If the World Switched to Organic Farming, Would It Help the Environment?

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The environmental impact of switching to organic farming

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Switching to organic farming on a global scale presents both opportunities and challenges for the environment. While organic farming can improve soil health, increase biodiversity, and reduce pollution, it also faces significant hurdles in terms of lower yields, higher land use, and nutrient management. A balanced approach that combines the best practices of both organic and conventional farming may offer a more sustainable solution for global agriculture  . Further research and policy development are needed to optimize farming systems that produce high yields with minimal environmental impact.

The debate over the environmental benefits of organic farming versus conventional farming has been ongoing for years. As concerns about climate change, biodiversity loss, and sustainable food production grow, understanding the potential impacts of a global shift to organic farming is crucial. This article explores whether switching to organic farming on a global scale would help the environment, drawing on findings from multiple research studies.

Environmental Benefits of Organic Farming

Organic farming is often lauded for its environmental benefits. Several studies have shown that organic farming practices can lead to improved soil health, increased biodiversity, and reduced pollution.

Soil Health and Carbon Sequestration

Organic farming enhances soil fertility by maximizing the efficient use of local resources and avoiding synthetic agrochemicals. This results in higher soil organic matter content and improved soil biochemical and ecological characteristics. Additionally, organic farming has a higher water holding capacity, which can be particularly beneficial in areas with water scarcity. Organic systems also store more carbon in the soil, potentially contributing to CO2 abatement if adopted on a large scale.

Biodiversity

Organic farming supports higher biodiversity compared to conventional farming. A meta-analysis found that organic farming led to a 23% gain in biodiversity, although this came at the cost of lower yields. Another study highlighted that organic farms promote biotic abundance and richness, contributing to greater ecosystem services.

Pest Control

Organic farming can enhance biological pest control, reducing the need for synthetic pesticides. However, the effectiveness of pest control varies by pest type, with lower pathogen infestations but higher weed infestations compared to conventional systems.

Challenges and Trade-offs

While organic farming offers several environmental benefits, it also presents significant challenges and trade-offs.

Yield and Land Use

One of the primary challenges of organic farming is its lower yield compared to conventional farming. Studies have shown that organic farms produce lower yields, which could necessitate the use of more land to meet global food demands . This increased land use could lead to habitat loss and further environmental degradation.

Nutrient Management and Emissions

Organic farming practices generally result in lower nutrient losses per unit of field area but higher nutrient losses per product unit. This includes higher ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching, and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit. Additionally, while organic farming has lower energy requirements, it has higher eutrophication and acidification potentials per product unit.

Economic and Social Implications

The economic viability of organic farming is another consideration. Although organic farms are often more profitable due to premium prices, the higher costs and lower yields could make food less affordable for poor consumers, particularly in developing countries .

 

 

If the world switched to organic farming, would it help the environment?

Jules Pretty has answered Near Certain

An expert from University of Essex in Organic Food, Public Health

It is clear that the question as set out is near certain. In terms of the amount of land needed to feed the world population, then account must also be taken of three food systems factors: i) the diet choices made by people; ii) the amount of food wasted, in the food chain, and from the plate/kitchen; iii) the shift towards plant-based diets (and thus reductions in the amount of grain that is fed to animals in intensive systems).

 

If the world switched to organic farming, would it help the environment?

David Crowder has answered Uncertain

An expert from Washington State University in Entomology, Agricultural Science

Studies have shown that organic farms typically promote environmental benefits such as high biodiversity and soil quality, with lower pesticide residues, compared to conventional farms. However, some organic farmers use highly toxic pesticides such as sulfur that can cause environmental harm and negatively affect worker health. There is also considerable variability in practices used on organic farms, with some farms using few inputs (pesticides and fertilizers) and other farms using considerable inputs.

We know that limiting agricultural intensification is good for the environment generally, but the public often does not know that some organic farms can involve quite intensive production practices. Decreasing the intensity of production practices (i.e., decreasing inputs like pesticides and fertilizers) and increasing diversity of crops would likely have greater environmental benefits than switching all farms to organic.

 

If the world switched to organic farming, would it help the environment?

David Connor has answered Unlikely

An expert from University of Melbourne in Agricultural Science

 In some ways perhaps, but not entirely.  Most importantly, conversion to Organic Agriculture would require all potential land in agriculture for maximum productivity. That would eliminate the current “sparing” of land for nature that the higher yields obtained by current methods allow.

 

If the world switched to organic farming, would it help the environment?

Michael Palmgren has answered Unlikely

An expert from University of Copenhagen in Plant Biology, Plant Ecology, Agricultural Science

As yields are smaller compared to conventional farming methods, one would need a larger area for farming than is used currently (if the goal is to maintain yields). If that implies that we will have to cultivate more of the nature that we have left, that would certainly not be good for the environment. 

 

If the world switched to organic farming, would it help the environment?

Kenneth G. Cassman has answered Unlikely

An expert from University of Nebraska in Agricultural Science

No because if organic agriculture had to produce enough to feed the world, it would have similar or greater environmental damage as conventional agriculture.

