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.


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.

75 responses so far

75 thoughts on “Organic Farming is Bad for the Environment”

  1. SteveA says:

    Thirty years ago (perhaps even twenty) the average ‘organic’ consumer would have been caricatured as a tie-dyed vegan hippy with moths flying out of his beard. These days, I’d say that the two main consumer groups for organic food are the ‘neurotic eaters’ who feel the need to pamper themselves with ‘special’ diets, and middle-class ‘gourmets’ who consider organic produce to be a cut above the common fare.

    I don’t see any way of breaking organic’s spell other than continually banging-on about its problems. Perhaps converting a few high-profile foodies would be the first next big step.

    Either that, or make organic producers hold fast to their principles (or, at least, consumers’ perceptions of these principles*) and go completely pesticide free. I’d like to see how they manage then.

    *I would guess that most buyers would consider organic to mean ‘pesticide free’.

  2. Sarah says:

    I don’t see any way to save us from the inanity of “organic” farming, either. I refuse to buy it, that’s my primary contribution.

  3. Ridres says:

    The communicational or information war must be strong so there can be some contradiction to those who think the organic way, is the best.

  4. BBBlue says:

    Contained within the Organic Trade Associations Code of Ethics:

    Adhere to honesty in advertising and in all representations to the public concerning organic agriculture and products.

    Support the establishment of an entire production, processing and distribution chain which is both socially just and ecologically responsible.

    Based on a preponderance of the evidence, the OTA has violated their code of ethics, but that is not surprising, their code of ethics is as hollow as their marketing claims.

    I put a lot of hope into GE tech to help tamp down the OTA’s misinformation campaign. One of the problems with the original launch of GE crops was that the there were no obvious benefits to the consumer that got them excited in a positive way about the technology. I am optimistic that if a breakthrough GE product comes along that consumers felt was a “must have”, the tide will turn and the general lack of honesty within the organic industry will eventually be revealed. An exceptionally flavorful, nutritious fruit or veggie will resonate with consumers in a way that cheaper, more stable production and more efficient land use never did.

  5. Gingerbaker says:

    ” Further, GMO technology is safe… ”


    The problem is that there are a lot of different genetic modifiers used in this tech, and their effect in vivo has not been characterized. You can have a “foodstuff” produced that has three separate, distinct genetic modifiers in it, going into the mouths of children. Where is the metabolic data, pharmacodynamics, effects on various tissues? There is evidence now that some of these compounds pass the gut intact, and make it into the human bloodstream intact.

    Are they absorbed by cells/tissues? We don’t know. Effects on platelets, DNA? We don’t know.

    What is the nature of their activity on cell types in vivo? We don’t know.

    How do these compounds/activators/modifiers interact with other compounds like drugs, pesticides, carcinogens, etc? We do not know.

    The fact is that GMO products have not been required to be studied as rigorously as ALL pharmaceuticals are required to be. Because they are classified as “foodstuffs”. The vast majority of “safety” studies done on these compounds has been simple nutritional equivalency – are they as nutritious as their non GMO equivalent. Well, of course they are.

    But your nonGMO equivalent does not have active synthetic genetic modifiers added to them. I am really very surprised at the sloppiness of the general scientific community on this issue – we should all be demanding that the in vivo effects of these compounds be thoroughly characterized.

    The irony is that it seems likely that they will be completely safe. But you (and virtually every other blogger on the topic) is doing everyone a disservice, I feel, by announcing that these compounds “are safe”. We do not know that yet.

  6. RickK says:

    Nitpick: Monarch’s depend on milkweed (genus Asclepias), it’s not a thistle.

    I’d like to dig into the science behind claims like those by Bill McKibben in “Eaarth” that there are sustainable farming practices that are at the same time “organic” and can get more calorie value out of land than current large scale mechanized farming. Haven’t researched it though. This study is interesting.

    Agree the meat variable is misleading.

  7. Jason says:

    Organic farming and the carbon footprint cult – two commercialized religions.

  8. edamame says:

    “Perhaps the biggest problem with organic farming is that it uses more land than conventional farming.”

    Why is this? Is this necessarily the case?

  9. daedalus2u says:

    The reason that organic farming uses more land is (mostly) because it doesn’t allow synthetic fertilizer. Also it does not allow chemical pesticides or GMOs.

    Any type of farming removes nutrients from soil through harvesting plant biomass for consumption off site. If those nutrients are not replaced, the soil becomes depleted. Conventional farming allows the use of any fertilizer; organic or synthetic. Organic farming doesn’t allow synthetic fertilizers but instead requires “organic” alternatives, usually fecal matter from animals fed conventionally grown feed. Many of the “nutrients” in organic fertilizer derive from synthetic fertilizers used to grow the feed that became “organic” fertilizer after it passed through an animal’s gut.

    Plants can’t absorb “organic” fertilizers, the fertilizers must be metabolized by soil bacteria and “mineralized” (made inorganic) before plants can use them. Synthetic fertilizers are closer to what plants can actually absorb and utilize, they can be applied more easily, more precisely, more frequently, and in sync with plant needs. This is why the leaching of nitrogen and phosphorous from conventional farms tends to be less (on a food produced basis) than from organic farms.

    Often organic farming uses a fallow period where nitrogen is accumulated in the soil by growing a nitrogen fixing crop. A fallow period is unnecessary in conventional agriculture because nitrogen is simply added as fertilizer. A fallow period is a period where no crops are grown, so it is a sharp reduction in productivity. Often organic proponents will hide this loss in productivity by only reporting “yield per year” in years where crops are grown and ignore the 1 in 3 years where no crop is produced (depending on the fallow period).

