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Research points to higher climate costs for organic farming


If there’s one thing that organic farming yields more than conventional farming, it appears to be a higher carbon footprint. Researchers from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden recently released findings that points to organically farmed food as having a bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed food, due to the greater areas of land required.

The study was published this month in the peer-reviewed international journal Nature.

“Our study shows that organic peas, farmed in Sweden, have around a 50 percent bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed peas. For some foodstuffs, there is an even bigger difference — for example, with organic Swedish winter wheat the difference is closer to 70 percent,” says Stefan Wirsenius, an associate professor from Chalmers, and one of those responsible for the study.

The reason why organic food was found to be so much worse for the climate is that the yields per hectare were much lower, and lots more land was needed to match conventional farming levels. Wirsenius said that the land-use factor is something that often isn’t taken into account when comparing agricultural production methods.

The more land used means that natural and biodiverse habitats could be destroyed in the process — a ripple effect that can be felt worldwide.

“The greater land-use in organic farming leads indirectly to higher carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to deforestation,” Wirsenius said. “The world’s food production is governed by international trade, so how we farm in Sweden influences deforestation in the tropics. If we use more land for the same amount of food, we contribute indirectly to bigger deforestation elsewhere in the world.”

Even organic meat and dairy products are — from a climate point of view — worse than their conventionally produced equivalents, Wirsenius noted.

“Because organic meat and milk production uses organic feeds, it also requires more land than conventional production. This means that the findings on organic wheat and peas in principle also apply to meat and milk products. We have not done any specific calculations on meat and milk, however, and have no concrete examples of this in the article,” he explained.

Organic stakeholders, however, justify that their method is still the better option, arguing that it is more energy efficient than conventional production, even when yields are lower.

The topic of carbon emissions and agricultural production is important to global policy discussions amid a growing population and a dwindling amount of arable land, particularly in the U.S. 

To read the full Nature journal study, click here.

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