When you buy organic food, you’re also helping protect the planet from environmental harm, right?
Let’s peel the onion and find out.
Growers of organic food do not use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. They must follow the federal government’s strict rules to get certified.
Yet large agrochemical companies and seed producers argue that they are advancing global food security by selling products that help conventional farmers maximize resource allocation and improve output and productivity. Organic farmers, by contrast, claim their practices promote environmental sustainability by increasing biodiversity and reducing energy use that would otherwise contribute to climate change.
For eco-conscious consumers wandering (or rushing) through the supermarket trying to decide if an organic item leaves a smaller carbon footprint, the answer isn’t simple.
“It’s not black and white,” said Rachel Schattman, an assistant professor at the University of Maine School of Food and Agriculture in Orono, Maine. “There’s a lot of gray. Many organic farmers have sustainable farming as a core value. There are also nonorganic farmers who are fantastic environmental stewards.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program develops the rules to certify organic products. The regulations include production, handling, labeling and enforcement. Environmental sustainability is a byproduct of the standards, but it’s not the prime focus.
“Positive environmental outcomes are expected based on what is in the standards, but their enforcement does not guarantee specific environmental outcomes,” said David Granatstein, a retired professor of sustainable agriculture at Washington State University in Wenatchee, Wash.
In August 2019, Erik Fyrwald, chief executive of global pesticide and seed company Syngenta, told The Wall Street Journal that organic farming’s favorable reputation is undeserved. He said that “pesticides are used, the yields are much lower, you need more land and the emissions are higher” with organic production.
Yes, organic farmers are allowed to use pesticides. But they’re typically applied as a last resort (after other pest prevention steps fail) and must come from natural sources. Examples include copper-based materials and naturally occurring bacteria and chemical extracts such as pyrethrum (derived from a plant).
“Although some plant-based pesticides like pyrethrum have some toxicity, organic farmers tend to use less of them and they’re much less toxic than synthetic pesticides used in conventional farming,” said Raoul Adamchak, farm manager at UC Davis Student Farm in Davis, Calif. “But it’s hard to generalize. There are pesticides used in conventional farming that are low in toxicity as well.”
He adds that organic systems “have a more integrated approach to pest control” that involves more crop diversity and crop rotation that keeps bugs away.
It’s also true that organic crop yields are generally lower than conventional yields and often require more land. But a closer examination exposes shadings of complexity.
In examining costs and benefits tied to land use, proponents of organic farming often focus on the big picture. They may acknowledge lower yields but point out that conventional farming relies on environmentally harmful synthetic pesticides to attain a better bounty.
Time frame counts as well. Some researchers claim that over decades, the difference in yield narrows between organic and conventional crops largely due to organic farmers’ efforts to build and maintain soil health to maximize water penetration and moisture retention (especially vital in drought years).
Even if growers need more acreage to farm organically, it may be premature to raise alarm bells that they’re disproportionately harming the environment by gobbling up too much land.
“I don’t think organic agriculture is going to take over the scene and drive conventional agriculture out of business,” Adamchak said. “In the United States, roughly 98.5% of farmland is farmed conventionally.”
Does organic farming produce more carbon-dioxide emissions than conventional agriculture? That’s a topic up for debate, although both sides largely agree there’s a linkage between land use and emissions.
Agriculture and related land-use change generate about 25% of annual greenhouse gas emissions globally, according to the World Resources Institute. (Land-use change involves clearing vegetation used to store carbon dioxide. Amazon rainforest fires are set in part to clear land for farming.)
“Overall, organic has a lower carbon footprint,” said Sonja Brodt, deputy director at the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. “With conventional farming, the main culprit is natural gas, a feedstock for making synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. That generates a lot of emissions. Organic farming uses nonsynthetic nitrogen generated from organic materials like animal manure and crop residues.”
Looking ahead, expect regenerative organic agriculture to gain traction, which refers to “working with nature to utilize photosynthesis and healthy soil microbiology to draw down greenhouse gases,” according to Rodale Institute. Its goal is to sequester more carbon from the atmosphere, thus reducing emissions and potentially reversing climate change.
“Soil science is an exciting field right now,” said Urvashi Rangan, co-chair of the Funders for Regenerative Agriculture. “As we learn new ways to be efficient stewards of the land, we don’t have crutches to lean on like environmentally damaging synthetic inputs. We keep improving our climate impact over time.”