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Net-Positive Impacts of Organic

Jul 20, 2016
Photo Credit: David Smith

Photo Credit: David Smith

The Organic Center is pleased to announce the launch of a project in collaboration with the Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE) at the Harvard School of Public Health looking at the benefits of organic for the environment and human health.  Traditional models of examining environmental and health effects focus on ways to decrease negative impacts, known as our environmental or health footprints.  This project takes a different perspective: rather than looking at how organic decreases our footprints, it focuses on the benefits organic provides, known as our environmental or health handprint.  By combining decreased footprints with increased handprints, this project will be able to identify the net positives of organic food and farming.

Photo credit: USDA

Photo credit: USDA

The research team at Harvard will develop a life cycle analysis with a statistical model that analyzes Net Positives to examine a thorough compilation of data over the last few decades.  They will focus their analyses on two areas: climate change and human health.  These two areas are hot topics in the media, and top reasons that consumers choose organic.  They also align with future policy decisions and Whitehouse action papers, so we will be able to get relevant science into the hands of policymakers as they develop critical decisions that organic might play a role in supporting.

Funding and communications partners for this project include the Organic Trade Association, the Sustainable Food Trade Association (SFTA), Annie’s Inc, Stonyfield Farm, Inc., Plum Organics, the UNFI Foundation, the Clif Family Foundation, and Organic Valley.




We’re starting to put all our findings into manuscripts to submit to scientific journals.  The peer review process is a long one, but it’s also an important one because it means that our methods are checked by other scientists to ensure that our findings are accurate! We’ll keep everyone posted as we navigate the publication path.



We have wrapped up the human health analysis, and found that traditional life cycle analyses (LCA’s) don’t include some important aspects of human health that are critical components of the benefits of organic.  We’ll go into details when we publish the data, but for now we can say that most conventional LCA’s ignore things like the pesticide residues on food.



We have completed the climate change portion of the project, and it’s no surprise that organic performs well across all crops. The biggest benefit of organic is its ability to sequester carbon in the soil!



The researchers at Harvard are going through the literature and creating a new dataset that includes aspects of pesticide use.  It’s complicated by the fact that no statistical framework has been built to accommodate this in the past, so they’re digging into the latest literature to build the most robust model.



We’re diving in to the Life Cycle Analysis data to look at the health impacts of organic.  Amazingly, while the data does include a general “toxicity” category – that category does not include pesticides!  Without including pesticides the comparisons among farming systems are highly inaccurate, and actually show organic as “less safe” in several crops than conventional.  In other words, it’s a good thing we’re looking into this, because this data is the standard data available for researchers doing life cycle analyses and misses the most critical aspect of comparisons among farming systems.



We have preliminary results on the Climate Change side of our project, and they demonstrate consistent and significant net benefits of organic production relative to conventional production with respect to total greenhouse gas impacts, measured in kg CO2-equivalent, even on a per kilogram of crop basis.  This holds even with a slight disadvantage for organic in relation to soil N2O emissions on a per-kg of crop basis. The main factor driving the results is the soil carbon uptake advantage for organic versus conventional.



While CO2 uptake into the harvested biomass is taken into account in the Ecoinvent database, the modeling does not include the influence of further soil organic matter changes.  Ecoinvent does, however, provide data on the amount of land used to grow each crop, for both organic and conventional. The Harvard researchers combined these data with the soil carbon sequestration/emission rates, per hectare per year, for organic and conventional till agriculture obtained from Cavigelli et al., 2009, in order to estimate soil carbon fluxes per kg of crop produced, for each crop and production type.  Meta-analyses of soil carbon content under organic versus conventional agriculture provide strong support for the robustness of this finding, across soil types and climates, crop types, and over extended periods.



The researchers at Harvard are using the  best available transparent LCA database, the Ecoinvent database. Using this database, they found that many of the comparisons, in relation to greenhouse gases, were dominated by on-farm (soil-based) releases of N2O.  The Ecoinvent database was recently upgraded from version 2.2 to version 3.3.  The data in the Ecoinvent database version 2.2 was based on emissions factors for N2O from IPCC 2001, which is out of date, as there is a more recent IPCC version from 2006.  However, the emissions factors for the newest Ecoinvent database have not been updated. Additionally, the Harvard team checked the new database to evaluate whether the relative results for N2O had been updated, as they appeared to have remained the same.  They also contacted the Ecoinvent researchers directly, who confirmed that the differences between organic and non-organic in relation to N2O had not been addressed in the update.  Lots of work ahead, but it’s very much needed!






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