Does organic farming contribute to climate change?

Which is better for the environment: organic or conventional farming? For consumers trying to make healthy food choices, this is an important question. A new international study reveals that organic farming actually contributes more to climate change than conventional farming. The study argues that since organic farming requires slightly more land for the same yield, organic systems lead to more deforestation, which in turn leads to more carbon dioxide emissions. But measuring the environmental impact is extremely complicated.

In 2010, Nadia El-Hage Scialabba and Maria Müller-Lindenlauf, from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), looked in depth at the climate impacts of organic farming. The FAO Codex Alimentarius Commission defines organic agriculture as follows:

a holistic production management system that avoids the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms, minimizes air, soil and water pollution and optimizes plant health and productivity interdependent communities of plants, animals and people.

Organic farming still uses fertilizers and pesticides, but not synthetic. And with regard to the climate, according to the FAO study, the question of fertilizers is essential.

Conventional agriculture relies on nitrogen fertilizers, produced by a process involving large amounts of ammonia and methane. Nitrogen fertilizers, in turn, release some degree of nitrous oxide, an extremely potent greenhouse gas, with a much higher warming potential per unit released than carbon.

Organic farms circumvent the need for chemical fertilizers by planting legumes. Organic farms also tend to store more carbon in the soil, slightly offsetting other greenhouse gas emissions, although as the FAO study notes, carbon storage is unlikely to be permanent. Additionally, organic farms can burn more fossil fuels through machinery when weeds are removed mechanically.

As for the suggestion that organic farming requires a bit more land for the same yield, that depends on the crop. Conventional dairy production, for example, produces significantly more milk per cow. But there is almost no difference in yield between organic rice and conventional rice. In some cases, the same crop may have different yields per area in the developing world compared to the developed world – organic yields are often higher in developing countries. Indeed, as the FAO report notes, some of the environmentally sound practices are difficult to scale up to industrial scale and work best on smaller scales.

On the other hand, grass-fed cattle require much more space than feedlots, which often leads to deforestation.

Many conscious consumers want a definitive answer as to whether conventional or organic farming is better, when in fact both have effects on the climate. There are also other concerns that enter into consumer choices, such as animal welfare. And, as Stefan Wirsenius, one of the authors of the international study, puts it, “the type of food is often much more important. Eating organic beans or organic chicken is much better for the climate than eating conventionally produced beef.


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By: Nadia El-Hage Scialabba and Maria Müller-Lindenlauf

Agriculture and Renewable Food Systems, vol. 25, n° 2, special issue: “Sustainable Agriculture Systems in a resource Limited Future” (June 2010), pp. 158-169

Cambridge University Press

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