  10. Beamup says:

    If you’re philosophically restricting the techniques you allow, you can’t maximize your yields since you’re ruling out some techniques which could increase them. Therefore the yield of organic farming is necessarily less than maximal, resulting in an increase in land needed to generate the same output. Conventional industrialized farming doesn’t take yield as its ONLY metric either of course, but it pursues it far more aggressively than organic.

    The exact degree of difference can’t be predicted by this argument, of course, and you could imagine a scenario where other tradeoffs work out in some idiosyncratic way, but yes it’s pretty much necessarily the case that organic yields are at least somewhat lower. Which is also why claims like McKibben’s should be viewed as very dubious – if there were known methods to get significantly more yield without other major tradeoffs, they would already be standard practice. Completely without regard to whether said methods can be labelled as “organic.”

    This fits right in with Steve’s point that “[e]ach farming practice should be judged on its own merits”.

  11. MosBen says:

    daedalus2u, are you saying that synthetic fertilizer has what plants crave? (sorry, I couldn’t resist the Idiocracy reference)

  12. Willy says:

    An interesting side note: In the early part of the 20th century, corn yields were on the order of 25 bushels per acre; they now range from 150 to 200 bpa. The reason for this is new hybrid varieties of corn (we are talking field corn, not “eating” corn) that can be planted much more densely. The plant itself still yields only one ear per plant and those ears are no bigger than old varieties. The yield increase is due to new varieties tolerating denser planting, which is enabled by synthetic fertilizers.

  13. Kabbor says:


    Any reduction of efficiency in farming yield translates to an increase in the amount of land required to produce a given amount of a crop. So while increases in efficiency wouldn’t cause existing farms to decide to let some of their fields go wild, excess food production reduces the incentive to convert land into farm land.

    Just thought I’d point out a statement that could be misunderstood: “if you really care about the environment, then you should support any practice which minimizes land use in food production.”

    A reasonable person would take this to mean that you should optimize your use of land used in food production to minimize wasted land. A person that is not reasonable might read that you are willing to do anything to minimize land used in food production regardless of other wasteful or unreasonable activity. Just wanted to mention that, good article.

  14. jamieSVB says:

    @daedalus2u you’ve done a great job explaining key components of agriculture, that’s soil science 101 right there. One key component about the use of manure, is on a large scale, composting manure creates a lot of methane. We will always need to use manure are long we enjoy our steaks but it contributes to GHG emissions. (just as green waste or commercial fertilizer production does.) The number of cows you would need to sustain organic as the main source of food production would be out of control environmentally.
    As a farmer myself, it’s sad to see how little people know about agriculture, growing practices, and science involved. Is modern Agriculture perfect? No, but I think we are the cusp of some environmentally sound practices thanks to new technology.

    Farming is NOT organic versus conventional. Organic caters to a niche market. Those labelled as “conventional” are using practices that many consider only used by “organic” farmers. It does’t have to be one versus the other. As farmers, we want to use THE BEST practices to maintain soil fertility, water infiltration, porosity, etc. These are the basic principles of Best Management Practices that farmers employ as stewards of their land. There’s always going to be those guys that make farmers look bad but take a look on social media. The new generation of farmers are highly educated BSc or BA students with all of the new technology at their fingertips.

  15. BBBlue says:

    You are right, Willy, increased performance at greater plant densities has been a big reason for increased productivity, but there have been a number of lesser individual contributions that have added up as well. For one thing, farmers are doing a better job of science-based farming than they have ever done before. Also this:

    US maize breeders have selected for plants with greater stress resistances imposed by higher planting densities. Adaptation to those stresses includes change in leaf canopy architecture to maximize light interception and an improved ability to mine soil water and nutrients. Additional data showed more recent hybrids had reduced the flow of photosynthates to the male tassel, presumably thereby repartitioning photosynthates to the female ear, which is the site of grain production. More recently developed hybrids expressed more resistance to certain diseases and insects and were better able to retain a vertical stand.

  16. Sarah says:


    Plants can’t absorb “organic” fertilizers, the fertilizers must be metabolized by soil bacteria and “mineralized” (made inorganic) before plants can use them. Synthetic fertilizers are closer to what plants can actually absorb and utilize, they can be applied more easily, more precisely, more frequently, and in sync with plant needs. This is why the leaching of nitrogen and phosphorous from conventional farms tends to be less (on a food produced basis) than from organic farms.

    That’s really interesting! Do you have a link where I could read more and get some statistics? That’s fairly damning.

  17. Johnny says:

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

    Bob Carroll of The Skeptic’s Dictionary referred to The Demon-Haunted World as Carl Sagan’s epitaph. I’d hope that humanity as a whole would have an epitaph approaching that, rather than confirmation bias.

  18. Willy says:

    BBBlue–yeah, I should’ve been a little more careful with my wording, which I realized (of course) after I hit the submit button. lol

    Sarah: The manures and such are complex chemically and so take time to break down into simple compounds that plants can use. Organic additions to the soil are very beneficial as regards water retention or drainage, friability, etc. And they do eventually supply the “same” N2, etc. as synthetics.

  19. bachfiend says:

    This week I bought an apple which I later discovered was non-GMO (and possibly organic). For a week, I’d noticed odd looking apples in the supermarket which were a little purplish in colour, going for the incredible price of $13.50 a kilo (other varieties go for prices anywhere between $2 and $5.50 a kilo, I usually buy the cheapest if it looks OK). So out of curiosity, I bought one – $3.13. It was very good – crisp, not too sweet, good quality. A few hours later I had a red delicious apple (at $2 a kilo), which was equally good.

