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Are organic food ingredients more environment friendly than the same non-organic ingredients?
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Organic agriculture refers to the farming of crops or livestock without the use of synthetic inputs, including synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, plant growth regulators and genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Organic does not mean ‘chemical-free’ or ‘pesticide-free’. Along with natural inputs such as manure, chemicals are often used in organic farming, however these cannot be synthetically manufactured, with the exception of a small number which have been approved.

For livestock, organic methods mean animals must be fed organically-certified feed (or graze on land with no synthetic chemical inputs), and antibiotics cannot be used throughout their lifetime (except in emergency cases such as disease or infection outbreak). In conventional livestock production, there are no constraints on feed certification and antibiotics or growth hormones are often used.

Organic fish is defined as fish produced under natural conditions in accordance with the principles of organic agriculture without any use of preservative additives, without any genetic modifications, fed feed produced from natural raw materials, and certified by a qualified institution.

Environmental impacts of organic agriculture have mainly been studied in highly industrialised countries and results may be different in the developing world.

  • Organic agriculture in highly industrialised countries uses 15% less energy per unit of food.
  • Organic agriculture in highly industrialised countries requires 25%–110% more land per unit of food. Land use is a measurement of how much land is occupied during food production. Due to lower use of fertilisers, organic farming has far lower yields as compared to conventional farming, and so requires more land to meet demand. Other studies have shown that increasing nutrient application and adopting techniques such as rotational farming, cover cropping, multi-cropping, and poly-culture in organic systems can halve this land use difference between organic and conventional systems.
  • Organic agriculture in highly industrialised countries emits similar greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) as conventional agriculture per unit of food. GHGs here are from activities like fertiliser production and application, manure management, etc. However, higher land use by organic agriculture leads to more deforestation. The final effect is an increase in greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. One such example is shown in the Swedish study that organic peas farmed in Sweden have 50% higher emissions than conventionally grown peas.
  • On-farm and near-farm biodiversity tends to be higher in organic agricultural systems. The lack of pesticides and wider variety of plants enhances biodiversity. Conventional farming has been heavily criticised for causing biodiversity loss due to the rampant usage of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. However, organic agriculture would likely have a net negative impact on biodiversity because of the greater land clearing required under organic agriculture.
  • It is estimated that by 2050, the demand for food is going to increase by 59-98% due to the ever-increasing global population. With limited land areas that will be available for farming and lower crop yields in organic systems, it might not be sustainable for industrialised countries to go all organic.
  • Organic agriculture in highly industrialised countries cause 37% more eutrophication per unit of food. Eutrophication is pollution of surface waters with nutrients such as nitrogen & phosphorous which are not taken up by crops and run off into waterways, leading to algal blooms and aquatic dead zones. 
  • Organic agriculture in highly industrialised countries has similar acidification potential as conventional agriculture per unit of food. Acidification potential is a measurement of the potential increase in acidity of an ecosystem. Excess acidification makes it more difficult for plants to assimilate nutrients, and thus results in decreased plant growth.
  • Organic farming practices generally have positive impacts on the environment per unit of area, but not necessarily per product unit.
  • Organically grown foods have fewer pesticide residues as conventionally grown foods.
  • Evidence is lacking that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.
  • In some areas of the developing world, organic farming can actually boost yields over conventional farming because it doesn’t rely on so much water and chemical inputs. These practices also build soil fertility and lead to less pollution.
  • The organic movement was based on minimising the environmental impact of production, but demand has led to organic produce clocking up thousands of food miles. Imports of organic produce by air do not provide a net environmental benefit.

 

Bibliography

Anuradha Varanasi, “Is Organic Food Really Better for the Environment?” (State of the Planet, October 2019)

Baker BP and others, “Pesticide Residues in Conventional, Integrated Pest Management (IPM)-Grown and Organic Foods: Insights from Three US Data Sets” (2002) 19 Food Additives and Contaminants 427

Clark M and Tilman D, “Comparative Analysis of Environmental Impacts of Agricultural Production Systems, Agricultural Input Efficiency, and Food Choice” (2017) 12 Environmental Research Letters 064016

Dangour AD and others, “Nutritional Quality of Organic Foods: A Systematic Review” (2009) 90 The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 680

Nutrition-Related Health Effects of Organic Foods: A Systematic Review” (2010) 92 The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 203

Lewis R, Lawrence F and Jones A, “Miles and Miles and Miles” (The Guardian, May 2003)

Maeder P and others, “Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming” (2002) 296 Science 1694

Organic Farming: Not Always So Environmentally Friendly” (OpenMind, February 2019)

Ötles Y, Ozden O and Ötles S, “ORGANIC FISH PRODUCTION AND THE STANDARDS” (2010) 9 Acta Sci. Pol., Technol. Aliment 125

Ritchie H, “Is Organic Really Better for the Environment than Conventional Agriculture?” (Our World in Data, 2017)

Searchinger TD and others, “Assessing the Efficiency of Changes in Land Use for Mitigating Climate Change” (2018) 564 Nature 249

Smith-Spangler C and others, “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?” (2012) 157 Annals of Internal Medicine 348

Tuomisto HL and others, “Does Organic Farming Reduce Environmental Impacts? – A Meta-Analysis of European Research” (2012) 112 Journal of Environmental Management 309

What Food Travels by Air to Get to Us?” (OneSharedEarth, June 2020)

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It may come as a surprise, but the production of organic foods is - in many aspects - more environmentally damaging than the production of conventionally-farmed foods.

There certainly are some environmental benefits to organic farming. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) notes that it:

  • can accommodate greater biodiversity than intensive farming
  • reduces the risk of groundwater pollution from chemical fertilizers and pesticides
  • reduces the use of fossil fuels (required to produce chemical fertilizers)
  • can improve the ability of the soil to store carbon

However, in a study by Clark and Tilman (2017), it was found that organic farming generally produces more negative environmental impacts than conventional farming. It is important to note that organic and conventional farming methods affect different aspects of environmental health (e.g. energy use, biodiversity, land use) to varying degrees, and that their impacts also vary depending on the crop grown. Hannah Ritchie summarises the findings of the study, recommending that, ideally, ‘we should buy organic pulses and fruits, and conventional cereals, vegetables, and animal products’.

In most cases then, it is actually more environmentally-friendly to purchase ‘conventional’ non-organic foods. Ultimately, however, flexibility is the key when it comes to choosing the least harmful options.

 

Bibliography

Clark, M., and Tilman, D., ‘Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice’, Environmental Research Letters, 12.6 (June 2017), accessed at: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa6cd5

FAO, ‘What are the environmental benefits of organic agriculture?’, 2020, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, accessed at: http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq6/en/

Ritchie, H., ‘Is organic really better for the environment than conventional agriculture?’, Oct 19 2017, Our World in Data, accessed at: https://ourworldindata.org/is-organic-agriculture-better-for-the-environment

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