As we celebrate National Organic Farming Month, we ask: is organic farming synonymous with sustainability? While the research on organic farming shows “on a per area basis organic farming, generally, has lower environmental impacts,” it does typically have lower yield than conventional farming. That said, there are many practices that can be adopted to address yield and thus assure that organic produce is healthiest for the health of humans and the environment.
What is Organic?
Organic in the context of food production refers to food produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial agents.
The practice of organic farming results in 7% of organic food containing traces of pesticides compared to the 38% of conventionally-farmed produce found to have traces of pesticides (Henry & Yuko, 2020). Through omitting most pesticides and herbicides, farmers naturally turn towards more environmentally-friendly farming and growth practices that involve natural cycles to deter pests, remove weeds, and keep soil fertile.
It is important to note that organic farming can take many forms. The relative level of sustainability of organic farms is variable. Some organic farms practice monocropping while others use permaculture methods and practice intercropping which encourages biodiversity. Organic farming isn’t one type of farming; it encapsulates a whole range of methodologies. In countries like India where intercropping is practiced and legumes are used to reintroduce nitrogen into the soil, “organic farming can actually boost yields over conventional farming” and helps to “build soil fertility and lead to less pollution” (Varanasi, 2019). However, industrialized monocropping organic farming practices often don’t lead to these same benefits. This difference makes it hard to determine whether all organic farming can be considered sustainable.
A scientific study on organic farming and sustainable agriculture by Rigby and Cáceres posits that organic farming practices can’t be generalized and used universally (2001). In order to create the most sustainable conditions, it is important to use particular technologies that fit the locality of the farm. Just as “the appropriateness of particular technologies will…vary temporally and spatially” so should organic farming practices (Rigby & Cáceres, 2001). “Organic farming clearly performs better than conventional farming in respect to floral and faunal diversity” however “direct measures for wildlife and biotype conservation depend on the individual activities of the farmers” which highlights the need for a diversity of organic farming. Thus, its sustainability can only be determined by studying the farm’s practices.
Environmental Benefits of Organic Food
Multiple studies show the benefits of organic farming. A meta-analysis done on European farms comparing the environmental impact of conventional farming to organic farming states, “on a per area basis organic farming, generally, has lower environmental impacts” (Tuomisto et al., 2012). This report compared a variety of sustainability issue areas including land use efficiency, biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy use. They found “organic farms generally…have 30% higher species richness and 50% higher abundance of organisms than conventional farms” and “ 21% lower energy consumption in organic farming systems per product unit” among other benefits (Tuomisto et al., 2012). These numbers vary depending on the individual farm, but the overall results support the claim that organic farming has lower environmental impacts.
A paper by Urs Niggli on the sustainability of organic food production similarly champions organic farming’s environmental benefits. “35–65 % less nitrogen leaches from arable fields into soil zones where it could degrade the ground and drinking water quality” due to the ban of chemical fertilizers on organic farms and “higher organic matter content, higher biomass, higher enzyme activities of micro-organisms, better aggregate stability, improved water infiltration and retention capacities, and less susceptibility to water and wind erosion” can be found on organic farms compared to conventional farms (Niggli, 2015). These statistics highlight the benefits of organic farming particularly on soil and soil health.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states similar findings on the benefits of organic farming. They state that “Organic agriculture reduces non-renewable energy use by decreasing agrochemical needs.” Agrochemicals use large amounts of fossil fuels in their production; by omitting them from agricultural production practices, there is less of a demand for this non-renewable energy source. Organic farming instead integrates farming practices like reduced tillage to sequester carbon into the soil which is beneficial in mitigating climate change and thus more sustainable.
In addition, the reduction of pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer use reduces the risk of eutrophication of nearby bodies of water from fertilizer runoffs or the pollution of groundwater. A study in 2009 by the US Geological Service found that “over 90 percent of water and fish samples from streams contained one or more pesticides.” These same pesticides have been found to be harmful to human and non-human health (Aktar et al., 2009). This emphasizes the importance of reducing pesticide use for the sake of the environment and for our collective health.