    The producers are confident that they’ll be able to continue to charge over $13 a kilo. I doubt it.

  20. Orion39 says:

    Hey Steve,

    Just a mild criticism. In the beginning of the article, when you say that organic farming doesn’t offer a nutritional advantage and that GMO tech is safe, you link to two posts that you wrote for this blog.

    I might be nitpicking and I know there is a ton of evidence to support what you wrote in those posts, but it probably looks somewhat shady to readers who aren’t as familiar with the matter and/or are on the edge.

    I know you may simply not have had time to scour the Internet for that, just giving my two cents.

  21. daedalus2u says:

    Orion39, the posts that Dr Novella linked to do have links to the literature on the topics he mentioned. Links he has already vetted as reliable.

    There is nothing wrong with linking to already vetted information.

  22. Orion39 says:


    I agree, that’s a good point. Like I said, I may have just been nitpicking. I know the information is accurate and I trust Steve to not post BS, it was more of a comment on appearances to people less up to date. But I think you have a fair point.

  23. Sarah says:

    Daedalus, would you be able to provide some useful sources to my above request?

  24. Willy says:


    Google “availability of nitrogen in manure” for more links. Also, do know that just because release of nutrients is slower in organic matter, organic matter does still supply the necessary nutrients and is not inferior, just different. It also conditions the soil, which synthetics do not do.

  25. Sarah says:

    That’s really cool, thanks.

    Do we have a rough percentage of how much worse “organic” runoff is? I didn’t see that part.

  26. BBBlue says:

    Sarah- I don’t agree that runoff from organic farms is necessarily worse. In fact, nitrate-containing synthetic fertilizers are one of the worst culprits because nitrate (NO3) is soluble and moves readily with water. Forms like ammonia (NH4) bind to the soil matrix, at least initially. However, a big part of many organic farms is keeping animals to supply nitrogen and aid in keeping soil structure optimized; wherever one does animal agriculture, there is a risk of nitrogen runoff and leaching from manure and urine if not properly managed.

    Cation exchange capacity (CEC) is extremely important for the efficient delivery of fertilizers without waste or loss, and adding organic matter as a soil amendment is a very effective way of increasing CEC. But of course, one does not have to be a certified organic grower to use organic matter as a soil amendment.

  27. Sarah says:

    There has to be studies on that question.

  28. daedalus2u says:

    A problem with many comparisons of organic and conventional farming is that they do not compare the same things on the same basis. The correct basis to use is per unit food produced, not per area.

    When you include the higher yield of conventional farming, the per unit yield environmental impact is lower for conventional than for organic farming.

    It is necessary to compare either both “typical”, or both “best practices”, not “best practices organic” with “worst practices conventional”.

    Typically, run off from organic farms is worse than from conventional farms. A lot of it is due to the mismatch of plant needs for nitrogen with nitrogen availability from manure mineralization.

  29. BBBlue says:

    daedalus2u- You are talking about the potential consequences of animal agriculture, not necessarily what happens on a certified organic farm. Where I live, CAFOs contribute more to nitrate in groundwater than does plant agriculture, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Likewise, I am sure there are some organic farms that don’t manage animal waste well, but that is a management issue, not something inextricably tied to organic farming.

    Sort of a similar to comparisons made between between organic and conventional systems where the conventional system is farmed in the worst possible way with no attention to soil health and then suffers by comparison.

  30. daedalus2u says:

    Here are a couple more good papers. A great deal of the improvement in efficiency and reduced environmental impact per unit food produced has come from increasing yield per animal which reduces the number of animals needed for a given output. If you need fewer animals to produce the same food, you need fewer animals in the “pipeline” (breeding animals) to produce the same number of animals. Artificial insemination has reduced the number of males needed to produce the same number of offspring. Eliminating the “surplus” males early, eliminates the need to support their metabolism with feed, and eliminates the resulting environmental degradation.

  31. daedalus2u says:

    The idea that conventional farms are managed badly is myth. Yields on conventional farms continue to increase. What is the evidence that there is destruction of soil fertility?

    All farming depletes soils of nutrients that plants take out and put into the biomass that is harvested. That is NPK (nitrogen, phosphate and potassium), plus trace minerals. When those nutrients are depleted by harvesting biomass, they must be replaced or the soil becomes less fertile. Conventional practice allows any technique. Organic practice prohibits “synthetic” fertilizer.

    Animal manure must be dealt with as it is generated. Storing animal manure results in leaching (unless it is covered which it typically isn’t), and also nitrification, denitrification and also N2O production.

    Use of animal manure can also spread pathogens unless the manure is handled “properly”, which is difficult.

    Synthetic fertilizer can be applied as needed. Typically nitrogen is applied as anhydrous ammonia, or as urea. Urea can be applied in irrigation water which is very efficient. Organic fertilizers can’t be applied with irrigation water.

  32. Willy says:

    I think I’ve told this story here before, but I’ll repeat it anyway. I live in the high, dry desert of the arid SW. A local municipality has, for some time, run an excellent compost manufacturing facility. Most of the raw material used is woody trimmings, or “browns”—very little “greens” like grass clippings. As a result, the city has had to 1) purchase a nitrogen supplement to add to the composing material, and 2) use water to keep the material moist enough. A couple of years ago, they hit on using bio-sludge (sewage). Thus, they eliminated the need for purchased nitrogen and added water, PLUS they didn’t need to truck the bio-sludge to a landfill anymore. Further, routine quality analysis of the compost proves it meets fed and state regs.

