Eat Organic to Mitigate Climate Chaos

A review of more than 100 published studies finds that organic agriculture is more efficient than chemically based industrial agriculture.

June 15, 2011

Organic farms are more efficient than chemical agriculture, producing similar yields while using less energy.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—We've been led to believe that huge, assembly-line megafarms are needed to feed the world's growing population. In the fields, these farms are often propped up by the use of chemical fertilizers, genetically modified seeds, and toxic chemical pesticides. In meat and poultry production, these "efficient" factory farms rely on things like arsenic and antibiotics, and create massive quantities of animal waste. Now, a new analysis looking at more than 100 published studies finds that industrial ag's claims of efficiency are actually not legit. In fact, researchers found organic farming to be the more efficient process, with similar yields and far fewer emissions of climate-change-inducing greenhouse gases. Scientists are linking stronger, more devastating storms, floods, and drought to climate change, meaning agriculture has the potential to play a key role in mitigating the problem. "These findings shake up the concept that 'bigger' is always better...bigger equipment, less genetic diversity, and more fertilizer and pesticides do not equal a more energy-efficient operation," Rod MacRae, assistant professor in the department of environmental studies at Toronto's York University, said in a statement.

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THE DETAILS: The Canadian study, "The Carbon and Global Warming Potential Impacts of Organic Farming: Does It Have a Significant Role in an Energy Constrained World?" appeared in the journal Sustainability. To figure out which farming system tends to be more efficient in terms of energy use and climate change potential, researchers analyzed 130 studies to figure out energy use on a per-hectare and per-product basis. Organic systems came out on top, except in fruit farming and poultry production, where data is insufficient.

And the argument that industrial ag produces more food? "Many regions in the global south show better yield performance with organic farming," MacRae says. "Even in North America, organic yields are not far behind conventional ones.”

Research performed over the last several decades at the Rodale Institute, an organic research farm in eastern Pennsylvania, has also found that organic yields are similar to crops grown with chemicals. In fact, organic yields tend to be higher in years of drought because the healthier soil is better able to reserve water.

In the Canadian study, researchers point to huge waste in conventional systems as one of the reasons they are less efficient than organic. Researchers note that 40 percent of what's farmed never makes it to our mouths. Part of that loss comes during harvest, processing, and distribution.

By contrast, organic grain farmers in the prairie used 50 percent less energy during a 12-year study featuring longer crop rotations. Organic farmers also go without chemical fertilizers, which carry a large carbon footprint. If Canada converted to growing canola, wheat, soybean, and corn only organically, its energy savings would increase by nearly 40 percent, and the country's climate-effecting emissions would drop by nearly 25 percent, the researchers concluded.

WHAT IT MEANS: The chemical system is propped up by, well, chemicals, and these take energy to make. Add to that the fact that chemicals harm soil's fertility, creating a need to use more chemicals in farming it, and it's not hard to see that industrial agriculture is an unsustainable system. Even with the sometimes increased tilling associated with weed control in organic farming, industrial ag still rated higher in energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions.

The energy savings in organic aren't limited to field crops, either. Researchers found that organic dairies that allow the cows to seasonally graze emitted nearly 30 percent less greenhouse gases than factory-farm beef operations.

Here's how to help support organic farming—and mitigate climate change at the same time:

• Be picky about meat. Many studies show that eating a vegetarian diet can promote health, and reduced meat production means fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. If you do eat meat, consider only having it a few times a week or month, and choose organic, particularly when buying beef. Canadian researchers concluded that factory-farm beef (the type in most grocery stores) is the most earth-unfriendly to produce in terms of energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions. Organic cows raised on pasture boast healthier meat and dairy and fewer greenhouse-gas emissions.

• Choose organic over local. Some people argue over what's better—local or organic. But during farmer's market season, you can generally have both. Search LocalHarvest.org for sustainable markets and farms in your area where you can purchase organic food grown locally. And remember that most of the carbon emissions associated with the food you eat have to do with how the food was produced, rather than how it's transported. Organic agricultural techniques actually add carbon back to the soil, rather than releasing it as a greenhouse gas. Finally, remember that food grown locally but not organically means agrichemicals dumped into your local water and soil.

• Grow your own! Tap OrganicGardening.com for free tips on how you can start your own organic vegetable garden, which can help save the planet and your bank account!

Tags: Rodale News