Organic farming uses fewer pesticides and fertiliser, but it also requires more land. So is organic farming better for the climate or not? What role does it play in a sustainable diet?
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Main learning: organic food can lower your footprint
Goal: buy organic bread, pasta, apples, bananas
Impact: medium 🌍🌎🌏⚪️⚪️
There are many reasons to choose organic products, from health to animal welfare. But one of the more complicated issues is whether it’s better for the climate.
Some people say that you should buy as much organic food as possible because it takes better care of nature while there are also articles that conclude that buying organic food is actually worse for the environment because it uses resources less efficiently.
So what should you do if you want to eat more sustainably?
Before we start, let’s define what we’re talking about. Industrial farming focusses on maximizing output by using external resources, like pesticides and fertiliser. Organic agriculture is not just about avoiding synthetic resources but also about principles like managing the ecosystem with rotations and caring for the soil and animals. The EU logo for organic food can only be used when 95% of the ingredients are organic and all ingredients follow the other strict guidelines such as that animals cannot be kept in a cage.
The environmental impact of organic agriculture
I’m a big fan of Our World in Data and they also wrote a detailed post about this topic. With the help of a meta-analysis, they look at the various impacts of agriculture, from greenhouse gasses, land and energy use to water pollution (for the nerds: eutrophication and acidification).
When taking all these factors into consideration, they come to the conclusion that organic agriculture is worse for the environment.
But the study they use for this analysis did not look at two important aspects of organic agriculture: biodiversity and carbon sequestration (CO2 uptake in the soil), which are both difficult to measure in numbers.
One of the huge problems of our food system is the loss of biodiversity. One study calculated that over the last 30 years in Germany the number of flying insects decreased by 75%. Although it’s always hard to prove everything, industrial agriculture with its pesticides and intensive land use is a major cause of this. Without insects we will lose nature’s free services like pollination until at some point, the entire food system will collapse.
Carbon sequestration is about soil, and it’s another aspect where organic agriculture scores better. One teaspoon of healthy soil contains billions of organisms that recycle dead material into nutrients. And just like a tree, healthy soil can absorb lots of CO2.
Since there are so many factors that are hard to measure, comparing the impact of organic and industrial agriculture is complicated. But there is one thing that every comparison concludes: organic farming requires more land for the same amount of food, so it’s an issue that we have to focus on.
Imagine two carrot farms that have the same size but one is organic and the other one is not. The CO2 footprint of the organic farm would be lower because they use less chemicals and can store more CO2 in the soil. But the conventional farm would produce more carrots. So the CO2 footprint per carrot is higher on the organic farm.
Which farm do you think is better? If you think we have too little space to feed a growing world population, it makes sense to get as much food from a hectare of land as possible.
On the other hand, we also have to think about soil erosion. Conventional agriculture is destroying 30 football fields of fertile land per minute. If we continue at this rate, we only have 60 years of farming left. So it’s not just about the amount of land we use, but also about the quality of that land. Conventional agriculture has much higher yields but we are ‘borrowing’ these high yields from the future.
As you can see, the discussion about organic farming and land use is complicated. But talking about land use only makes sense if we consider meat and dairy consumption.
Meat & Dairy
The conclusion that organic farming is worse for the climate because it requires more land assumes that we are converting all of the current food system to organic farming, including our current levels of meat and dairy consumption. In that scenario organic agriculture is definitely worse because you would need even more land to produce all the feed for animals.
But animal agriculture uses 77% of all agricultural land (including grasslands). So a discussion about land use must include a discussion about meat and dairy. While organic agriculture requires around 1,5 times more land than industrial agriculture, beef requires 4 to 30 times more land than nuts, lentils and beans.
And let’s not forget that we already produce food for 10 billion people and one third of it is wasted. So if we reduce meat and dairy production as well as food waste, it frees up a lot more land that we can use for more sustainable forms of agriculture.
The real question is not about shifting our current food system to organic production, but about whether organic farming can help us to create a more sustainable food system. In other words: first we have to eat less meat (and dairy), and then decide whether organic farming can play a role in the mix of solutions.
The future of farming
The discussion about organic food is also a discussion about the future of farming. Proponents of organic farming aim for a holistic approach, where we farm on a smaller scale in harmony with nature.
The other side is industrial farming. It argues that we can intensify production with new technologies, farming huge monocultures as efficiently as possible. In theory this can save land that we can then give back to nature.
So the question is whether we want to create lots of damage on a smaller piece of land, or spread less damage over a larger area.
I don’t like industrial farming because it puts our food production in the hands of a few multi-billion dollar corporations who are more worried about profit than anything else. I also don’t like it because it misses the bigger picture: in order to solve the climate crisis we must relearn that being human means being part of an ecosystem. Industrial farming tries to turn food production into an efficient machine and separates us from nature.
The whole discussion of this point doesn’t fit into this blog post, but I think it’s important that you know my stance for the conclusion.
So tell me, should I buy organic food or not?
Project Drawdown – the book that calculated 100 climate solutions – doesn’t mention organic agriculture. But it does talk about regenerative and conservation agriculture, mixing forests with cows, and growing multiple types of crops next to each other. What all those solutions have in common is moving away from monocultures to increasing diversity and working together with natural solutions, instead of dictating what the land should do through technology. And that’s closer to organic than to industrial agriculture.
There is no way for us to see if something came from a regenerative farm but it’s easy to find the organic label. Of course this label isn’t perfect; there are some farmers who are doing great things but aren’t certified organically, and there are others who have the label but could be doing much more. But on average, organic farming is the easiest way to reward farmers for future-proof farming.
So how important it is it to buy organically? Overall, it seems impossible to put numbers on it. A Swiss paper using ecological points shows how organic food could decrease someone’s ecological food impact by 17%, a lot more than eating seasonally or local. A French study also showed that organic products decrease your carbon footprint but there is a twist: this was only true for people who ate less meat. So here again we arrive at the same conclusion: eat less meat first and then worry about other food issues.
On this blog we usually look at how we can decrease the carbon footprint of food, because that’s the environmental factor where consumer change is the most necessary. For organic food we have to make an exception because the benefits are not captured by looking at greenhouse gasses. That leaves us with a difficult decision of where to rank organic food on our compass. We decided to put it at medium-high, because an important aspect of transforming our food system is that consumers are willing to pay for more sustainable products.
Tips for what to buy
What’s the easiest way to start buying organic products that make the most significant difference? Here are some suggestions:
Apples and bananas
Both are some of the most heavily sprayed and most bought fruits. For fruits we can be sure that the impact of the organic ones is lower than the conventional ones. Also buying them organically is good for your own health but also for the health of the workers who would otherwise have to spray the fruit, especially in the case of bananas. Both organic options are also not much more expensive.
Bread and pasta
For the average Dutch person, bread and pasta make up the biggest category of what we eat in a day. The organic version is often not much more expensive so that means buying organic bread and pasta is an easy switch that makes a relatively big difference.
Organic farming is a complicated topic because of the various perspectives around land use. Some may think we cannot afford organic agriculture because it uses more space. But to this I say we cannot afford to treat our food system like a machine any longer.
We have to change our entire food system and buying organic food is a great investment in future-proof farming. If you’re eating less meat, organic food can lower your footprint and it shows farmers that people are willing to pay more for sustainable products.
If your budget allows for it, buying organic food is great. But don’t lose sight of the overall goal: moving away from a diet that’s full of meat and dairy.