Organically farmed food has greater climate impact than farmed food

Organically farmed food has greater climate impact than farmed food
© iStock/Foxys_forest_manufacture

Researchers have found that organically farmed food has a bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed food, due to the greater areas of land required.

A new method has been discovered for assessing the climate impact from land-use, and researchers have used this, along with other methods, to compare organically farmed food and conventional food production. The results showing the greater detrimental effects organic food has in contributing to emissions.

The climate impact of organically farmed foods

Stefan Wirsenius, an associate professor from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, and one of those responsible for the study explains: “Our study shows that organic peas, farmed in Sweden, have around a 50% bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed peas. For some foodstuffs, there is an even bigger difference – for example, with organic Swedish winter wheat the difference is closer to 70 percent.”

Yields per hectare for organically farmed food is much lower, primarily because fertilisers are not used, therefore, to produce the same amount of organic food, much bigger area of land is required.

The ground-breaking aspect of the new study is the conclusion that this difference in land usage results in organic food causing a much larger climate impact.

How does it have greater climate impact?

“The greater land-use in organic farming leads indirectly to higher carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to deforestation,” explains Wirsenius. “The world’s food production is governed by international trade, so how we farm in Sweden influences deforestation in the tropics. If we use more land for the same amount of food, we contribute indirectly to bigger deforestation elsewhere in the world.”

Wirsenius also claims that even organic meat and dairy products are – from a climate point of view – worse than their conventionally produced equivalents.

“Because organic meat and milk production uses organic feed-stock, it also requires more land than conventional production.

“This means that the findings on organic wheat and peas in principle also apply to meat and milk products. We have not done any specific calculations on meat and milk, however, and have no concrete examples of this in the article.”

Do we really want to increase the consumption of organically farmed food?

“The fact that more land use leads to greater climate impact has not often been taken into account in earlier comparisons between organic and conventional food,” explains Wirsenius.

“This is a big oversight, because, as our study shows, this effect can be many times bigger than the greenhouse gas effects, which are normally included. It is also serious because today in Sweden, we have politicians whose goal is to increase production of organic food.

“If that goal is implemented, the climate influence from Swedish food production will probably increase a lot.”

Don’t give up on organically farmed food

Wirsenius notes that the research does not mean that conscientious consumers should simply switch to buying non-organic food, he explains: “The type of food is often much more important. For example, eating organic beans or organic chicken is much better for the climate than to eat conventionally produced beef.”

“Organic food does have several advantages compared with food produced by conventional methods, for example, it is better for farm animal welfare. But when it comes to the climate impact, our study shows that organic food is a much worse alternative, in general.”

For consumers who want to contribute to the positive aspects of the production of organically farmed food, without increasing their climate impact, an effective way is to focus on the diverse impacts of different types of meat and vegetables in their diet. To improve environmental health, replacing beef and lamb, as well as hard cheeses, with vegetable proteins such as beans, has the biggest effect. Moreover, pork, chicken, fish and eggs also have a substantially lower climate impact than beef and lamb.

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