May 25 2017

Organic Farming is Bad for the Environment

land useMarketing sometimes involves the science of making you believe something that is not true, with the specific goal of selling you something (a product, service, or even ideology). The organic lobby, for example, has done a great job of creating a health halo and environmentally friendly halo for organic produce, while simultaneously demonizing their competition (recently focusing on GMOs).

These claims are all demonstrably wrong, however. Organic food is no more healthful or nutritious than conventional food. Further, GMO technology is safe and there are no health concerns with the GMO products currently on the market.

There is an even more stark difference, however, between beliefs about the effects of organic farming on the environment and reality.  In fact organic farming is worse for the environment than conventional farming in terms of the impact vs the amount of food produced.

First, organic farming may use pesticides. They just have to be “natural” pesticides, which means the ones they use are not chosen based upon their properties. Ideally choice of pesticide and the strategy in using them would be evidence-based and optimized for best effect, minimal impact on health and the environment, cost effectiveness, and convenience.   Organic farming, however, does not make evidence-based outcome choices. Their primary criterion is that the pesticides must be “natural”, even if they are worse in every material aspect. This represents ideology trumping evidence. It is based on the “appeal to nature” fallacy, an unwarranted assumption that something “natural” will be magically better than anything manufactured.

In fact my main complaint against the organic label is that it represents an ideological false dichotomy. Each farming practice should be judged on its own merits, rather than having a bunch of practices ideologically lumped under one brand. I don’t care if a practice is considered organic or not, all that matters is the outcome.

New German Study

Perhaps the biggest problem with organic farming is that it uses more land than conventional farming. Most of the negative impact of farming is due to land use. The reason the monarch butterfly numbers are decreasing is because meadows with milkweed are being displaced by farms with weed control. There is nothing you can do to make a farm better for the environment than a natural ecosystem.

In other words – if you really care about the environment, then you should support any practice which minimizes land use in food production. These practices also have to be sustainable with a growing world population. This means embracing GMO technology, and using evidence-based rather than ideology based farming practices.

The latest study to support the conclusion that organic farming is inefficient comes from Germany. They compare what they consider to be a typical organic diet with a typical standard diet on two measures, carbon footprint and overall land use. What I don’t like about this study is that they mixed a couple variables. They found that the typical conventional diet includes 40% more meat than the typical organic diet.

Their main findings are this:

The carbon footprint of the organic and conventional diets were the same – no significant difference. However, this includes the fact that the conventional diet contains 45% more meat, and meat consumption was the main driver of the carbon footprint. Therefore, if you eliminate the meat variable, organic produce has a much higher carbon footprint than conventional produce, but this higher organic carbon footprint was offset by reduced meat consumption.

Obviously the ideal situation would be to use conventional farming practices, but also reduce overall meat consumption.

Further, the organic diet (which again includes the meat variable) uses 40% more land than the conventional diet. That is a huge difference. That is in line with other studies which show organic farming uses 20-40% more land than conventional farming. That difference is likely to grow as we make progress with GMOs, which are banned by organic farming rules.

It is estimated that we already use 40% of the Earth’s landmass for farming, which is essentially all of the land suitable for farming. As the world population grows we need to get more food from the same amount of land, and if anything we should be trying to reduce our farming footprint by using less land. Organic farming is a step in the wrong direction.

When I have raised this point in the past, defenders of organic farming have sometimes countered that such estimates are not based on optimal organic farming. If you do it right, you can equal or even beat conventional production. There is no basis for this claim, however. It is also a bit of a “no true Scotsman” fallacy, as if organic farmers using more land are not “real” organic farmers, or at least they are not doing it right. They also offer only anecdotes about how they or someone else is able to have amazing yields with organic farming.

The scientific evidence tells a different story. When actually applied in the real world at meaningful scales, organic farming is less productive than conventional farming. Even if we use the more conservative estimate of using 20% more land, we cannot afford that. There is no 20% more land to expand into.

The next non-sequitur is to argue for reducing food waste. That’s like saying we don’t need green energy, we should just reduce energy waste. Sure, we should optimize our distribution system and food practices to minimize waste. In fact, GMOs can help do that by extending shelf life, reducing browning, and other tweaks. But that doesn’t mean we can afford to be wasteful in one area if we make it up in another. Rather, let’s be maximally efficient in every aspect of food production and reduce land use if possible.

Conclusion

The organic farming brand is counterproductive. It is ideology-based, and creates a false dichotomy which encourages variables to be mixed in a confusing way. While the results of this German study are illuminating, they also fall for the organic false dichotomy, and blur the real magnitude of the inefficiency of organic farming.

The evidence is clear that organic farming on any meaningful scale is significantly less land efficient than conventional farming. That may, in fact, be part of the motivation for organic opposition to GMOs – they know they can’t compete. With increased use of GMO technology, the production difference is likely to increase. Imagine if scientists are successful in tweaking photosynthesis or making varieties that fix their own nitrogen. The organic lobby needs to stop our scientific advance in agriculture if they are to remain viable.

They also need to continue to maintain their deceptive marketing practices that spread misinformation about the actual effects of organic farming.  If you are pro-environment, you should be anti-organic farming. And yet the organic lobby has managed to convince generations of environmentalists that organic farming is somehow better for the environment.

It is hard to combat an effective narrative with dry scientific evidence. That may end up being an epitaph for humanity.

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