By Gabor Figeczky, Head of Global Policy for IFOAM – Organics International
Claims have been circulating in the media that the study ‘Assessing the efficiency of changes in land use for mitigating climate change’ came to the conclusion that organic food is worse for the climate.
However, the study published in Nature, makes very little reference to organic agriculture.
Although it may seem otherwise, the authors do not systematically compare organic and conventional production on a global or large scale nor does the study cover a significant number of crops or livestock operations.
The specific linkage of the study to organic farming can be attributed to Stefan Wirsenius, one of the authors. The resulting headline “organic food is worse for the climate” is not substantiated by the paper itself.
Organic production was used as an example to illustrate the carbon benefit index the researchers introduce in the paper. A direct comparison between organic and conventional farming systems is not the central focus of the paper. Biofuel, for example, plays a much more prominent role, giving controversial results.
Organic agriculture, however, played a major role in the communication, Stefan Wirsenius made around the study leading to numerous headlines claiming that “organic food is worse for the climate”. This headline is based on a part of the study that compared organic peas and wheat to conventional peas and wheat in Sweden. This cannot and should not lead to a universal claim about organic.
Nevertheless, since there is much discussion on agriculture, food systems and climate change, we will take a closer look at the land-use model applied in this study.
When we take a food systems perspective, that is central for any larger‐scale analysis of sustainable agriculture and related statements (e.g. Muller et al. 2017), we should also include the assumption that demand can change; the authors however only looked at increased land use per kg output, suggesting people would not change their consumption practices.
Global food demand measured in calories and protein can be met without increasing total Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions even with production systems that are not optimized for carbon efficiency e.g. grass-fed ruminants, if we shift to lower animal source food levels in our diets and reduce food waste and loss.
The authors point out that they are explicitly only interested in GHG emissions and carbon sequestration. This is legitimate and helps to increase clarity when assessing these topics – but runs the risk of neglecting other central sustainability aspects.
However, some carbon‐inefficient farming practices may overall be more sustainable than carbon-efficient ones if we look at more dimensions of sustainability such as health, biodiversity, water use.
Unfortunately, much communication of the paper failed to mention the explicit interests of the authors, instead concentrating alone on the climate change aspect and how organic appears in this regard. Robust science should not need to cherry-pick results to make headlines.
However, when talking about sustainable agriculture and food systems, it is central to complement GHG performance with other sustainability indicators and to transparently communicate potential trade‐offs.
In addition, the study does not consider the different levels of soil carbon sequestration between organic and conventional production and does not address potentially higher soil degradation in conventional systems, that could potentially reduce the relative carbon benefit from conventional systems.
The authors argue that “greater land-use in organic farming leads indirectly to higher carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to deforestation” thus suggesting that organic farming done in one location contributes to deforestation in another.
Their conclusion that one would need to intensify agriculture does not hold, as we only have one planet where all our ecosystems are connected. Intensifying agriculture in one place, with all negative externalities, will not help to ‘save’ land or forest somewhere else. Harming one part of the world will be to the detriment of the rest.
Also, increasing yield at all costs is not the answer to nourishing a growing population. As it stands agriculture is in fact producing more than enough food to feed a global population of even 10 billion people. It is not lack of yield that is failing to feed the world but rather a system where one third of all food produced goes to waste. Poverty not food scarcity is a root cause of hunger.
A closer look at the study reveals that the authors only used two crops grown in Sweden to compare organic with conventional agriculture and the results showed relatively high yield gaps. Looking at global food production though, we find, on average, lower yield differences than in the sample from Sweden and thus lower land use and possible related carbon costs. More funding for research into organic systems than the currently estimated less than 1% of total budget spent on agricultural research, would surely contribute to decreasing this yield gap even further.
In research, it is often desirable to have a restricted analysis, as it helps to look at issues, independently. However, when responsibly communicating with the public, issues need to be put in context to avoid biased debates that simply cannot lead to holistic solutions to making our food systems, worldwide, more sustainable.
We need to use all of the earth resources, sustainably. Not only reduce our negative impact, but actively restore what has been degraded. Organic agriculture, based on the principles of health, ecology, fairness and care, contributes to doing just this.
This article originally appeared on IFOAM – Organics International.