Organic peas, farmed in Sweden, have around a 50% bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed peas.
Organic farming is much better for the environment because fewer or no chemicals are used in crop cultivation. Or so it is commonly believed.
Yet because organic farming tends to have significantly lower crop yields, far more land is required to grow the same amount of food that intensive agriculture can produce, according to a recent study. To feed the billions of hungry mouths on the planet, going fully organic would entail reclaiming vast swathes of additional land for agriculture. Much of that extra land would have to be taken from forests, which would harm the environment.
A new study, published in the journal Nature, now underlines the same point.
An international team of researchers studied peas and wheat cultivated organically in an area of Sweden. They found that organically farmed food has a bigger climate impact than the conventionally farmed variety because organic farming requires significantly more land. As a result, organic farming can also lead to much higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
“Our study shows that organic peas, farmed in Sweden, have around a 50 percent bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed peas,” says Stefan Wirsenius, an associate professor from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden who was an author of the study. “For some foodstuffs, there is an even bigger difference – for example, with organic Swedish winter wheat the difference is closer to 70 percent.”
Organic food is worse for the climate than conventionally farmed food because the lack of fertilizer use results in much lower yields per hectare. That is why growing food organically and reducing carbon emissions at the same time is not a viable strategy. “A finite global land area implies that fulfilling these strategies requires increasing global land-use efficiency of both storing carbon and producing food,” the researchers write.
“The greater land-use in organic farming leads indirectly to higher carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to deforestation,” Wirsenius says. “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.”
There’s another aspect to this issue, however. Even though organic farming may be worse for the climate, at least on a large scale, it is better for local environments around farms. Toxins from chemicals used in fertilizers and pesticides often leach into water sources and accumulate in soils where they can wreak havoc with local ecosystems.