Is organic farming really better for the environment?

Photo credit

Written by: Sandra Tran

Organic farming is an alternative to conventional practises. It promises highly nutritious produce and environmental conversation, but is this really true? Meanwhile, conventional farming promises high yields and affordability [3]. Although, conventional farming has been detrimental to the environment with deforestation for land usage, high greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and loss of biodiversity from pesticides and herbicides [7]. Which farming method can strive for sustainability as well as feeding the growing world population?

Figure 1. Comparative diagram of conventional vs organic farming. Photo credit: [8]

What is organic farming?

Organic farming does not use pesticides, herbicides or anything synthetic to aid the growth of produce. As a result, organic farming has a more environmentally-friendly reputation in comparison to conventional farming [9]. In New Zealand, there is no legislation or regulation behind the use of the word “organic” in marketing. This means that if you want to know if something is truly organic, then it must be BioGro approved. BioGro is the only accredited body in New Zealand to certify organic products. According to BioGro, organic agriculture aims to manage soil naturally, reduce pollutants, conserve biodiversity and grow nutritious produce [1]. This can be achieved by using manure and compost as a fertiliser and innovating farming technology to maintain diseases and pests. Within the farming industry, organic methods have a more holistic approach [9].

Figure 2. BioGro organic certification stamp. Photo credit: [2]

Benefits of organic farming

Organic farming tops conventional farming for conserving biodiversity, energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions. It has been found that species richness and abundance is higher in organic farms than conventional [4]. Also, organic dairy production requires less energy usage. It is also important to note that organic farms tend to use renewable energy more than conventional farms [9]. Additionally, conventional farming output more greenhouse gases which mainly comes from methane emissions of livestock [9]. There are definitely benefits to organic farming, but it does have its flaws.

Negatives of organic farming

Organic farming requires larger land usage, high energy weed maintenance methods and pollutes waterways with nutrient run off. Without synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, produce take a longer time to grow. Livestock on organic farms require more area per animal. As a result, deforestation occurs to expand the property to make way for more crops and grazing space. This reduces biodiversity in the surrounding vegetation, increase greenhouse gas emissions and releases sequestrated carbon from soils [5]. Furthermore, a common practise of weed removal requires a mechanical or thermal machine. Fuel is used for this machinery, which increases energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions [6]. Organic and conventional agriculture pollute waterways in similar ways. In conventional farms, fertiliser is applied to crops while manure or compost is applied to organic. When it rains, nutrients that are not absorbed into soils become runoff and pollute surrounding water bodies. Acidification or eutrophication can occur in these ponds, lakes and streams [5]. Perhaps organic farming is not the most environmentally-friendly practise after all.

Future prospects of agriculture

With climate change on the horizon and a growing population, food security is a pressing issue. Organic agriculture does have some environmental benefits but it could definitely be improved. The adoption of vegan and vegetarian diets could reduce deforestation as it requires less land [3]. Perhaps innovative technology which uses renewable energy to manage weeds. Maybe permaculture to conserve biodiversity and urban farms to educate and involve the community. Sustainable farming is essential for the future of our planet and subsequent generations.

Figure 3. Group of farmers at an organic farm in an urban setting. Photo credit: [10]

Reference List

[1] BioGro. “Organic Certification NZ | Organic Experts NZ | Certified Organic NZ.” Accessed March 10, 2021. https://www.biogro.co.nz/

[2] BioGro NZ. “Organic Marketing Resources — BioGro NZ | Organic Certification NZ | Organic Experts NZ | Certified Organic NZ.” Accessed March 15, 2021. https://biogro-nz.squarespace.com/marketing-resources.

[3] Erb, Karl-Heinz, Christian Lauk, Thomas Kastner, Andreas Mayer, Michaela C. Theurl, and Helmut Haberl. “Exploring the Biophysical Option Space for Feeding the World without Deforestation.” Nature Communications 7, no. 1 (April 19, 2016): 11382. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms11382.

[4] Hole, D. G., A. J. Perkins, J. D. Wilson, I. H. Alexander, P. V. Grice, and A. D. Evans. “Does Organic Farming Benefit Biodiversity?” Biological Conservation 122, no. 1 (March 1, 2005): 113–30. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2004.07.018.

[5] Our World in Data. “Is Organic Really Better for the Environment than Conventional Agriculture?” Accessed March 9, 2021. https://ourworldindata.org/is-organic-agriculture-better-for-the-environment.

[6] Meemken, Eva-Marie, and Matin Qaim. “Organic Agriculture, Food Security, and the Environment.” Annual Review of Resource Economics 10, no. 1 (2018): 39–63. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-resource-100517-023252.

[7] Mondelaers, Koen, Joris Aertsens, and Huylenbroeck Guido Van. “A Meta‐analysis of the Differences in Environmental Impacts between Organic and Conventional Farming.” Edited by G. van Huylenbroek, K. Mondelaers, and J. Aertsens. British Food Journal 111, no. 10 (January 1, 2009): 1098–1119. https://doi.org/10.1108/00070700910992925.

[8] Reganold JP, Wachter JM. Organic agriculture in the twenty-first century. Nat Plants. 2016 Feb 3;2:15221. doi: 10.1038/nplants.2015.221. PMID: 27249193.

[9] Smith, Laurence G., Adrian G. Williams, and Bruce D. Pearce. “The Energy Efficiency of Organic Agriculture: A Review.” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 30, no. 3 (June 2015): 280–301. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1742170513000471.

[10] Urban Farmers’ Alliance. “Our Urban Farms.” Accessed March 15, 2021.    https://www.urbanfarmersalliance.org.nz/urban-farms.