Organic farming is touted as a happier, healthier, and greener alternative to conventional farming. While this is true in some respects, new research suggests organic food's role in helping the planet is much more complex than first meets the eye.
A new study published this week in the journal Nature Communications has concluded that a 100 percent shift to organic food production in England and Wales would actually lead to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions. In turn, this would contribute to further climate change.
Although organic farming directly pumps out fewer emissions than conventional farming – around 20 percent lower for crops and 4 percent for livestock – it produces notably less food. As per this study’s findings, total organic agriculture in England and Wales would yield 40 percent less food. With less food in the stockpiles, the countries would need to increase food imports, which would produce more global greenhouse gas emissions.
Organic farming also enhances carbon sequestration, a process where carbon dioxide is "sucked" out of the atmosphere and captured by plants and stored in the soil. However, even a total shift to organic farming would only offset a tiny part of the higher emissions from overseas land use.
“We predict a drop in total food production of 40 percent under a fully organic farming regime, compared to conventional farming, if we keep to the same national diet,” Dr Adrian Williams, lead author and reader in Agri-Environmental Systems at Cranfield University, said in a statement. “This results from lower crop yields, because yields are restricted by a lower supply of nitrogen, which is mainly from grass-legume leys within crop rotations or manure from cattle on pasture.”
Nevertheless, it is important to note that organic farming still holds some useful benefits for the environment, such as reduced exposure to pesticides and improved biodiversity. In conclusion, the study suggests that organic farming will continue to play a key role in resolving the world's environmental woes, however, it's just one part of a much wider solution.
“We face a fiendishly difficult balancing act between cutting emissions, producing enough food, and protecting biodiversity and the myriad other gifts the land provides,” Professor Dave Reay, chair in Carbon Management at the University of Edinburgh, who was not involved in the study, commented on the findings.
“Organic food production methods have an important role in achieving this balance – you can use all the precision farming methods and fancy fertilizers you like, but if the pollinators are all killed by pesticides you’re still in a heap of trouble.”