Organic farming and the environment

Is organic farming ‘no better for the environment’? The headline in The Independent, regarding “The first comprehensive study of the environmental impact of food production” suggests not. However, the study, by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is evidently rather more mixed than the headline implies.

[It] found “many” organic products had lower ecological impacts than conventional methods using fertilisers and pesticides. But academics at the Manchester Business School (MBS), who conducted the study, said that was counterbalanced by other organic foods – such as milk, tomatoes and chicken – which are significantly less energy efficient and can be more polluting than intensively-farmed equivalents.

I don’t know much about dairy or chicken farming, but deeper into the story it becomes clear that much of the problem with tomatoes (and other vegetables) is out-of-season hothouse production. Well, no surprise there. Organic standards are one thing, but the organic spirit is one of natural methods. And growing things in heated indoor spaces because one’s climate will not support outdoor growing is a far cry from the spirit of harmony with the natural environment that organic (and, for that matter, non-organic) growers should aspire to.

Some of the organo-skepticism expressed by the study (as reported in the Independent) also has to do with scale inefficiencies. However, I would be somewhat skeptical of these conclusions, as well:

Advocates of organic farming said its environmental benefits had long been established, not least by Mr Miliband [the Environment Secretary] who has written it is “better for biodiversity than intensive farming“. The Soil Association said it recognised that in some areas, such as poultry and growing vegetables out of season, organic was less energy efficient.

But it said that was vastly outweighed by factors which the Defra study had not taken into consideration such as animal welfare, soil condition and water use. [my emphasis]

As for Ladera Frutal (which is certified organic), the heavy use of imported water to grow a subtropical crop like avocados in this naturally dry a climate does concern me. If only I could afford to drill a well or bear the up-front investment costs of converting the avocado grove to a less thirsty crop. Nonetheless, it is highly likely that any broad assessment of the impact of fruit-growing methods would be favorable to organic over conventional.

Furthermore, if the alternative to growing avocados in California is buying them from Chile and Mexico, an assessment of the environmental impact would have to take into account the vastly greater insecticide use in those countries (in part due to past over-use that has killed off beneficial insects and resulted in evolved resistance) and the carbon impact of the longer-distance transportation. These considerations would be separate from the straight comparison of organic vs. conventional methods in either California or Latin America, and yet a further question would be the quality of the oversight on organic (or other) standards in developing countries.

I would take home two conclusions: (1) There are more important assessments of producer practices that the informed and environmentally sensitive consumer should take into account than the simple organic–conventional dichotomy, and (2) As always, the evaluative criteria employed–rather narrow in the UK Defra study–are essential to the conclusions of any study of the impact of the processes of producing our food on the environment.

0 thoughts on “Organic farming and the environment

  1. What I find troubling is that a clear (though not explicitly mentioned) conclusion is that it is better to have cows and chickens crammed into small spaces and treated with chemicals. Therefore they will use less land and emit fewer “greenhouse gases and eutrophying substances.”

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