Organic farming, if adopted wholesale without a change in diets, would require millions more hectares of land.
Organic farming is often seen as a clean and green alternative to intensive farming. Fewer or no chemicals are used at organic farms, which make these farms far more environmentally friendly.
On the downside, organic farms tend to have significantly lower crop yields than conventional farms. That means that far more land is required to grow the same amount of food produced by farms engaged in intensive agriculture.
It turns out that switching to organic farms on a large scale would also drive up our CO2 emissions. So says a team of researchers in the United Kingdom who explored what would happen if farms in England and Wales went fully organic.
Organic farming would not produce far more emissions directly than conventional farming, the researchers explain. Individual farms would still have lower emissions than conventional farms.
Yet by producing far less food on average than conventional farms, organic farms would require a lot more land. Yields of organically farmed wheat and barley, two staple crops in the UK, amount to half the yields in the same crops grown at conventional farms. This means that 1.5 times more land would be needed to grow the same amount of wheat and barley organically.
“We estimate that, were organic farming to be adopted wholesale without any change in diet, we would need nearly six million more hectares of land,” said Philip Jones, one of the study’s authors who is at the University of Reading. “Much of which would need to come from Europe,” Jones added. “This has an associated impact on the environment, adding potentially unnecessary food miles and greenhouse gas emissions to our food systems.”
In other words, large-scale organic farming would necessitate further food imports from abroad where food would likely be produced in nonorganic ways to meet demand. That would increase total CO2 emissions and agriculture already accounts for a third of global emissions. Transportation would too add extra CO2.
In fact, say the researchers, these two nations’ agricultural emissions could rise by more than 20% if they embraced organic farming on a large scale. “The key message from my perspective is that you can’t really have your cake and eat it,” says Laurence Smith, of the Royal Agricultural University who is an advocate of organic farming because of its other environmental benefits.
Emissions aside, however, going fully organic would have considerable benefits, notably cleaner air, cleaner freshwater and healthier ecosystems. And if people were to change their diets, not least by eating less, organic farms could still produce plenty enough food to feed people in the UK. Levels of obesity and food waste have both reached epic proportions in the country and elsewhere across much of the developed world.