20 November 2019

No, buying organic is not the environmentally friendly option

By Chris Bullivant

A new report confirms bleak news for the organic food industry. Organic farming produces more greenhouse gases than conventional farming – up to 58% more. The study, published last month in Nature Communications, calculates for the first time what would happen if England and Wales switched from conventional to entirely organic farming in the first non-industry study of its kind. It is devastating news for a food industry that has managed to convince many of us that buying organic is environmentally friendlier than buying conventional.

Presently we have two methods of farming for crops, fruits, vegetables and livestock in England and Wales. Conventional farming produces a lot of food on not much land, achieved through the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. Organic farming produces less food on the same amount of land, also using pesticides and fertilisers but which are not synthetic.

There are some positives when considering a switch to completely organic in England and Wales. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions per hectare by 20%, and some varieties of food that have increased yields – including root vegetables like potatoes, carrots and onions and meat products like beef and sheep. Other products have diminished yield, though even this might be good news. Poultry and pig yields are down – so maybe a reduced supply will reduce the demand for animals known to experience horrific treatment in some mass farming.

But the drawbacks are significant. A switch to entirely organic farming reduces the amount of calories that can be created on the same amount of land by a massive 40%. Because of this, the study suggests, England and Wales would need to import food from elsewhere in order to meet current food requirements. This, it argues, would require using five times more land overseas than currently used. And that’s a much bigger carbon footprint. It is for this reason that the report calculates that a switch to organic farming would push greenhouse gas emissions up anywhere from 20% to 58%.

In response, the organic lobby argue that the study is flawed because we do not need to import food into England and Wales at the current scale. This, because, we can and must reduce food waste. Now, they are right to say we must consume less food in general and less meat in particular. This will both ease the climate emergency and possibly help tackle the obesity epidemic. Yet none of these points address the fact that organic farming produces more greenhouse emissions to make the same amount of consumable energy than does conventional farming.

It may be that, in order to meet the growing demand for food, 10 billion people worldwide by 2050, and to cut our contribution to global warming, that individuals must reduce their calorie intake, food waste, and meat consumption – and across the globe to end international food shipping. Yet all these policies can be achieved without them being forced upon us through a switch to organic farming. If need be, habits can be changed through a mixture of taxes, bans and consumer education, while keeping conventional farming methods.

Environmentalists arguing for a switch to organic farming want to force behaviour-change through enforced austerity – leaving us without enough food to feed ourselves. The organic food industry benefit from killing off their more productive, cheaper rivals in conventional farming. A switch to organic both rigs the market and shrinks it at the same time.

Should consumers decide to return to a pre-Elizabethan diet of English carrots and occasional scraps of Welsh lamb, with no foreign imports, in order to avoid climate catastrophe, they can do it conventionally. Newly released land across England and Wales could instead be carved up for forests, national parks and housing estates. If we go fully organic we just go hungry in overcrowded towns.

The push to adopt organic farming within the EU and across the globe is misguided. Organic farming is a smart marketing niche that has seduced many of us in the West who wish to be environmentally conscious. But the vilification of conventional farming is the true disservice to our cause – because it is conventional farming that both produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and provides us with more policy choices.

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Chris Bullivant has worked for think tanks and NGOs dealing with health and welfare reform.