    The local organic crowd is not happy, citing antibiotic residues and heavy metal content. It seems only “organic” (to exclude night soil)is “perfect”.

    I also know a lady who worries that the compost might also contain composted GMO crops.

  33. BBBlue says:

    daedalus2u- Again, whether one farms conventionally and applies mostly synthetic fertilizers or farms certified organic and uses proportionately more animal manure, both systems can be farmed in a way that minimizes the leaching and and runoff of nitrogen.

  34. Sylak says:

    When I started reading the AFIS website, SBM, this blog and others in 2013, I was convinced, as the environmentalist I was, that organic farming was better. I just assumed, so many environmentalist believed it. Despite my reading, at the time, I was grasping to my belief. I always had a skeptical side, but it was undeveloped and unskilled. Than, I started listening to the SGU in may 2014. That summer I listen to at least 3 years worth of podcasts. There was something about the way Dr Novella explains things that made my mind click. I started investigating,learning to put what I assumed into the grinder of doubt. Since somewhere in 2015, I’m now purge. 2015 was the last year we subscribed to local organic vegetables basket. The quality of their product was great, I really wanted to convince my girlfriend to ditch them, but I was not in a rush, but I lost it when I found a flyer the well funded propaganda group called “vigilance OGM” ( Québec’s gmowatch). I was pissed off. The farm that was the distributor gave part of their profits to them. No way I’m getting involved. My girlfriend still had a emotional link to organic farming, from years of habit I guess, but her biologist training kind of kick in, especially with that anti biotech flyer ( she always has been pro gmo) . Now we go to the farmers market during summer to get or vegetables, we avoid the organic farm ( unless they have something tgat we want that others don’t). We still buy some organic products. Like soy milk, and tofu. The in-house brand organic soy milk is thr best, taste wise ( I use it only for nyy cereal. Still drink cow milk). Unfortunately, for tofu, it is hard not to buy organic, most brand are, since Loblaw ditch their in house brand of tofu that was. good. Like with nuclear energy, I change my mind ( although I’m not for nuclear everywhere, context is important).

    It’s unfortunate they were able to get so ingrained culturally. But it’s not just about marketing. There’s waky spiritual origins to organic farming, there’s farmers doing it for the money, but some are in a in a cult, consumers too.

    The irony is that the concerned about global warming will boost organic farming sale and it wil be actually detrimental. Damn the power of well written narratives.

  35. BBBlue says:

    Hey Willy- I probably said this the last time you told that story. Decay organisms need about a 24:1 carbon nitrogen ratio to metabolize carbon without leaving much nitrogen behind. 10:1 is often cited as a rule of thumb for feeding microbes while leaving some nitrogen behind for the following crop, for instance, when wheat straw is incorporated. Too much carbon and not enough nitrogen can result in poor conversion of plant residues to beneficial humus. Farmers sometime apply N for that reason as well. Balance, balance, balance.

    Most producers, conventional and organic, selling to major retailers are constrained by audit standards that prevent them from using biosolids. There are some legitimate concerns about its use as one is often not sure exactly where it has come from and what it contains. Heavy metals from industrial operations always seem to find their way into what is often represented as “just night soil.”

    My favorite example of GMO, non-organic paranoia was this sign seen at Whole Foods:

  36. hardnose says:

    “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.”

    Helping to support an ever-growing population leads to ever-more land use. Until it’s all used, and covered with toxic artificial poison.

  37. Andreas says:

    Reducing land use can effectively lower carbon footprint if the land that is not used is allowed to grow carbon-capturing vegetation. Conversely, increasing land use can effectively also increase carbon footprint.

  38. Greg Shenaut says:

    You could say it this way, maybe better: “if you really care about the environment, then you should support any practice which minimizes a growing world population. These practices also have to be sustainable with land use in food production.”

  39. BBBlue says:

    Greg- Any practice? How about we look to countries where population growth is near zero and people are happy, you know, Western countries where education is a priority and women decide if they want to conceive. What is the path to such a place? Highly efficient food production requiring fewer farmers, people moving to cities and leaving the farm behind, education, and women treated as equals. Obedience to an arbitrary set of standards based on ideology is not a rational course towards those goals.

  40. Sarah says:

    Helping to support an ever-growing population leads to ever-more land use.

    …what are you implying here?

    First off, population is going to level off soon anyway.
    Second – what are you proposing here? That we deliberately trigger a famine?

    Until it’s all used, and covered with toxic artificial poison.

    Implying that so-called “organic” pesticides are better than synthetic.

  41. edamame says:

    “The quality of their product was great”

    That is the major factor for me. If they are organic, not organic, I don’t care that much. If the carrots are crunchy and stay fresh, I buy them. If they suck and end up in the trash after four days, I don’t. As long as they aren’t torturing puppies and taking a blowtorch to glaciers, I’ll buy the good stuff.

    Here’s my new favorite organic farm service, incidentally:

  42. artemisandangelio says:

    When I started to read this article, I had to stop and think if it was April 1st, and I was expecting the writer to write: “I’m just joking.” Such is the article misguided and misinformed. No disrespect intended to the writer, but he clearly has no practical experience or knowledge about agriculture. He has obviously never seen the harmful effects of chemical farming and GMO farming on the soil, let alone on the environment, and on farming communities, including the health of farmers, and the socio-economic effects. He also does not know that organic farming can easily produce higher yields than chemical farming.

