Myopic Misinformation about Organic and Climate Change
There have been several media articles covering a Nature Communications study, claiming that increased transition to organic in England and Wales would increase greenhouse gas release into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, these articles are using the same tired fallacies that The Organic Center has debunked before – and we’re returning to do it again with this misguided repeat.
The first important thing to point out about the study’s findings, a fact that gets conveniently glossed over by many media outlets, is that the researchers concluded that transitioning to organic would reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per ton of crops by about 20%. This is supported by several past studies, because organic doesn’t allow fossil fuel-based fertilizers or most synthetic pesticides. The production and transportation of these conventional inputs is a major energy use. The manufacture of synthetic fertilizers alone comprises as much as 10% of global agricultural emissions. Organic production methods significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and use less energy because of the decreased use of fossil fuel-based inputs.
The study goes on to suggest that a full transition to organic from conventional production would lead to around a 40% drop in production. The authors argue that this reduction in productivity would require large increases in land devoted to crops in other parts of the world, leading to the destruction of grasslands and forests that are critical sequestration pools for carbon. What the authors overlook entirely is the ability to fill that production need by reducing food waste. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that around a third of all food produced gets lost or goes to waste. The world produces an over-abundance of food for our global population (despite the tragic growth of food instability and hunger around the world, in part due to food waste, inefficient diets, and unequal distribution), which means that the drop in productivity could be addressed by reducing waste and loss rather than increasing extranational production.
Additionally, while conventional farming has led to extensive loss of critical grasslands and forests, the ideals supporting organic uphold wildland preservation. The organic community has spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on this very issue, and is working toward building native ecosystem preservation into the organic standards. In April 2018, NOSB passed a recommendation on “Eliminating the Incentive to Convert Native Ecosystems to Organic Production,” preventing land that supports native ecosystems from being certified for organic production for a period of 10 years from the date of land use change to agriculture.
Finally, much of the coverage of this study focuses on pitting organic against conventional when it comes to yields, but a more constructive angle looks at methods for supporting yield increase in organic production. Organic yields have been increasing over the past decade, despite a dearth in funding for organic research (for example, ninety-five percent of current crop varieties have been developed for high-input conventional management, and may not be well suited for organic systems), thanks to the limited studies that have tackled on-farm challenges for organic farmers. According to a study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, research supporting organic practices could further decrease or even eliminate yield gaps entirely through the use of best management practices and further research. The organic sector has already seen the benefits of the small amount of funding directed toward overcoming challenges to organic production, and several studies have found that best management practices can result in yields comparable to conventional. Because organic has been scientifically proven to use techniques that reduce greenhouse gas production and increase carbon sequestration in the soils while supporting ecosystem and human health, our focus should be on methods to support organic research to close the yield gap.
This study is another unfortunate case of researchers taking a myopic view of how agricultural production impacts climate change. The study ignores food waste as a primary contributor to shortages in productivity, it glosses over the many mitigating effects organic has on climate change, and doesn’t take into account the positive trend of increased yields as research on organic techniques comes out. Taking a holistic view of our food system, conventional farming isn’t a viable option for long-term food security. It depletes our soil, destroys pollinator populations, and depletes carbon stores. Without ecological production systems like organic, we won’t be able to support food production in the long term.