Study Shows Organically Farmed Food Has Bigger Climate Impact than Conventionally Farmed Food

According to a new international study that involved Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, organically farmed food has a bigger impact on climate when compared to traditionally farmed food because the former process requires greater areas of land. The results of the study have been reported in the journal Nature.

Stefan Wirsenius, Associate Professor at the Department of Space, Earth and Environment. (Image credit: Chalmers University of Technology)

The scientists created a novel technique to assess how land-use has an impact on climate, and applied this, together with other techniques, to compare the production of traditional and organic food. The outcomes demonstrate that organic food can lead to relatively greater emissions.

Our study shows that organic peas, farmed in Sweden, have around a 50 percent bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed peas. For some foodstuffs, there is an even bigger difference – for example, with organic Swedish winter wheat the difference is closer to 70 percent.

Stefan Wirsenius, Associate Professor, Chalmers University of Technology.

Wirsenius is one of the researchers responsible for the study.

Why organic food is significantly worse for the climate? The reason is that the yields for each hectare are relatively lower, mainly because fertilizers are not utilized. Hence, to produce the same quantity of organic food, a much bigger area of land is required. Such a variation in land usage causes organic food to have a much greater impact on climate—a conclusion that formed the major aspect of the new research.

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

Stefan Wirsenius, Associate Professor, Chalmers University of Technology.

From a climate standpoint, even organic dairy and meat products are worse than their traditionally produced counterparts, claimed Stefan Wirsenius.

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

The investigators applied a new metric, which they termed “Carbon Opportunity Cost,” to assess the impact of greater land-use that contributes to higher emissions of carbon dioxide from deforestation. This new metric considers the amount of carbon stored in forests, and thus discharged as carbon dioxide as an impact of deforestation. The research is one among the first in the globe to leverage this metric.

The fact that more land use leads to greater climate impact has not often been taken into account in earlier comparisons between organic and conventional food,” stated Stefan Wirsenius. “This is a big oversight, because, as our study shows, this effect can be many times bigger than the greenhouse gas effects, which are normally included. It is also serious because today in Sweden, we have political goals to increase production of organic food. If those at goals are implemented, the climate influence from Swedish food production will probably increase a lot.”

So why have earlier studies not taken into account land-use and its relationship to carbon dioxide emissions?

There are surely many reasons. An important explanation, I think, is simply an earlier lack of good, easily applicable methods for measuring the effect. Our new method of measurement allows us to make broad environmental comparisons, with relative ease.

Stefan Wirsenius, Associate Professor, Chalmers University of Technology.

The study results have been reported in the article titled “Assessing the Efficiency of Land Use Changes for Mitigating Climate Change” in the journal Nature. Timothy Searchinger, Stefan Wirsenius, and Tim Beringer och Patrice Dumas authored the article.

More on: The consumer perspective

Stefan Wirsenius also observed that these findings do not necessarily mean that conscientious consumers should merely shift to purchasing 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 stated. “Organic food does have several advantages compared with food produced by conventional methods,” he continued. “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.”

For consumers wishing to contribute to the positive aspects of the production of organic food, without raising their climate impact, an effective method for them would be to concentrate instead on the various effects of different types of vegetables and meat in their diet. Substituting lamb, beef, and even hard cheeses with vegetable proteins like beans has the largest impact. Fish, eggs, chicken, and pork also have a considerably lower impact on climate when compared to lamb and beef.

More on: The conflict between different environmental goals

Fertilizers are not used in organic farming. The aim is to utilize resources like water, land, and energy in a sustainable and long-term manner. Crops are mainly cultivated via nutrients present in the soil. The primary objectives are a balance between plant and animal sustainability and greater biological diversity. Only those pesticides that are naturally obtained are utilized.

The debates for organic food concentrate on animal welfare, consumers’ health, and various aspects of environmental policy. These arguments hold good justification, but simultaneously, there is also a lack of scientific proof to demonstrate that organic food is normally more environmentally friendly and healthier when compared to traditionally farmed food, as per the National Food Administration of Sweden and others. A huge difference exists between farms, with the interpretation varying based on what environmental objectives are prioritized by individuals. Moreover, present analysis techniques are not able to completely capture all the aspects.

Now, the study authors claim that organically farmed food is worse for the climate because of the greater land use. To support this argument, they utilized statistics from the Swedish Board of Agriculture on the overall production in Sweden, as well as the yields for each hectare for traditional versus organic farming for the years 2013–2015.

More on biofuels: “The investment in biofuels increases carbon dioxide emissions”

Current major investments in biofuels are also detrimental to the climate since they need huge areas of land appropriate for crop cultivation, and thus—in accordance with the same logic—increase deforestation at the global level, argued the scientists in the same study.

For all standard biofuels (ethanol from corn, wheat, and sugar, and also biodiesel from soya, palm oil, and rapeseed), the cost of carbon opportunity is higher than the emissions from diesel and fossil fuel, revealed the study. According to the researchers, while biofuels from waste and by-products do not have this impact, their potential is rather small.

The researchers further added that all biofuels made from arable crops release so much emission that they cannot be termed climate-smart. The team reported the results on biofuels in an op-ed article in the Swedish Newspaper, Dagens Nyheter.

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