    Perhaps he does not realise what is in his coffee or chocolate in the way of pesticides and herbicides, which are not used in organic farming. Paraquat and DDT, for example. But he will scream: “They were forbidden many years ago! Nobody uses them now in chemical farming!” Welcome to the real world beyond the world of the armchair critics!

    The writer clearly has never seen the way organic farming turns hard, dead pan, chemical soil into crumbly soil, which has that beautiful smell when it rains – the smell, which disappeared when chemical agriculture took over. He has never seen how organic farming restores the balance of Nature, and how the birds and beneficial insects return to the fields and forests. I could go on, but I will leave him to read the seemingly countless websites about the positive effects of organic agriculture.

    If he wishes to discount organic farming as an ideology, that’s up to him. I hope he enjoys his daily dose of chemicals from chemical farming. I encourage him not to check which company is behind the “study” or “research” or the website, which is attacking organic farming before he jumps onto the bandwagon.

    To me his article is not about healthy skepticism. It is one written by someone who really does not know how things are. I hope I am allowed to be so blunt.

  43. artemisandangelio – Thanks for writing. I do appreciate your perspective, I just think it is primarily the result of propaganda, not reliable information. You are simply ticking off all the “appeal to nature” and “anti-chemical” and “anti-GMO” talking points. You dismiss this study without checking the source yourself. You assume I don’t know what I am talking about because I am not parroting the same propaganda as you.

    What I suggest is that you try to step back from what you think is true for a minute and look at actual logic and evidence.

    You didn’t, for example, actually challenge anything I said. You just dismissed it.

    The comments are also full of lots of additional information.

    But just try this – try to answer the question of organic vs non-organic yield as a scientific question. Don’t just look for sources that support your narrative. Look for sources that challenge it, for objective science, for all sides of the issue to see where the evidence actually is. Once you start to separate science from propaganda your views might start to shift.

  44. bachfiend says:


    Care to provide evidence for your assertions so that we can assess the quality of your evidence?

    I find it a little worrying that you write ‘I will leave him to read the seemingly countless websites about the positive effects of organic agriculture’. Which websites?

  45. The nitrogen and manure question is really important. I write about it here:

    As others have pointed out, this is the primary problem of looking at small organic farms and assuming their practices will scale up. They won’t. We cannot feed the world with organic farming. We don’t have enough land, and we don’t have enough organic fertilizer. Organic farming is ultimately supported by nitrogen that comes from conventional farming.

    Organic farming remains an expensive niche for the deceived and privileged.

  46. RickK says:

    A couple interesting items in the nitrogen discussion:

    “The Alchemy of Air” by Thomas Hager – very interesting treatment of the development of the Haber-Bosch process, in the context of lots of other interesting history.

    Also, the scarcity of sufficient “natural” nitrogen has been a problem for a long time, even to the point of making nitrogen-rich reserves into strategic assets. See “Chincha Islands War”.

    It seems that stripping the surface off of fragile islands is “organic”, while sucking nitrogen out of the air is not.

  47. Willy says:

    Plus one on “The Alchemy of Air”!

  48. SteveA says:


    Weren’t most of the able-bodied population of Easter Island taken as slaves to work the Chincha guano deposits?

    But at least it was 100% organic…

  49. Willy says:

    Sylak: My story is similar to yours. I started as a moderately pro-organic person and ended up basically disgusted with the movement. The final straw for me came when Organic Gardening mag began promoting homeopathy. At that point, I realized how unreliable they really were.

    Artemisandangelio: If organic farming could “easily” out-produce conventional farming, it would be the choice of all farmers. Also, organic gardening does use pesticides.

  50. BBBlue says:

    …this is the primary problem of looking at small organic farms and assuming their practices will scale up.

    Agree, and the operative term there is “small organic farm”. Those are typically operations that integrate plant and animal agriculture and are what organic ideologues might consider “true” to organic principles. The organic advocates I have talked to aren’t so much interested in scaling up individual operations as they are in increasing the number of farms. Their ideal model is a widely distributed network of small integrated farms. You know, sort of like the good old days when farmers were 30% of the labor force and the average farm was around 160 acres.

    However, certified organic can and has been scaled up for many crops, but those are often the result of large companies taking advantage of premium prices by simply substituting OMRI-approved inputs for non-OMRI approved and jumping through a few hoops. Organic ideologues often take a dim view of such operations, but they don’t have a lot of room to criticise since they are following the same rules all certified organic farmers have to follow, they are just doing it without the ideology, and mostly, without the animals.

  51. Willy says:

    BBBlue: I really appreciate your knowledge and objectivity.

  52. edamame says:

    What hoops do you have to jump through to count as organic? That is, what are the major ones?

    I googled it and basically was taken to a labyrinth at the USDA web site:
    I wonder if someone might be as kind as to give a sympathetic tl;dr version — this discussion is really helpful I’m learning a lot.

    The movement toward local produce is awesome. It is fresher, which is almost always better, and I like to support little farmers as it is *really* hard (basically impossible) to make money as a small farmer. The ones I know personally all have made money independently, and are losing money on their farm. Plus, it’s not like I prefer to throw my money at big corporations (Grapes of Wrath and all that). There’s lots of factors, as others have pointed out, besides net surface area of farm land, at play here.

    Unfortunately it doesn’t have that big an effect on carbon footprint, by itself, to buy from the local farmer:
    It suggests that transport only accounts for 11% of carbon footprint, on average, while production accounts for 83%. Their conclusion:

    So while buying local food could reduce the average consumer’s greenhouse gas emissions by 4-5 percent at best, substituting part of one day a week’s worth of calories from
    red meat and dairy products with chicken, fish, eggs, or vegetables achieves more greenhouse gas reduction than switching to a diet based entirely on locally produced food…

    So while buying local is great, there are even better things you could be doing.

