Organic Farming May Leave a Larger Carbon Footprint than You Think

updated May 30, 2019
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When you consume organic food, there’s that feeling that you’ve done something good — for your body and for the environment. But organic foods are not what they seem. They offer consumers the promise of synthetic pesticide-free produce and are perceived to be healthier — studies have found conflicting findings about their nutritional superiority — but their environmental impact is being challenged, as it may be doing more harm than good.

If consuming organic fare and doing right by the environment is a top priority on your list, then the findings from a team of researchers from Germany and Sweden have some unfortunate news.

Organic Farming Is Not Always Best for the Environment

The researchers from Sweden and Germany found that organic farms use 40 percent more land than conventional farms. This finding is consistent with previous research and ties in with studies that found that organic farms deliver less produce as well. For instance, a 2012 meta-analysis published in the journal Nature uncovered organic farming yields 25 percent less crops than traditional agriculture.

Farming, in general, plays a role in habitat loss for species, modifies the natural ecosystem, and results in soil erosion and degradation. Using more land, coupled with delivering less crops, means organic farming is less efficient than traditional farming.

The research also indicated that those who stuck to non-organic diets ate 45 percent more meat than those who adhered to an organic diet. This fact alone would make one think that organic diets are better for the environment. But organic farms for pork and poultry have larger carbon footprints than their non-organic counterparts. This factor is what makes the carbon footprints of organic and conventional diets neck-in-neck.

Organic Farming and Your Carbon Footprint

And when it comes to carbon footprints, both traditional farms and organic ones are roughly the same. Sound counterintuitive? Rightfully so.

In part because “organic” brings forth an environmental halo effect that makes one think what’s good for your body has also got to be good for the environment. But there’s also some research to support this mindset: a 2015 study by the Rodale Institute found that organic farms emit lower levels of greenhouse gas than conventional farms.

Is Organic Farming Bad?

Not quite. Ultimately, the jury is still out. The Washington Post reports that organic farming does have some perks: they have more fertile soil, use less fertilizer, use less herbicide, use less energy, and keep more carbon in soil (which keeps carbon away from the atmosphere where it can contribute to climate change). But conventional farms are better at reducing erosion.

And according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, organic farming protects biodiversity and tackles water pollution in regions where pesticides filter in.

The takeaway here is not that organic consumers are destroyers of the environment or that consumers should eat non-organic food. Instead, knowing how organic farming impacts the environment can better inform the average consumer, who can pick and choose what they eat and maybe even dabble in gardening at home. And for businesses it’s an opportunity to innovate to create organic farming methods with lower carbon footprints.