Is organic better for the earth?
Bite-sized sci is about everyday science and what science is more everyday that the science of food? We’ve talked about GMOs a little, now it’s time to unpack a huge debate about the food industry. Which form of farming – organic, or conventional farming – is better for the environment?
To understand this, you need to understand the terms first. Organic food is food that is grown without synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, and GMOs. Organic livestock is livestock that has been fed on organically grown crops. Conventional or industrial agriculture refers to farming that does make use of synthetic inputs like synthetic fertiliser, pesticides, and GMOs.
A misconception about organic farming is that it doesn’t use chemicals at all. That’s not true. A lot of organic farming entails the use of chemicals, just not synthetic ones.
When agriculture already has such a huge impact on the environment, it's important and noble to want to make environmentally sound choices wherever possible.
The folks over at Our World in Data compared 164 lifecycle analyses (the production line of food up until it leaves the farm) of the two farming techniques. Here’s what they found. Now, the environmental impact per food type may be variable, but overall this was the tone.
Conventional farming has changed so much over the last century. The advent of pesticides and fertilisers have ultimately increased yields. For this reason, to get the same yield, organic systems must use more land.
You may ask “but how much more land?” The truth is, 50% of the world’s habitable terrain is already used for farming. The rest of it is urban land, freshwater (lakes, rivers etc), forests and shrubland.
We're running out of land to use for agriculture, and choosing to feed the world with organic farming will require a lot of deforestation and will result in huge greenhouse gas emissions. Graph by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser from Our World in Data.
It’s projected that with the current rate of population growth we’ve almost reached peak capacity when it comes to space for farming. We simply don't have the land to accommodate organic farming.
We are currently effectively using the whole of the Americas and far east Asia for farming. Graph by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser from Our World in Data.
When it comes to energy use, organic farming comes out more efficient, except for vegetables.
The production of the synthetic fertiliser and pesticides used in conventional farming methods is very energy intensive. But it turns out organic vegetables require a lot of energy to get to our tables because of propane-fuelled flame weeding, an alternative to conventional pesticides.
Photo by Michal Pech on Unsplash.
Acidification and eutrophication
Acidification and eutrophication happen when nutrients and chemicals used in farming run off into water systems. Acidification is when these chemicals and nutrients affect the pH of these water systems, causing knock-on effects in the ecosystem.
Eutrophication happens when nutrients enter aquatic ecosystems, causing algal bloom, which is what happens when algae in the ecosystem grows so much because of the abundance of nutrients that it chokes the rest of the system.
Eutrophication can worsen the effects of invasive water weeds like this water hyacinth. Photo by Jessica Evans.
While both systems of farming are guilty of causing these environmental problems, it turns out that organic farming causes more damage than conventional farming. This is because organic crops get their nutrients from manure, compost and bone meal while conventional farming uses synthetic fertiliser.
Synthetic fertiliser is synced to release nutrients into the soil as crops need them, while manure and compost release nutrients based on environmental conditions.
For this reason, there are often way more excess nutrients from manure and compost that are released into runoff, causing problems in aquatic ecosystems.
Greenhouse gas emissions
Both systems have a similar impact on the planet when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial farming produces greenhouse gases through the production of synthetic fertiliser and pesticides, while organic farming produces slightly more greenhouse gases through manure application. So they’re pretty even in this department.
Organic greenhouse gas emissions come from manure. Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash.
So industrial farming is best when it comes to impact on land use and eutrophication and acidification, and it’s a tie for greenhouse gases and energy use, but what about biodiversity? There aren’t enough conclusive studies to compare the effects agriculture has on biodiversity, so Our World in Data can’t adequately compare organic and industrial farming methods in this regard, but here’s what they had to say.
Farming affects the natural world in a number of ways, namely habitat destruction and fragmentation, pesticide use, soil erosion and soil disturbance through land tillage. A 2017 study found that over the last 27 years, insect populations (a huge chunk of biodiversity) have gone down by 75%! And while the study doesn’t know the reason for this decline, it suggests that a likely reason is pesticide use in conventional farming.
Insect populations are suffering because of pesticides, particularly bees. We need bees to pollinate 80% of our food. Photo by Jessica Evans.
But because organic farming requires more land, we need to ask: do we want to use less land, but degrade the land we use badly, or do we want to use more land, that we degrade less?
This question aside, it’s not a black and white choice. Organic is better in some instances, while conventional is best in others. Our World in Data suggests that if you want to live with a low-impact diet, consume organic pulses and fruits, and conventionally grown everything-else.
When it comes down to it, the organic-vs-conventional debate takes away from other things we can do as consumers, eaters-of-food and citizens of Earth to do our bit in helping our planet, like consuming less meat and dairy.
We could save 1,02 square metres of land PER GRAM of beef and mutton. Imagine how much land we could set aside for better food security if we just cut beef and mutton consumption in half!
Considering all the methane, it's not surprising that beef and mutton also produce the most greenhouse gases per gram of protein. Again, just imagine the impact on climate change if we cut our meat and dairy consumption by half. Graph by Hannah Ritchie from Our World in Data.
You have immense power just in what you eat. How are you going to change the world?
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