  53. Beamup says:

    “Buy local” unfortunately rather conflicts with eating a wide variety of different produce year-round, which is good for you. There’s also the problem that trying to grow a wider variety of things locally than the locale is truly suited to can be very much less efficient than trucking them in.

    It’s really not that hard for “buy local” to end up dramatically *worse*, as opposed to great. It depends very much on the crop, the area, and the time of year. Sometimes it’ll be great. Sometimes it’ll be bad. Most of the time you just plain won’t have a choice.

  54. edamame says:

    Beamup yes there are all sorts of limitations of buying local. I do it when I have the choice, but I don’t fly to California just to get local artichokes in December.

  55. BBBlue says:


    You have the right source for the details. Here is an overview:

    One of the biggest obstacles to overcome is the fact that one has to meet USDA Organic standards for three years before they can be certified. That’s three years of higher production costs and less production before you get a premium price.

    Local is great, but so is not local. Steven has made this point before, and I agree: Buy local for flavor, freshness and availability. Don’t fret over food miles and carbon footprint in this context. There is as much misinformation and marketing shenanigans related to “local” as there is for “organic.” Creating a marketing dynamic where local is good and not local is bad is counterproductive, in my opinion.

  56. daedalus2u says:

    “Buy local” isn’t always the most environmentally benign alternative. Virtually all of the carbon footprint from transportation is in the least efficient leg of the transportation chain, the trip in the car from home to the place where the food is purchased.

    If you have to travel farther by car to purchase “local”, then it probably releases more carbon to do so. One of the papers I cited above illustrates this.

    A commercial truck loaded with commercial quantities of food has a lower footprint per kg mile than does a personally owned car carrying a single week’s worth of groceries. The truck may have a higher footprint per mile, but it caries a thousand times more, so you have to divide the distance it travels by a thousand to get it on a kg mile basis.

  57. BBBlue says:

    daedalus2u- Not to mention that “buy local” sometimes encourages production where it doesn’t belong or is not well suited. I say, grow as much as one can where climate, soils, water availability, infrastructure, etc., are best for a particular crop and sure, also take full advantage of local opportunities where they occur, but don’t try to pound a square peg into a round hole.

  58. Sylak says:

    Haha, funny. Quality of produce mostly depends on the variety and if the growing season was optimal development of the compound for taste. I wonder that is in real, conventional farming could be better, since with all methods, it’s better at being consistent.

    We had this problem with the organic produce delivery, too much stuff we didn’t want and not enough ( or too much) we wanted. Carrot anf potatoes are nice, but we wanted more sweet peppers and egg pants and we barely had any. We had multiple varieties of cruciferous vegetal we didn’t like etc. We gave a lot but wasted some. We made lot of Compost.

  59. Sylak says:

    The organic consumers association wants to ban vaccine from organic farming. Of course they won’t be able to push this, even for the organic mouvement they are fringe, but it shows how far gone the rabbit hole some of those lobby are.

  60. BillyJoe7 says:

    Because of time constraints, we have food delivered weekly – enough for five meals each week, and just enough food for the recipes they supply with the food. And you can get vegetarian if you wish. As far as possible, food is obtained locally. They used to recycle the packaging but now we have to do it ourselves which is no big deal as the council supplies a recycling bin.

    I’m not sure how this stacks up regarding our carbon footprint, but it does seem to me that it reduces it. There is no waste food at least.

    We also used to have fruit delivered, but there was very little variation in the type of fruit from week to week and too much fruit that didn’t especially appeal to us. I now visit the local farm on my way back from my mountain run on Sunday mornings and pick what we want.

  61. richl says:

    Some intellectual dishonesty here???

    OP two links which he says say that Organic is no more healthful or nutritious than conventional both seem to say the jury is out since so little research has been done.

    GM link is to OP’s own article, although that does link through to (partial) actual research. FWIW I’m more concened about herbicides, monocultures, and patents than I am about GMO, and the OP simply omits to consider the consequences of companies like Monsanto owning the one-shot seeds depended on for survival. Feeding the world should surely not be under the control of a few profit-driven mulitnationals?

    How about we ensure that GMO produce is fully labelled no matter where in the chain the GMO occurred and let consumers decide? How about making non-GMO seed available at the same price to farmers so they can have a straight choice, instead of a Monsanto straight-jacket. Then we’d see an outcome based genuinely on what people want, rather than what their technocratic ‘betters’ decree.

    The plight of the Monarch buttefly is invoked in support fo the case against Organic, but OP doesn’t suggest how he would guide/coerce monoculture conventional agriculture to set aside a proportion of potentially profitable acreage to support the non-paying natural world.

    As for comment(s) criticising local food production while completely ignoring the ecological costs, the costs of transport, and the (often) subsistence wages paid to offshore workers – shows a lack of consideration for wider issues or others’ suffering.

  62. BBBlue says:

    Quality of produce mostly depends on the variety and if the growing season was optimal development of the compound for taste.

    I would say the potential eating quality of produce depends on genotype. From that point, realized potential depends on things like environmental conditions, farming practices including irrigation, soil type, post harvest handling, etc. For instance a great variety grown under optimum conditions and stored for a long period of time may deliver a poorer eating experience than a mediocre variety that is very fresh.

    Only takes about 3 days to ship produce coast to coast, so California produce can be pretty darn fresh when it arrives in New York, but still, it’s hard to beat the flavor of a fruit or veggie that is eaten the same day it is harvested.

