Organic farming aims to maximize the natural & # 39; and minimize chemical interference when it comes to producing our food, but is it really better for the environment?
A new study on pea and wheat crops suggests the opposite, claiming that organic farms are worse for the climate because they tend to take up more space.
That means more deforestation and less carbon being taken from the air and stored in the soil, concludes the international team of researchers.
But to be clear, this research has been limited to some cultures in just one region, so it is too early to make comprehensive statements about the entire industry.
For the study, the team of scientists focused on the production of organic peas and wheat in Sweden.
Mainly because no fertilizer is used, organic pea agriculture takes up more space than non-organic pea agriculture, and this can be a problem – depending on how that land would be used otherwise.
"Our study shows that organic peas grown in Sweden have a 50 percent greater climate impact than conventionally grown peas," said one of the researchers, Stefan Wirsenius of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.
"For some foods, there is an even greater difference – for example, with organic Swedish winter wheat, the difference is closer to 70%."
The team developed a "carbon opportunity cost" metric to assess the carbon footprint of certain types of land use, mapping carbon dioxide emissions to the amount of food produced. For organic farms, this ratio lags behind non-organic farms.
Few previous studies have considered how carbon storage in vegetation and soil affects the environmental impact of organic agriculture, according to the researchers.
There is likely to be an indirect effect also for organic meat and dairy products, says the study, because these animals are fed on organic foods – grown on farms that occupy more space.
However, the study did not look at meat and milk in any detail, so this is just a hypothesis for now. It is also important to note that the researchers also mention the benefits of organic farming as well – improving animal welfare and working towards a more sustainable, energy-efficient type of agriculture.
And the team is not suggesting that organic farming should be turned off at the earliest opportunity – instead, its use must be carefully considered.
That consideration could also extend to biofuels, which also need more land to produce than conventional fuels.
"The type of food is much more important," says Wirsenius. "For example, eating organic beans or organic chicken is much better for the climate than eating conventionally produced meat."
"Organic food has several advantages compared to food produced by conventional methods … but when it comes to climate impact, our study shows that organic food is a much worse alternative overall."
The study also mentions that eating pork, chicken, fish and eggs has a substantially lower impact on the environment than eating beef or lamb.
With so many factors involved in food production and its impact on the environment, it may be difficult to separate myth from fact when it comes to organic farming.
But the more concrete data we have on the advantages and disadvantages of this sustainable approach to agriculture, the better informed our decisions can be.
The issue is particularly current in Sweden, with the government pushing for an expansion in organic farming. These policy decisions have an impact on the climate around the world, the researchers point out.
"The greater use of land in organic agriculture leads indirectly to higher emissions of carbon dioxide, thanks to deforestation," explains Wirsenius.
"If we use more land for the same amount of food, we will contribute indirectly to further deforestation in other parts of the world," he said. "World food production is governed by international trade, so as we grow in Sweden it influences deforestation in the tropics."
The research was published in Nature.