouse gases, are all going to impact our individual health. So it’s important to discuss the best way to farm for sustainable, AND healthy lives.
jen, why do you think organic makes you healthier? i mean no offence, i am genuinely curious.
It does both!
Thanks for breaking down this debate on both sides of the coin. When we talk about the increase of land needed for organic farming and the challenge of keeping up with growing demand for food production, I’d like to bring up the enormous issue of food waste. The amount of food wasted by U.S. farmers, retailers, and households each year is enough to solve the global hunger problem. I recognize this is a giant, systemic issue to solve, but we can start at the consumer level by being careful to use everything we buy.
Consumer practices and expectations around seasonality of produce should also be considered here. The agricultural system has developed in a way that caters to our demand to have most fruits and vegetables year-round (I have certainly been guilty of this). This leads to unnecessary mass production of crops and GHG emissions that could be avoided. Of course farmers markets help toward this cause, as they promote eating both local and seasonal produce. But farmers markets are only accessible to a sliver of society that can afford them. I’m interested to see how federal incentive programs for healthy food such as Market Match continue to develop.
All to say that going organic is just one piece of this complex puzzle, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are food deserts all over the U.S., where people can’t even access/afford fresh produce, and certainly don’t have the time or budget to be thinking about whether or not it’s organic.
Stop subsidies/subsidizing (lots of public funding legacies) unhealthy products
Great blog!….I’ve responded to it with: “Is organic food really better for the environment?” That was the title of a recent blog post recent blog by Anuradha Varanasi writing for Columbia University’s Earth Institute. This is a great question, and it refers to a study reported on in Nature in 2018 (See original article).
The full blog post is here: https://wp.wwu.edu/gigiberardi/2019/11/08/a-foodwise-moment-organics-carbon-climate-change-and-the-future-of-food/.
I’ll be reading more posts from you! Thanks for the insights!
Gigi Berardi (Huxley College of the Environment)
This is stupid. IF we don’t go 100% “organic” or natural and pure, we’re dead anyway. Maybe already too late, but let’s argue about it on way out.
Hi Sherry, I hear you, sometimes it feels like the “100% organic natural and pure” ideology is the only way out, but we should be diligent about how we are manifesting that ideology in the world and ask the question: “is it working?” because if it’s not then indeed we will be blindly arguing on our way out.
(Especially when the arguing continues to be heavily subsidized towards the unhealthy legacy that paying “experts” to argue has largely given US / and the world in general).
While ecological systems are complex it’s not rocket science, it’s pretty obvious what we as people are doing to harm ourselves and ecology in general
Yes!! We have to love our planet. Our planet provides everything we need to survive. It’s long overdue that we give back to her, if she dies, we surely will.
It’s amazing that the mountain of data that exists doesn’t influence more people on this subject. Organic production got its beginnings with an aim to protect the environment. What followed was a belief that the foods produced were better and/or healthier but there was little or no evidence to support this.
There are a number of myths regarding organics, a few of which are:
NO PESTICIDES ARE USED. This is false. Period. The NOP lists a chemical inventory of pesticides that are allowed in organic farming. It’s ironic that some of the most commonly used insecticides used in organic fruit and vegetable production are copper sulfates. These are less toxic than conventional insecticides, so farmers use more to control pests. To make matters worse, they don’t degrade in the soil which over the long term is terrible for the soil and the environment in general.
NATURAL CROP AMENDMENTS ARE BETTER THAN SYNTHETIC CHEMICALS. Again, not true. Arsenic, cyanide, and death are all natural but no one would argue that they are desirable. Nitrogen is the largest soil input for most crops and under organic principles, the source pretty much has to come from the south end of a northbound animal. News flash: plants can’t tell (or don’t care) if the nitrogen that it needs comes from poop or ammonium nitrate. The water table does however… Compost applications regularly leach into the water table because chemical release cannot be practically controlled like it can with synthetic applications. Then there’s the yuck factor… You get the idea.
ORGANIC FARMING IS MORE SUSTAINABLE THAN CONVENTIONAL FARMING. Another myth. Consider that crop yields of organic crops are about 35% lower than conventional crops (USDA data), so it follows that for every bushel of organic food produced, there is a 35% larger footprint; 35% more water is used; and more fertilizer, pesticides (yes, even for organic), and labor is used. The water table contamination issue mentioned above really comes into play here. There’s more, too. When pest pressures spike, many organic crops do not survive without conventional solutions.
There is more, much more but this is not about bashing organic production. To the contrary, the intent of organic production is good but the religious fervor behind it does not reflect reality. Consider some people’s idyllic goal of having the whole world go organic. Where does will the manure come from? The amount of water needed for the additional animals alone make this a moot point, not to mention the increased carbon release.
We should support organic food production and healthy lifestyles but it would be wise to move away from the cult mentality that has permeated the sector. Maybe then we can progress in a manner that can actually make a difference and become truly sustainable.
Hi Charles, nitrogen getting into the water table is unfortunately a big problem in conventional farming as well.
I agree that what we need to talk about is sustainable farming.
And or, the deadened soils are less resilient / eroding and often deficient in nutrients. Organic soils tend to more readily hold and provide necessary and clean water for growth.
Phosphorus is the 800 lbs gorilla in the room, not nitrogen.
This is the first logical comment I have read until now…
Agree with much of what you said…however, if yields are 35% lower, (65 bushels per acre vs 100 for example)…. it actually takes 53% more acres/water to make up for that shortfall. (153% of 65 = 100).