  63. Sylak says:

    Yes, well I should have had freshness. Your right, but season do. Play, we had the same variety of strawberries, 2 years in a row. Time between harvest and eating them wasthe same, but the second year the barely tasted anything compared to thr year before ( and even from ones bough at the grocery store). It was from our organic basket ( it was 2015, the last year we subscribed). So i guess something else was at play. Rain, sun, fertilizer. I don’t know. That is what I meant. Also, how they are ripen can change. Tomato ripen on the pants taste a lot more.

  64. Sylak says:

    Need edit option. Sorry, typing on my phone do not give me a he best result lol.

  65. BBBlue says:


    I don’t know what happened to your strawberries, but allow me to describe one possible scenario.

    Organic growers often have less control over production variables when compared to conventional growers, particularly in the case of pest management. An organic grower may produce a beautiful crop of strawberries one year and not the next. Heck, for a crop like strawberries, it can vary from week to week: “Shucks, wasn’t able to stay ahead of pathogens this year or this week and now I have a mess on my hands; plants are struggling and fruit is small and doesn’t eat worth a darn. Can I interest you in some really nice kale?”

    That’s just the way it is. Same variety, same weather, or at least nothing unusual, but for some reason, conditions were very favorable for disease and the fungicides available to organic growers were not effective enough. For many crops, especially fruits and veggies, that sort of thing happens far more often to organic growers than it does to conventional growers.

    Watched a documentary on Alice Waters the other day for about the tenth time. Nice lady with a great business and marketing concept. A pioneer in presenting organic foods to the public at her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, CA. She has many local suppliers and she features whatever they have that is good that day or that week. If there are no wonderful strawberries available from her group of suppliers, her customers don’t eat strawberries. No 30-page menu with everything on it available, you eat what she decides to cook that day.

    Retail is a little different than a high-end restaurant that gets a hundred bucks per plate. When strawberries are in season, customers want strawberries. If Kroger can’t keep good strawberries on the shelf and Wegmans can, then the head of produce procurement at Kroger is going to be really pissed and will find a supplier who can meet their needs. Conventionally grown strawberries found in supermarkets that value quality will be spectacular occasionally, but they will be good almost all the time during the summer, and they will almost always be on the shelf at affordable prices.

  66. BillyJoe7 says:


    If you had an edit option we’d all be the poorer for it 😀

  67. BBBlue wrote: “For instance a great variety grown under optimum conditions and stored for a long period of time may deliver a poorer eating experience than a mediocre variety that is very fresh.”

    True that. What I hate is food that has been improperly stored or handled. My staple food is the sweet potato, and I only buy California varieties by the 40lb box for home use here in the Midwest USA because frankly Mississippi and North Carolina suppliers, at least those in the supply chains our area supermarkets use, routinely ruin their Beauregards — the roots are often full of voids or mosaic looking spongy areas when they arrive. They’re garbage. I pity anyone not familiar with the sweet potato picking some of these up at Thanksgiving when they’re cheap and turning up their noses at this awful vegetable forevermore. California on the other hand rarely disappoints.

    It’s also hard to find Hass avocados sold locally that ripen properly, the skin takes on a sheen and there are darkened mushy areas inside and not the hoped for delight. I remember Hass avocados as blissful orbs of the gods, but haven’t bothered with them in recent times as they’re not worth the disappointment. I believe this is a handling issue — too cold and or bruised at some point in their journey wrecks them. Even Whole Foods customers experience and complain about this.

    Going out on a limb here — I speculate that gassed bananas suffer a fate that renders their flesh less desirable. I like bananas when the skin is completely speckled brown and the flesh is uniformly firm and sweet inside. When I had a choice in the early 1980s I bought ungassed individual hands from a local greengrocer frequently enough to note that while they took a long while to ripen there were no mushy areas inside at all when perfectly yellow with brown spots all over. Gassing doesn’t harm the banana nutritionally they say, fine, but does accelerating the ripening in the manner as it is currently practiced diminish the eating experience??? I don’t know but I think it might.

  68. Rchl – I have written extensively about GMOs, organic farming, and health effects. I linked to recent examples that in turn have links to studies, as you acknowledge.

    There is no Monsanto “straight jacket.” Farmers buy the seeds they want. If they did not want GMOs, they would’t buy them. The situation is no different than with hybrid or other non-GMO seeds. This is the way it has been for a hundred years – so why all the concern all of a sudden about big seed companies selling seeds?

    There has been consolidation in the industry, but that is a bigger issue that has to do with anti-trust enforcement. It also has to do with regulations – unnecessarily onerous regulations make it more difficult to bring new varieties to market, pushing aside smaller companies and making them vulnerable to being gobbled up. Again, no different than any industry.

    It’s easy to rail against “monoculture” when you have no idea how farming works.

    There are already moves to have big farms set aside patches of fallow lands for natural weeds like milkweed. Also, it is simple math that if we need less land to grow our food we will plant less land.

    None of this has anything to do with GMOs, btw, and labeling them won’t help anything. Why not label all hybrid varieties, or all varieties that result from mutation breeding? It may have something to do with the fact that those varieties are allowed under organic rules. This is all about one brand demonizing their competitor. Don’t fall for it.

  69. schwarp says:

    I think it’s worth noting that this study covered people in Germany, which (from what I can read at least) has actually banned the growing of GMO Crops outright.

    Not sure about imports, but I would think the rules are pretty strict when it comes to that as well (maybe with the exception of animal feed). So the “conventional” diet described here may even lack the possible environmental advantages GM technology could bring. There are probably some differences between EU and US rules on organic as well.

