Why Eating Organic Isn’t a Climate Solution

Unfortunately, many organic foods are actually less climate-friendly.

Organic produce section at grocery store
Credit: Charles Wiriawan / Flickr

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Organic food has become increasingly popular over the last several decades, and sales of organic food hit an all-time high in 2023. In a recent poll, one-third of respondents said that they eat organic food for the environmental benefits — but they probably shouldn’t be. Contrary to popular belief, organic food is often worse for the environment than non-organic alternatives, and is not a viable strategy for fighting climate change.

What Does ‘Organic’ Mean?

If a product is marked “USDA Organic,” that means the USDA has certified that it was produced in accordance with the agency’s standards for organic food. But what are those standards, and what’s the animating principle behind them?

According to the USDA, organic produce standards are aimed at promoting the use of natural substances in farming and agriculture while prohibiting the use of synthetic or artificial ones. Organic standards for livestock, meanwhile, are intended to maintain a general level of wellbeing for farm animals, such as allowing them to engage in their natural behaviors and prohibiting the use of antibiotics and hormones.

That’s according to the USDA, at least. In practice, organic standards aren’t quite as stringent as that topline summary might imply. For instance, there are plenty of exceptions to the “no synthetic chemicals” guideline — around seven pages’ worth of exceptions, to be specific. Similarly, while the organic standards for livestock are certainly better than nothing, they still allow for a number of unsavory practices, and fall well short of promoting a truly “natural” existence for farm animals.

What Are the Upsides of Organic Products?

In fairness, organic food does have some positives going for it.

Limiting the use of antibiotics on livestock, for instance, is undoubtedly a good thing; the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture has led to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which are a serious threat to animals and humans alike. Cutting down on synthetic pesticides in crop production is also commendable, as pesticides often end up killing plants and creatures that they weren’t intended to.

Is Organic Food At Least Healthier For You?

In the 20th century, organic food gained a reputation for being healthier than non-organic alternatives, and there’s a good reason for that: It was. Prior to the 1970s, several toxic pesticides later found to have serious deleterious health effects, such as DDT and DBCP, were in widespread use. However, the EPA has since banned many of the most toxic pesticides in farming (though not all of them).

Nowadays, there’s little-to-no evidence that eating organic food leads to better health outcomes than non-organic food. This was the conclusion of a 2012 meta-study by the Stanford School of Medicine, as well as a 2019 meta-study published in Nutrients — although the latter study did note that the relative lack of long-term clinical trials into the topic makes it difficult to draw any firm conclusions one way or another.

While some things may well be better about organic food, it has one serious and glaring downside: it’s often worse for the environment than non-organic food.

Why Aren’t Organic Products a Climate Solution?

Organic food has long been associated with environmentalism, and the fact that it’s ostensibly more “natural” than traditional farming might lead one to conclude that it’s better for the land, air and water.

But it isn’t — at least, it usually isn’t. There’s a lot to tease out here, so let’s jump into it.

The Messy Process of Measuring Environmental Impact

There are a number of different ways to measure the environmental impact of agriculture (or anything, for that matter). You can look at greenhouse gas emissions or energy use, for instance; you can also look at land use, or water use or water pollution. In terms of environmental impact, none of those three criteria are “more important” than the others.

But this makes comparisons — such as a comparison between organic farming and non-organic farming — somewhat complicated. Milk alternatives are a helpful illustration of this: producing almond milk emits fewer greenhouse gasses than rice milk, oat milk or soy milk, but requires much more water. Producing soy milk requires far less water than rice milk, but takes up about twice as much land. And so on.

Complicating matters even further is the fact that these three metrics — land use, water use and air pollution — often interact with and affect each other. The very process of clearing land for agricultural use, for instance, emits greenhouse gasses; greenhouse gasses, in turn, often end up polluting the water and the land.

All of this is a long way of saying that comparing environmental impacts is less of an exact science, and more of a subjective and heuristic one, than you might think. This is an important thing to keep in mind as we assess the environmental effects of organic versus non-organic foods.

Why Organic Food Is (Usually) Worse for the Environment

In 2017, researchers Michael Clark and David Tilman conducted a massive meta-analysis of existing research on the environmental impacts of organic and conventional farming. They looked at over 90 different foods, and compared their impacts in five categories:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Land use
  • Fossil fuel and energy use
  • Eutrophication potential, or the pollution of water by excessive nutrients
  • Acidification potential, or the reduction in pH of water due to sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide

The researchers also divided the foods into six categories:

  • Cereals
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Pulses, nuts and oil crops
  • Dairy and eggs
  • Meat

Here’s what they found.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

This was one environmental category in which organic and conventional foods, on the whole, performed comparably to one another. On average, fruits, pulses and oil produced fewer greenhouse gasses when farmed organically, while vegetables, cereals and animal products produced more. But these differences were generally pretty small, making this category something of a wash.

Land Use

By contrast, the analysis of land use came to a clear and unambiguous conclusion: conventional farming requires less land than organic farming. This was true, to different degrees, in all seven food categories. The difference was pronounced with regard to organic animal products, which require almost twice as much land to produce than their non-organic counterparts.

This is largely because organic systems prohibit the use of many synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The reason farmers use those chemicals in the first place is because they increase yields; forgoing them reduces yields, so organic farmers need to use more land to produce an equivalent amount of food.

Eutrophication and Acidification Potential

On average, non-organic farms caused less eutrophication and acidification than organic farms. The reason for this has to do with the different fertilization techniques that each type of farm uses.

On non-organic farms, synthetic fertilizers are the norm, while on organic farms, manure is often used as a fertilizer instead. But while synthetic fertilizers release nutrients in response to the needs of the crop, the release of nutrients from manure depends more on environmental conditions, such as temperature or soil moisture. As a result, manure often releases more nutrients than is necessary, and those nutrients flow into nearby waterways.

Energy Use

Energy use was the only other category in which organic foods, on the whole, performed better than non-organic ones. This is largely because the synthetic chemicals used on non-organic farms require a lot of energy to create; organic farms, by contrast, limit the use of said chemicals, giving them a smaller energy footprint. The one exception to this was vegetables, which require more energy when farmed organically.

Looking Beyond Organic vs. Non-organic

Several other studies have confirmed the broad findings of Clark and Tilman’s paper, but it’s also important to take a step back and remember that when we assess the environmental impacts of the foods we eat, it’s not just a matter of organic versus non-organic. In many respects, what kinds of foods we eat is more consequential than whether those foods were farmed organically or not.

The Environmental Impact of Meat Consumption

Clark and Tilman’s study found that on average, organic meat requires almost twice as much land to produce as non-organic meat. But meat in general — regardless of whether or not it’s organically-farmed — requires up to 60 times as much land as non-meat protein sources, like nuts and grains.

From this perspective, the organic versus non-organic debate seems somewhat quaint. Sure, eating non-organic meat might be a bit better for the environment than eating organic meat, but a far more effective way to reduce environmental damage would be to stop eating meat in the first place, and seek out other sources of protein instead.

The Bottom Line

None of this means that organic food is inherently bad, or something to be avoided. But despite its upsides, it simply isn’t better for the environment than non-organic food, and it’s certainly not a solution to climate change.

If we want to change our diets to be more environmentally friendly, the answer isn’t to go organic. A far more impactful switch, climate-wise, is to eat fewer animal products altogether, especially beef and dairy, regardless of how they’re farmed.

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