“Consider this” – people in general are averaging throwing out 25 to 40% of foods (they buy and or are given).
This in part due to the body does not appreciate unhealthy/ often nutritionally deficient/ overproccessed foods.
People are becoming (still? – hard to know with the many surgeries that affect weight) more overweight/obese and increasingly susceptible to a huge variety of illnesses related to food (and chemical) ingestions, including the facts of nutritional deficiencies often occurring with “conventional” practices (though the organic practices/ efforts have made some feel need to practice the chemical laden practices/over tilling and processed to death foods less, because most lower processed foods are healthier and because dead soil eventually leads to earlier death in /of people’s health.
The real sustainable farming is GMO
And is even more rates per land use than conventional
PS, well said Charles
Many changes observed in the environment are long term, occurring slowly over time. Organic agriculture considers the medium- and long-term effect of agricultural interventions on the agro-ecosystem. It aims to produce food while establishing an ecological balance to prevent soil fertility or pest problems. Organic agriculture takes a proactive approach as opposed to treating problems after they emerge.
I agree – organic food is often a fight between good and bad, but I guess when the good outnumbers the bad, you go with the good, right! I have been buying organic food from a place called The Organic World (https://theorganicworld.com/) and I have to say it tastes better and I have seen an improvement in health too.
OK I think u feel healthier because you feel better same with taste.
Firstly, a bunch of thanks for sharing such valuable information & research with us. Actually, i was doing some research about USDA report on organic agricultural industry & consumption. And i get landed over your article & it was too informative.
I thought the primary point of organic growing was saving the soil. We can see in the Middle East, the former fertile crescent, what happens when the soil is not cared for; the end of the civilization.
Yes!! This is what we need to worry about! Regenerative agriculture!
climate adapted approaches to plant breeding and organic farming are playing a revloutrainry role in crop production and high yield .
This article asks the wrong question. The question isn’t “organic v conventional” but rather how do we grow nutrient dense food? I have well over a decade of direct involvement in organic agriculture plus over 50 years of growing my own food. I founded and ran an organic fertilizer company, but that was back before I had the epiphany as it relates to the previous “wrong” question. At the end of the day plants don’t care where their nutrients come from or whether the nitrogen comes out of a bag or from manure. Frankly, manure from conventional meat production is just a means to recapture some of the nutrients used to grow the feed the animals ate.
What is more important than the source of the major nutrients (N,P,K) but rather all the other secondary, trace and micro nutrients plants need to produce nutrient dense, healthy produce and grazing land. Nutrient dense grasslands produce healthy animals that are naturally free from disease.
And the best place to store carbon is in the soil we are grazing our animals on. Why don’t we adopt what some other countries are doing, by grazing animals for several years on land and then convert it back to tillage land? You break the parasite cycle so animals are healthier and while they are grazing the grass is sequestering carbon in the soil.
We don’t live in a binary world so why do we think that all questions are either/or?
if u want to have your own organic farm in Sudan i can help you with that ?
Thank you for this piece of information. As a small scale farmerfarmer in Kenya rural home, doing organic farming it isreally a challenge
This article is lacking depth / too much focus on the shallowness often seen by “experts,” an often seen problem / result in quite a few universities. Doesn’t deeply consider the many benefits (of organic potentials) nor the many long run costs that biocides and “conventional” practices of farming have. Yet the passage about mcdermid’s input touches on the many obvious and hidden costs of biocides / “conventional”practices. Getting rid of large farm subsidies’ public funding of synthetic chemicals’ legacy (and practices that have diminished land biodiversity) as well as boosting low income people’s spending on low processed and regenerative organic foods will heal what the genuine of “the organic movement /efforts” have been put at extremely unfair market disadvantage by practices that governments/corporate food processors/CAFO operators that have long generally pushed unhealthy practices/products with much subsidy of various unhealthy sorts.
Weakening of the standards / weak certifiers of organics is a major concern / problem the (true) organic efforts by some continue to face. This alongside legacy of highly subsidized food production for nearly 100 years makes decent legitimate efforts have to compete with toxic efforts of (the still too) many – it’s incredible how much the people of truly organic efforts have overcome when faced with negatives of both corporate agra / many governments’ predecessors.
On my second read this “weakening of standards” stood out – very good article.
One of the things to consider is GMO. Since they use a protein that is harmless to humans but deadly to bugs. Also they can even take a ton of carbon from the air to reverse climate change. Another thing is they can be bigger and more nutritious. So if anything GMO is better for you and the environment. So if you see something that says GMO. Buy it because it is most likely better for every living thing!
If you want to msg me you can reply I would like to see reasons for non-GMO I want to see a good reason although most people who r anti-GMO do not make good arguments. so please do
Whoever wrote this article is completely clueless as to how organic farming actually works.
Certified organic doesn’t mean pesticide free, organic crops get sprayed with non synthetic pesticides approximately 5X times as often as conventional.
Organic crops get fertilized predominantly with with animal waste and slaughterhouse byproducts. The runoff into the waterways is harmful to the environment.
Organic crops have to be cultivated regularly causing erosion problems.
i am very worried about the carbon footprint being placed on this world, chemical farming is not sustainable for the environment and this form of sustainable farming is refreshing for the environment
actually I like conventional food because it’s cheaper and studies have shown that organic and conventional farming is the same risk of hurting the environment.