Dec 14 2018

More Evidence Organic Farming is Bad

I know I have been hitting this topic frequently recently, but I can’t ignore a major study published in Nature. The study is not just about organic farming, but about how we use land and implications for climate change, specifically carbon sequestration. The core idea is this – when we consider land use and its impact on the climate, we also have to consider the opportunity cost of not using the land in a more useful way. This echoes a previous study by different authors I discussed five months ago, and a review article by still different authors I discussed three months ago.

There certainly does now seem to be a growing consensus that we have to think very carefully about how we use land in order to minimize any negative impact on the environment, and specifically limit carbon in the atmosphere driving climate change.

The new study essentially argues that we need to use land optimally. If land is well suited to growing corn, then we should grow corn. If it is better suited for forestation, then we should allow forests to grow there and not convert it to farmland. Forests sequester a lot more carbon than farmland, and this is a critical component to any overall strategy to mitigate climate change. The authors calculate that land use contributes, “about 20 to 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.”

If we put the various studies I have been discussing together, a compelling image emerges. First, we need to consider that we are already using all the best farmland to grow crops. Any expansion of our farmland will by necessity be using less and less optimal land for farming. This translates to a greater negative impact on the climate. However, our food production needs will grow by about 50% by 2050.

This is a strong argument, in my opinion, against biofuels. We need that land to grow food, not fuel – unless we can source biofuels from the ocean or industrial vats without increasing land use.

It is also a powerful argument against organic farming. This dovetails with the previous study I discussed, which showed that intense farming is better for the environment than organic farming. This is due primarily to land use. Organic farming is less productive per hectare, and any decreased CO2 production from avoiding fossil-fuel based fertilizers or other methods is more than offset by the decreased production and increased land use. This disadvantage will only become greater with time, as the advantages of conventional farming increase and the greater inefficiency of spreading into suboptimal land increases.

Further, we have to consider the nitrogen cycle. Where is all the nitrogen to grow crops coming from? Organic farming relies heavily on manure, and that is not sustainable.

Scientists are increasingly coming to the firm conclusion that we have to optimize our farming, and organic farming just doesn’t cut it. This should come as no surprise, as organic farming is not evidence-based or even outcome-based – it is methodology-based, and also is derived from an appeal-to-nature fallacy. It avoids whatever does not feel “natural,” and then tries to present itself as more wholesome. Unfortunately, this resonates with human psychology, but the details don’t make sense when you take a close look. Organic produce is no better, but it is more wasteful, and therefore more expensive and worse for the environment.

There is another conclusion from the recent study that should be mentioned – consuming lots of meat, especially beef and lamb, is also not good for the environment and it requires a lot of land use per calorie. Collectively we need to shift to more lean meats, like fish and poultry, and more plant matter for our calories. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to go vegan, but it would help to have more vegetarian meals and fewer meals with red meat. If you want to limit your personal carbon footprint, this is an important step.

I doubt we will be ditching either red meat or organic farming anytime soon. They are both too culturally embedded. I do hope the message gets out about organic farming. Most people spend more money on organic produce because they feel it is more healthful (it isn’t) and it is better for the environment (it isn’t – it’s worse). So people who are concerned about the environment are harming the environment with their choices. This seems like a ripe target for public education.

Of course the organic lobby has a lot of money and are good at messaging and propaganda, which is why we are where we are in the first place. This includes their anti-GMO stance, which is also bad for the environment. GMOs have the potential to increase yield, allow more crops to fix nitrogen from the air, and to reduce land use. They will be a critical part of our strategy to feed the world without accelerating climate change. Unwarranted fear of unknown risks is not a reason to ban or oppose the technology. It’s actually working out fine so far, we just need to keep studying the technology and specific applications carefully.

But the organic lobby is happy to fearmonger about GMOs in order to position themselves as the “safe” alternative. This is an old strategy – but out looming climate crisis means we cannot afford it.




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