 

If the world switched to organic farming, would it help the environment?

Henrik Saxe has answered Uncertain

An expert from University of Copenhagen in Environmental Science, Organic Food, Food Science

Yes, the (sometimes) higher impact of organics relative to conventional produce is mostly due to land use.

  Monetizing a number of environmental impacts (e.g. 16 impact types in the Ecoinvent database) I use a method called ‘Stepwise’ in the LCA software called Simapro. Each type of environmental impact is monetized, i.e. calculating its societal economic impact, and all impacts may thus be summed up in a single number – I use Euro (€).

  Yes, the weight-based impact is the reason that organics score lower than conventional produce. When we use an area-based calculation, organics comes out best. But there is too little land to feed the world the way we choose to eat currently. With more vegetarians, there is room for more organic produce. 

 

If the world switched to organic farming, would it help the environment?

Guy Kirk has answered Unlikely

An expert from Cranfield University in Soil Science, Organic Food, Agricultural Science

We recently published a study investigating the greenhouse gas impact of converting England and Wales to organic farming.

From the paper: There are undoubted local environmental benefits to organic farming practices, including soil C storage, reduced exposure to pesticides and improved biodiversity. However, these potential benefits need to be set against the requirement for greater production elsewhere. As well as increased GHG emissions from compensatory changes in land use to make up for production shortfalls, there are substantial opportunity costs from reduced availability of land for other purposes, such as greater C storage under natural vegetation. Further, although organic systems may favour increased local biodiversity, habitat fragmentation under low-yielding organic systems may mean global species diversity is in fact greater under land-sparing, high-yielding systems.

 

If the world switched to organic farming, would it help the environment?

Adrian Muller has answered Likely

An expert from Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL in Agricultural Science, Organic Food, Environmental Science

Yes, it would, if a large increase in area used can be avoided – e.g. by combining a switch to organic agriculture with the complementing strategies of food waste and loss reduction and reduction of food-competing feed and animal source food in human diets, cf. the previous answer.

Organic agriculture tends to perform better than conventional agriculture in environmental indicators on a per hectare basis, while it tends to perform worse on a per kg product basis. For most environmental impacts besides the global pollutants “greenhouse gas emissions”, the reference to areas instead of product quantities is however warranted, as the impacts arise in a localised ecosystem context. Intensively producing high outputs on small areas can result in high total impacts that transgress carrying capacities of the local ecosystems, while still reporting low impacts per unit output. Thus, efficiency measures such as environmental product footprints based on impacts per unit product are not the best measure to inform about the environmental impacts of agricultural production systems.    

For further reading consult e.g. Eyhorn et al. 2019, Seufert and Ramankutty 2017

Eyhorn, F., Muller, A., Reganold, J., Frison, E., Herren, H., Luttikholt, L., Müller, A., Scialabba, N., Seufert, V., Smith, P., 2019, Organic farming drives sustainability in global agriculture, Comment in Nature Sustainability 2:253-255.

Seufert, V., Ramankutty, N., 2017, Many shades of gray—The context-dependent performance of organic agriculture, Science advances 3(3): e1602638

 

If the world switched to organic farming, would it help the environment?

Juliette Anglade has answered Near Certain

An expert from Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in Environmental Science, Agricultural Science, Organic Food, Education, Ecohydrology

Yes, because the organic certification prohibits the use of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers that have contaminated all the compartments of biosphere: soil, waters, atmosphere. A switch to organic farming could thus allow to stop numerous pollutions at source.

It saves the energy costs associated with the manufacturing process (fossil fuels consumption and GES emissions) and it prevents the dissemination of chemicals within the environment. All the “biocide” products (insecticides, fungicides, herbicides) which literally means that “kills life”, have proven disastrous toxic cocktail effects on biodiversity, and also very likely on human health (cancer, endocrine disorders). They remain in the soils for long periods, and are spread over long distances by waters. The molecules already present would nonetheless take time to decompose.

OF has proved is capacity to reconcile agriculture and water drinking standards. The reconnection of crop and livestock should be favoured to meet the delicate balance of major biogeochemical cycles. Grasslands allow to sequester carbon, and contribute to the soil nitrogen fertility in the presence of legumes that are able in symbiosis with bacteria to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere (biological nitrogen fixation).

The positive effects of organic farming would be maximised if organic farmers continue to work towards farms’ autonomy. Importation of feed, litter or manure are not forbidden in OF when these are organic (not synthetic). That is why some advocate that OF depends of conventional farming. But in fact those practices are very limited in many places, and autonomous organic systems have shown their ability to maintain their fertility while producing a similar amount of protein than that of conventional systems if we take into account the whole system (including a large amount of forage legumes).

However, it exists an important movement of conventionalisation of organic practices. It leads inter alia to specialisation (disconnection of crop and cattle) and massive importations of organic fertilizers, that could cause hotspot of pollutions. Other curative substances authorized in OF, like copper-bearing pesticides used in organic market gardening and vine, are controversial.

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