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Sustainability of organic food production

January 2019: A study using the carbon opportunity cost metric shows that organic agriculture has a higher climate footprint than conventional farming methods. The study looks at direct and indirect land-use impacts and recommends not to look at farming methods alone, but at policy changes that favour structural reforms and a holistic approach to farming.

Information

Researchers compared the climate impact from land-use of organic and conventional farming methods. They used the carbon opportunity cost metric to show that organic agriculture has a higher climate footprint than conventional farming methods. In this context, organic farming is defined as farming without pesticides. The study takes into account that organic farming uses more land that leads to an increase of deforestation in other parts of the world and therefore has a higher indirect release of carbon. Organic farming shows a lower yield per hectare that leads to a greater use of land and results into an overall higher climate footprint.

Implications and opportunities

The study points towards impacts of indirect emissions and land-use impacts of different farming methods. The study does not endorse large and intense agri-business methods but calls for a systems-based approach of farming that takes into account direct and indirect climate impacts. It recommends not to look at farming methods alone, but at policy changes that favour structural reforms and a holistic approach to farming. It underlines challenges of competing sustainability goals such as animal welfare and carbon dioxide emissions.

Limitations

The study’s metric shows that organic farming often focusses on local consumer health and animal welfare, but neglects the wider impacts of organic farming within a globalised food system. Further, the study bases its findings on current food production and consumption structures, but does not take into account potential global dietary changes towards healthier diets that would reduce the land requirements for livestock and crops.


Sources

Searchinger, T. D., Wirsenius, S., Beringer, T., & Dumas, P. (2018). Assessing the efficiency of changes in land use for mitigating climate change. Nature, 564 (7735), 249–253. doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0757-z 

US News & World Report. (2018). Organic Food is Worse for the Climate Than Non-Organic Food. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2018-12-13/study-organic-food-is-worse-for-the-climate-than-non-organic-food

 

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The views expressed in these external research papers are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.