Organically farmed food ‘worse for climate’ – study

Organically farmed food ‘worse for climate’ – study
Credit: Irina Sokolovskaya

A new study argues that organic food is worse for the climate that conventionally farmed food due to the greater land mass required.

Writing in the journal Nature, researches from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden outline how they developed a new method for assessing the climate impact from land-use.

Using this and other methods the compared organic and conventional food production with the result showing the former can result in much greater emissions.

“Our study shows that organic peas, farmed in Sweden, have around a 50% bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed peas,” said Stefan Wirsenius, an associate professor from Chalmers, and one of those responsible for the study.

“For some foodstuffs, there is an even bigger difference – for example, with organic Swedish winter wheat the difference is closer to 70%.

The reason why organic food is so much worse for the climate is that the yields per hectare are much lower, primarily because fertilisers are not used. To produce the same amount of organic food, you therefore need a much bigger area of land.

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.

“The greater land-use in organic farming leads indirectly to higher carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to deforestation,” said 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.”

Even organic meat and dairy products are – from a climate point of view – worse than their conventionally produced equivalents, claimed Wirsenius.

“Because organic meat and milk production uses organic feed-stocks, it also requires more land than conventional production,” he said.

“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.”

However, Wirsenius noted that the findings do not mean that conscientious consumers should simply switch to buying non-organic food.

“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,” he said.

“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.”