    For all the fuss about GMO labeling in the US, at least it’s possible to buy and grow GM crops there, in Europe the “debate” seems to be more about whether or not to ban crops developed with GM technology outright.

  70. bsoo says:

    “Organic farming remains an expensive niche for the deceived and privileged.” – I have an issue with this statement. It’s also for the lazy, like myself, who only shop at Whole Foods because it’s a block away and the next closest grocery is another 10 minutes. I cringe every time I purchase something with a “gmo-free” or “gluten-free” label on it, but convenience wins.

  71. Stephan says:

    I’ve come here in reply to the SGU item on this issue, and I’m sorry to say that this is very much a case of conformation bias at work in someone who should be able to know better. I can understand the need to debunk certain claims of organic farming, but that should not lead us to be blind on both eyes.

    From a methodological point: What happened to “It’s only a single study”? I’ve not read the full paper (it’s paywalled, and I doubt my university is subscribing to this somewhat obscure journal), but from the abstract it’s not very clear how inclusive the life cycles considered are. Secondly, the paper is based on the first authors Masters thesis at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden, with several of the other authors being a collection of advisors from both Germany and Sweden. The publisher is Elsevier, of mixed repute, in the Netherlands. So calling it “a study from Germany” is at least a bit sloppy.

    As for the claims made by Steve: I don’t know what organic farming does in the US, but at least in Germany (apparently where the study is from ;-), it is based on the ideas of local cycling of nutrients. Hence organic farms do not bring in manure from non-organic farms as fertiliser. This claim is simply wrong. Also, in large parts of Germany, animal manure is not a scarce product – it is something that is created in large amounts by mass animal production, and getting rid of it is often a limiting factor for farmers – they are only allowed to distributed a limited amount per acreage to limit pollution of rivers and ground water via run-off. Most conventional pig farms would be glad to sell their manure to other farmers, or even to reliably being able to give it away.

    Finally, I very much hope that in the long term, we get the population increase under control. In the medium term there may well be a need for increases in food production. But in the short term, at least Europe is overproducing food. We are paying farmers subsidies to retire productive fields (clever ones convert them into solar farms and double-dip on the subsidies), and we are also paying to destroy significant amounts of food. I’d maintain that while we may also have a food production shortfall, until we manage to solve the (mostly economic) problems of food distribution, it’s unlikely that increased production due to intensive agriculture in highly developed countries will make a dent in malnutrition in the third world.

  72. Stephan,

    I never rely on a single study. That is why I searched for all studies approaching this question, and I cited a recent systematic review.

    Regarding manure, you fail to address the basic question – how much food could we produce without artificial nitrogen fertilizer? The answer is – not nearly as much as we would need to feed the world. This is simply not a solution. It’s fine to use as much of it as we can to recycle nitrogen back to the farm, but that cannot be the sole source of nitrogen. I linked to a more thorough discussion I did on that specific point.

    Finally, you miss the point on food productivity. I never claimed that we are not producing enough food right now to feed the world. We are, if we optimize distribution and reduce waste. My point is, at any population size and food efficiency, we want to minimize land use for farming. Converting natural ecosystems to farmland has a massive impact on the environment.

    When you compare organic vs conventional farming head to head, organic is worse for the environment because it uses much more land. Any arguments about, well, if we reduce the population, reduce waste, and reduce meat consumption it won’t matter as much, is a complete non sequitur. It is an argument worthy of climate change denial.

    “Organic” farming is also a false dichotomy. We should use evidence-based farming. Period.

  73. SteveA says:

    This just in from the BBC:

    “Organic milk not good for the land, says ad watchdog”

  74. BBBlue says:

    Stephan- Similar to what you described, in California, herd size is constrained by regulations designed to reduce risk of pollution both from urine and manure and also from methane produced by cow burps and farts. As a consequence, we simply cannot produce enough N as cow manure to sustain our diverse agricultural systems. Sure, use manure as efficiently and productively as possible, but alone, it is too expensive and not enough, even if we include all animals that produce manure.

    As for economics, the main limitation related to manures, including composted manures, is that there is relatively little N per ton of manure and so the cost per unit of N to transport and apply is very high. Raw dairy manure contains about 10 lbs of N per ton and raw feedlot manure contains about 20 lbs. One would need to apply 20 tons of dairy manure per acre to produce a corn crop that requires 200 lbs N. In the US, a full truckload is 25 tons, so that means 800 trucks on the road for every 1,000 acres compared to just 5 trucks of anhydrous ammonia.

    A dairy cow produces about .45 lbs of N per day and a beef cow produces about .31 lbs and there are about 77 million beef cows and 14 million dairy cows in the US. That’s good enough for approximately 173 million acres at 200 lbs N per acre. Total planted acres in the US is around 900 million. Now factor in the acres need to grow feed. I understand that not every planted acre requires 200 lbs of N, some crops require less and some more, and that there are more animals contributing manure than just cows, but you get the picture, there is no way we can satisfy the N requirements of crop plants exclusively with animal manures.

    Nutrient cycling is another general farming practice that organic advocates have coopted so as to suggest only organic farms practice it. That is not true, lots of “conventional” farms in the US practice that principle. In the US, at least, the term “organic” is based on the false premise that natural is always better and the USDA Organic certification is an arbitrary set of standards based on that same false premise. The first criteria of interest to our National Organic Program is whether an input or practice is “natural”, not whether there is evidence for it being more sustainable or environmentally benign.

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