Hi everyone! Today I wanted to discuss sustainable eating. In particular, I want to explore the question: “Is organic food more sustainable?” I find that many people are under the impression that organic food is absolutely best for the planet, so I want to unpack how true or untrue that may be. I also want to discuss grass-fed meat, because I keep seeing the narrative that it is better for the planet and for people. Let’s dive in!
So, first of all, what is “organic?”
According to the USDA, certified organic foods are “grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives.
Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.”
To be considered “certified organic,” a food must meet a certain set of requirements by the government. In the United States, the USDA has defined a list of ‘allowable’ and ‘prohibited’ substances for agricultural crops to be considered Certified Organic.
The rules are pretty strict. For example, for produce to be called organic, it must have been grown in certified organic soil that has had no prohibited substances applied for at least three years prior to harvest.
So, even if a farm is transitioning to organic, plant-foods can’t be labeled as such for at least three years since the farm started following organic agricultural procedures. There are few incentives to support farmers during this transition period; they often have to bare the costs themselves without seeing any payoff for at least three years.
To be clear, organic farms can use some pesticides and fertilizers. The key difference is: organic pesticides must be natural in origin, whereas conventional pesticides may be synthetic.
Organic meat must be raised in “living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.”
Organic foods are also not allowed to be genetically modified (no GMOs, even though there is no current evidence to suggest their consumption is detrimental to human health).
Different government agencies have their own sets of rules and regulations surrounding organic certification. It’s also important to note that phrases like “made with organic ingredients” have no real regulation at all.
Is organic food better?
It appears that most consumers think so. A recent review showed that consumers find organic labels to have some sort of health halo around them.
But do organic foods live up to the health hype? This is a complex question with complex answers.
A 2012 review of more than 200 studies showed that there was no significant difference in terms of nutrient values of organic foods compared to conventional foods. The authors did note that publication bias may have played a role in their findings.
A more recent and larger review of 343 studies found that organic and conventional vegetables contain similar levels of most vitamins and minerals, and that convention produce tends to have more protein. The same study also found that organic foods may have higher levels of antioxidants, and expose consumers to less pesticides.
Pesticides, as I’ve written about here, are known to have detrimental impacts on human health. On the other hand, organic foods don’t truly seem to have more vitamins and minerals. In fact, conventional crops may have more protein (though few Americans are protein-deprived).
It’s also important to note that there is no standard comparison of exact organic versus conventional foods, since a bunch of other variables (like soil and water quality, as well as farming practices) may have impacted the results.
Is organic food better for the environment?
There are a lot of factors to consider, and at the present moment, there is not enough comprehensive data available on soil and environmental impacts of all of the various practices involved in both conventional and organic farming to make a precise comparison.
Furthermore, organic farming and conventional farming practices may vary farm to farm, which makes comparing them on their organic status alone even more difficult.
That said, we do have some data that shows that in some ways organic farming has environmental benefits, while in other ways, conventional farming has its own set of environmental benefits.
How organic may be better for the environment:
Organic agricultural practices use far less synthetic pesticides and fertilizers compared to conventional agricultural practices. Thus, organic farms may use less harmful pesticides like chlorpyrifos, which is known to be detrimental to the environment.
Many of these pesticides and fertilizers can not only directly damage the soil and surrounding environment, they may runoff into streams, causing water contamination. Some may even bioaccumulate in the ecosystem, causing health risks for humans, animals, and the environment alike. And tests on organic versus conventional foods have found organic foods to have lesser amounts of pesticides when it comes to human exposure.
Additionally, organic farming seems to be better when it comes to enhancing biodiversity. That said, the studies that have looked into organic versus conventional farming have often focused on a specific region (for example, the study linked here was focused in Switzerland), and more research would be helpful to make broader conclusions.
Research suggests that organically grown crops may be better for soil and water quality compared to conventionally grown crops, at least in the contexts tested. Again, studying these impacts in a wider variety of contexts, locations and climates could be helpful to better understand and maximize potential benefits.
And of course, there’s profitability. Organic crops are more profitable than conventional crops, mainly because consumers are more willing to pay a premium price for them.
How organic agriculture may not be better for the environment:
Organically grown crops most often have lower yields compared to conventional crops, meaning that for the same amount of land and resources, they produce fewer products. As climate change continues to decrease the amount of land and water available, some argue that organic farming techniques must improve, or be used in combination with higher-yielding conventional methods.
It does appear that crop-yield is highly dependent on the context (once again), meaning the amount by which conventional crops bear the edge depends on the crop being grown and the environment in which its grown.
Furthermore, by definition, organic crops cannot be genetically modified. GMO crops are often created to be more pesticide and weather-resistant and may contribute to higher crop-yields, which may give them a crop-yield edge over conventional crops. GMO crops can also be nutritionally-enhanced to prevent micronutrient deficiencies in developing contexts in a way that organic crops cannot be.
It’s also important to mention the pesticides used in organic farming. As mentioned above, organic farms can use pesticides. There are some organic farms that are ‘pesticide free,’ but many use pesticides and fertilizers from a USDA-approved list.
While many of these pesticides may be natural in origin, that does not necessarily mean they have no potential to be harmful to humans or the environment.
As with many things, the dose makes the poison, and it’s difficult to know the precise levels of these substances being used in organic farming, as their usage is less strictly regulated than non-organic pesticides. Furthermore, some allowable organic pesticides, such as copper, may accumulate in the soil over time.
Additionally, meat from organic, grass-fed agricultural practices actually carries a larger carbon footprint compared to meat from factory-farmed animals.
What we don’t know:
When it comes to answering “is organic food better for the environment?” answers are complicated by all of the variables – climate, soil, farming practices – all of which vary farm to farm, which makes aggregating the data and drawing conclusions from it complicated.
Additionally, there is much to be studied and learned about carbon sequestration of organic versus conventional crops (current reviews seem inconclusive when confounders are considered).
And, as mentioned a couple times in this article, many of the comparison findings were context-specific, meaning we need to explore how organic farming versus conventional farming works in different climates and contexts.
So, what’s the point: Is organic food better for the environment?
Well, in some ways yes, in other ways, no. It’s hard to determine a clear winner based on existing evidence, as both have their merits and their drawbacks.
So what does this mean for those of us trying to eat a more sustainable diet?
I didn’t write this post to try to persuade people to either buy only organic or only conventional food. Because the truth is, I don’t think the current state of the science supports either extreme.
Practically speaking, I think it’s important to continue studying organic and conventional farming, and how to improve the sustainability of both.
I think both may be useful and important (in different contexts) as we continue to face the challenge of feeding a growing population while navigating the impacts of climate change.
When it comes to what to put in your grocery cart, I’d suggest doing what feels best for you based on what you know, and what’s available, appealing, and within your budget.
Personally, I buy a mix of organic and conventional produce and other products based on these factors, and try to support ethical and environmentally-conscious businesses when I can.
And of course, as I’ve mentioned before, if you are serious about reducing the ecological impact of your diet, reducing livestock meat and dairy consumption may be the most effective step you can take.
I hope that one day in the future, we can have healthy fresh and sustainably-grown food for all peoples and animals, but at present, that’s not the reality. In the meantime, the best we can do is try our best to make informed choices, and push for further research and support of sustainable agricultural practices.
Well, that’s all for now. If you found yourself wondering “Is organic food better for the environment?” I hope you leave this post perhaps not with an answer to the question, but with a greater perspective on the complexities of the subject matter and the current state of the evidence.
If you liked “Is organic food better for the environment?” you may also like:
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