25 Jan A complex truth: is organic food worse for our climate?
In the grand scheme of climate change, what we consume as a 7-billion strong population is a massive contributor to climate change. The simple fact of the matter is this: the processes used to manufacture the food we consume is inevitably going to have a negative impact on the environment. As a population we live off the earth, but experts believe our planet cannot and will not be able to keep up.
With the topic of climate change at the forefront of everyone’s minds, many key players within the food industry have set ambitious goals to reduce their carbon footprint i.e. cut down on waste, use energy more efficiently, streamline manufacturing processes and farm for sustainability.
In October 2018, a stark warning was issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The rise in the global temperature of 1.5°C is putting the earth’s liveability at great risk. And yes, this rise in temperature is directly attributed to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. By 2030, this rise in temperature could be further exceeded, necessitating drastic steps to be taken now.
What do these steps entail and will they work to curb the impact on the environment?
The InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) calls for a total transformation of how manufacturing systems operate, as well as a conscious effort made by consumers of today. Key areas of transformation include the type of food produced and consumed, ‘climate-smart’ food systems and consumer dietary changes.
With all of the above in mind, how does organic farming and the drive to consume more naturally produced foods impact our environment? According to studies, it doesn’t look good…
Organic farming: does it contribute to climate change?
Researchers at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have formulated a new method for assessing the climatic impact of land use for organic farming, versus conventional food production methods.
In short, their studies have found that organically farmed food does indeed have a bigger impact on the climate due to greater areas of land required for organic farming. As a result, organically farmed food dispels a larger portion of greenhouse emissions into the environment.
Associate Professor at Chalmers University of Technology, Stefan Wirsenius, believes that organically farmed food is worse for the climate because of the yield per hectare ratio of farmed goods.
As organic farming uses no fertilizers to maintain their crops, harvesting yields are naturally much lower than conventional farming yields. During one study, researchers found that organically farmed peas have a 50% larger climate impact that conventionally farmed peas. For other organic foods, such as winter wheat, the difference is closer to a 70% climatic impact.
Naturally, in order to produce the same amount of organic foods, a larger farming area of land is required. Although this may seem like an obvious aspect of organic farming, the contribution to climate change has only just been realised through recent studies.
Quite simply, the greater the land usage for organic farming, the greater the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere due to deforestation of these farming lands. And because much of the world’s food production is governed by international trade, deforestation for organic farming is a global issue.
In other words, organic farmers contribute indirectly to larger deforestation issues elsewhere in the world as a result of international trade agreements.
How has the organic sector responded to this research?
As you can imagine, the organic sector has responded critically to the results of the study. They believe that a major factor has not been taken into consideration – and that is energy use in terms of food production.
Steven Jacobs, Business Development Manager at UK Organic Farmers & Growers (OF&G), believes that to not look at energy use in regards to agricultural production is completely ‘irresponsible’. He believes that the use of biofuels in conventional farming methods are an equal contributor to climate change as they require large areas of land for crop cultivation – thus contributing to the same issue of deforestation.
The organic sector believes that energy expenditure is a massive concern within the conventional farming sector and should also be open to serious question. To add to this, the use of artificial fertilizer, such as artificial nitrogen, contributes greatly to greenhouse gas emissions. In many cases, just 15% of artificial fertilizer is used up by food crops- the rest finds its way into the atmosphere and watercourses. This leads to polluted drinking water, acid rain, acidification of soils and the damage of ecosystems.
According to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, organically grown crops require 30-50% less energy per unit area, and this includes energy for the production of fertilizers and pesticides. Despite the fact that conventional farming yields are higher, this is cancelled out by the energy consumption. Energy usage per unit area is typically 19% lower in organic farming systems.
As such, the organic farming sector believes that organic farming plays a vital role in protecting global food security, enhancing the natural environment and mitigating global climate change.
Is one really better than the other?
In conclusion, it’s obvious that both organic and conventional farming methods both have an effect on climate change. The question is, which issue is worse – global energy consumption or global deforestation?
At the end of the day, the production of food on a global scale relies on a number of factors and approaches, all of which need to be drastically amended in the interest of reducing the global carbon footprint.
In terms of an economic and political argument, scientists have gone on to prove that we already produce enough food on a global scale. Rather than focusing on agricultural problems, the world’s economic and political issues need to be solved if the world is to be fed in years to come.