Organic Farming is Worse for Climate Change? Not So, Says The Organic Center

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A new study published in Nature Communications came to the conclusion that organic farming is worse for the planet than conventional—a “misguided” conclusion that The Organic Center says uses “the same tired fallacies” as previous studies.

An article in MIT Technology Review titled “Sorry—Organic Farming is Actually Worse for Climate Change” sums up the study: “Organic practices…require more land to produce the same amount of food. Clearing additional grasslands or forests to grow enough food to make up for that difference would release far more greenhouse gas than the practices initially reduce.”

The researchers determined that if all of England and Wales shifted entirely to organic, it would slash yields by around 40%. If half the land used to bridge that gap was converted from grasslands, it would boost overall greenhouse gas emissions by 21%. The researchers also came to the conclusion that organic livestock takes longer to plump up, given that they’d be growing without hormones, supplements, or conventional feed, meaning that—for instance—cattle would have longer lives in which to create methane.

The Organic Center’s response? First of all, “the researchers concluded that transitioning to organic would reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per ton of crops by about 20%.” Production and transportation of fossil fuel-based fertilizers and synthetic pesticides is a major energy use: “The manufacture of synthetic fertilizers alone comprises as much as 10% of global agricultural emissions.

Speaking to the fear that food production would drop, The Organic Center says “What the authors overlook entirely is the ability to fill that production by reducing food waste. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that around a third of all food produced gets lost or goes to waste…which means that the drop in productivity could be addressed by reducing waste and loss rather than increasing extranational production.”

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But wait, there’s more! Noting that conventional farming has led to extensive loss of critical grasslands and forests—the Amazon was burned to grow conventional soybeans and raise conventional cattle—The Organic Cente points out that in April 2018, NOSB passed a recommendation on “Eliminating the Incentive to Convert Native Ecosystems to Organic Production,” preventing land that supports native ecosystems from being certified for organic production for a period of 10 years from the date of land use change to agriculture.

The Organic Center also points out that, rather than comparing organic to conventional yields, a more constructive approach would be to look at methods for supporting yield increase in organic production. “Organic yields have been increasing over the past decade, despite a dearth in funding for organic research (for example, 95% of current crop varieties have been developed for high-input conventional management, and may not be well suited for organic systems)…According to a study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, research supporting organic practices could further decrease or even eliminate yield gaps entirely through the use of best management practices and further research…several studies have found that best management practices can result in yields comparable to conventional.”

Related: 2019 U.S. Organic Acreage Shows Major Gains
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And to drive the point home: There’s little sense in citing world hunger as a reason to stick to conventional farming. In WholeFoods’ September feature on Regenerative Agriculture, Brian Zapp, Creative Director at Applied Food Sciences, told Editor-in-Chief Maggie Jaqua that “At the current rate of soil degradation, it will take less than 50 years to no longer have enough suitable soil to grow the crops needed for humans to feed themselves.” Sticking with conventional is, in other words, a remarkably short-term solution to world hunger.

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