Organic food is one of the most recognized eco-friendly alternatives to conventional food. It’s touted as being healthier, more nutritious, and safer.
However, there are many criticisms of organic food, especially arguments that claim organic food isn’t sustainable. Out of three primary types of agriculture, organic farming sits in the middle – not as efficient as conventional farming but not as environmentally friendly as sustainable farming.
Are organic products sustainable?
It’s important to understand what exactly is meant by “organic food”.
In the UK, the Department for Agriculture and Rural Affairs defines organic food as “the product of a farming system which avoids the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides; growth regulators and livestock feed additives”. Organic food is not produced with the use of irradiation or genetically modified organisms.
In the USA, organically grown food is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as “food grown and processed using no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides”.
Certification bodies may have additional requirements before food can be certified organic.
Only certified organic products are certain to be made with non-synthetic chemicals or processing.
For instance, the Australian Certified Organic certification adds that organic food is “a whole systems (sic) or holistic means of growing and handling food”. The Australian Certified Organic requirements are also more environmentally-led than other national certifications.
Sustainable products are grown with the following in mind:
- Crop diversity
- Conserved land resources
- Water efficiency
- Energy efficiency
- Low emissions, especially in production and transportation
- Humane treatment of livestock
- Eco-friendly packaging
Organic certifications may address some sustainable goals, but they often fall short.
Livestock used for producing organic food isn’t guaranteed the same humane treatment as sustainable livestock, though there is some overlap.
Why organic agriculture may not be so sustainable
The difference between organic and sustainable agriculture doesn’t look so big, but comparing them directly shows how much organic food doesn’t guarantee sustainability.
Organic farming practices include crop rotations, reducing soil erosion, applying manure instead of chemicals, non-chemical weeding, and using non-GMO seeds.
In comparison, sustainable farming practices include no or reduced tilling, the use of cover crops to minimize soil erosion, maximizing natural fertilizer efficiency, and reducing runoffs of sediments and nutrients.
Comparing organic and sustainable farming certifications in regard to livestock can also show why organic doesn’t equal sustainable.
Livestock raised on organic farms is fed an organic diet that is as natural as possible. This means their feed has to be free from genetically modified organisms.
The USDA specifies that livestock like cows and sheep “must be out on pasture for the entire grazing season, but for not less than 120 days” and they need 30% of their feed to come from pasture.
The Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard requires farms rearing cattle to prohibit: cloned animals; mistreatment or abuse of cattle or working animals; feeding cattle excrement of any kind, animal products, or by-products; certain chemical substances (including hormones to stimulate higher production).
The Soil Association’s organic standards require animals to:
- Be given plenty of space and fresh air;
- Raised in conditions “that suit their natural behavior”;
- Be genuinely free-range;
- And not be routinely given antibiotics.
Comparing organic and sustainable standards shows us that while organic farms do share similarities with sustainable farms, sustainability requirements are more thorough and target the whole farm.
Being a sustainable farmer is more than just looking after your animals – it’s about looking after the land and promoting biodiversity.
In comparison to conventional farming, organic farming is an improvement. But that doesn’t make it sustainable either, especially if the land is overworked.
When land isn’t properly managed, soil degradation sets in, which affects the quality of soil and this “diminishes its capacity to support animals and plants”.
Intensive agriculture is a leading cause of soil degradation.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, around a third of the world’s soil has already been degraded. If farmlands are degraded, deforestation will take place to create more land to grow crops, but deforestation is also a cause of soil degradation.
Is organic farming worse for the environment?
Conventional farming practices – using chemicals to get the highest yield of crops – aren’t sustainable, but how do they compare to organic farming?
In 2018, research from Chalmers University of Technology found that organic peas grown in Sweden had a 50% “bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed peas”, and organic Swedish winter wheat had a 70% bigger impact.
The main reason for the increase in climate impact came down to the amount of land used for organic farming compared to conventional farming. More land usage means that there was an indirect increase in carbon dioxide emissions, especially because of deforestation.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that conventional farming is better, especially when you consider all the food waste in the world.
Organic farming is argued to be bad for the environment because organic farming:
- Is less efficient than conventional farming
- Uses more land, leading to more deforestation
- Causes higher carbon dioxide emissions and biodiversity loss because of land usage
The argument is usually used by people who claim that going 100% organic will “exacerbate [greenhouse gas] emissions through greater food production” because more land usage is needed to “make up for lower organic yields”.
The 2019 study of greenhouse gas impacts of swapping to organic methods in England and Wales looked at how the production of organic food generates greenhouse gas emissions alone.
However, the study also says that there are “undoubted local environmental benefits to organic farming practices, including soil C storage, reduced exposure to pesticides, and improved biodiversity”. The discussion added that “it is unlikely that there exists any single optimal approach to achieving environmentally sustainable food production”.
The problem is that organic food simply doesn’t provide standards and requirements for sustainable farming at a rate that would satisfy everyone because organic farming is focused on delivering the most healthy foods for human consumption.
On the other hand, sustainable farming is focused on working with the environment to produce healthy and maintained environments.
The two can work together, and many sustainable goods are organic! So how can we improve organic food to also be sustainable?
How can organic food be sustainable?
Standards for certifications of organic food need to prioritize more sustainable methods of agriculture and catch up to sustainable certifications. While some organic certifications are promising, we should also be encouraging farmers to seek certifications for organic and sustainable products.
But we also need to address the reasons organic farming is criticized for being worse for the environment than conventional farming.
While organic farming requires more land usage, farmers can adopt sustainable farming practices like crop rotation to maximize yield and take care of the land. This includes no or limited tilling, crop diversification, recycling of animal and crop waste, and minimizing air and water pollution.
To tackle the problem of land usage, land should be managed sustainably and crops grown in areas where they can flourish. This is especially true for native crops, which will both grow better in ideal conditions as well as contribute to the local ecosystem.
By prioritizing local and native crops in our diets, we can also cut down on transportation emissions. A shift to sourcing fruit and vegetables from farmers’ markets and community gardens would support sustainable agriculture and enrich our diets.
Agricultural education is an important step in showing farmers how they can be sustainable and swap from disruptive mechanical processes to more eco-friendly methods. But without incentive, this isn’t likely to sway anyone from trying to achieve maximum efficiency and productivity from their farms.
Knowing more about local biodiversity could help farms provide better nutrition for livestock without resorting to ordering masses of feed from across the region or country. This, at least, has a long-term financial incentive, as the plants sown will continue to flourish with little maintenance required.
Eco-friendly packaging is already being encouraged across communities, though most retailers use plastic packaging because it is cheaper to produce. Now that more sustainable packaging alternatives are available, more producers and retailers are making the swap.
Many organic farms use plastic to control weeds and pests around the crops, by blocking the soil their crops are planted in from the soil below. This saves on water usage but potentially introduces microplastics to the soil and deprives the land of water it could use.
There are many other sustainable practices that organic farmers could apply to their farms. This can all be done without damaging their organic certification.