Environmental Detriments of Organic Food
Though organic farming offers many benefits such as increased biodiversity, reduced energy use, and a decreased risk of groundwater contamination, there are some downsides.
One big problem regarding organic farming is its productivity. Organic farming is less productive than conventional farming which raises doubts about organic farming’s ability to feed the growing global population. The big challenge for organic farms and sustainability is “to increase yields without causing harm to the environment” (Tuomisto et al., 2012). In Europe, “organic farming requires 84% more land compared to conventional farming” which causes concern over land use efficiency, the risk of deforestation and land clearing, and biodiversity reductions (Tuomisto et al., 2012).
The gap in productivity is further highlighted in Urs Niggli’s paper which states that “the overall yield gaps of organic crops are estimated to be 25% lower than conventional ones” (2015). Niggli goes on to say that while the yields are less for organic farming, in certain contexts such as water-restricted and drought-affected sites, organic farming is more resilient. Its resilience, Niggli explains, suggests a beneficial trade off. He adds that best practice adoption and innovation can increase potential yields and the “Environmental benefits, as provided by organic farms, are absolute goods and cannot be relativized by the fact that yields are lower than conventional agriculture” (Niggli, 2015). So, lower yields are not necessarily a cause to discount organic farming’s benefits.
Some other issue areas regarding the sustainability of organic farming methods come from certain practices used by organic farms. One of these is known as soil solarization. Soil solarization is a method used in place of pesticides to control pests and weeds. Farmers use large sheets of black plastic over the soil surrounding their crops. This warms the soil, accelerates plant growth, and allows for drip irrigation to conserve water. However, this practice also means yards of discarded plastic ends up in the landfill (Zimmerman, 2020).
Another method utilized by organic farmers is tilling. Tilling is the act of stirring up soil by running blades through it to kill weeds. This is an herbicide-free method, however it results in loss of topsoil which is the most agriculturally important and nutritionally rich part of soil. In the long run, tilling results in lower yields due to topsoil removal and does more harm than good (Zimmerman, 2020). Less invasive forms of tilling and weed removal exist, however, due to their reduced efficacy, these practices have not been widely adopted (Niggli, 2015).
Sustainable food production in the context of organic farming is a tradeoff between yield optimization and minimization of environmental degradation.
Organic farming is only as sustainable as the practices farmers use. The variety of organic farming and the fluctuating carbon footprints associated with foods due to everything from food miles to energy use make it hard to definitively conclude that organically grown produce is more sustainable than conventionally grown produce.
There is no black and white answer regarding organic food’s sustainability. However, if you’re looking for ways to make your diet more sustainable, here are some tips to start off with:
- Buy locally grown produce, especially from the farmers’ market. This puts dollars back into the local economy, supports local farmers, builds community, and reduces food miles.
- Eat fruits and vegetables. Eating plant-based has a drastically lower carbon footprint than eating animal products.
- Buy foods in general with less packaging or packaging that’s recyclable in your area.
Aktar, Wasim, et al. “Impact of Pesticides Use in Agriculture: Their Benefits and Hazards.” Interdisciplinary Toxicology, vol. 2, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1–12., doi:10.2478/v10102-009-0001-7.
Henry, Alan, and Elizabeth Yuko. “Are ‘Organic’ Foods Worth the Money?” Lifehacker, 10 June 2020, lifehacker.com/what-does-organic-really-mean-and-is-it-worth-my-money-5941881
Niggli, Urs. “Sustainability of Organic Food Production: Challenges and Innovations.” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, vol. 74, no. 1, 2014, pp. 83–88., doi:10.1017/s0029665114001438.
Rigby, D, and D Cáceres. “Organic Farming and the Sustainability of Agricultural Systems.” Agricultural Systems, vol. 68, no. 1, 2001, pp. 21–40., doi:10.1016/s0308-521x(00)00060-3.
Stettner, Morey. “Yes, Organic Food Is Purer. But Is It Eco-Friendly Too?” MarketWatch, MarketWatch, 14 Aug. 2020, www.marketwatch.com/story/yes-organic-food-is-purer-but-is-it-eco-friendly-too-2020-08-14.
Tuomisto, H L, et al. “Does Organic Farming Reduce Environmental Impacts? – A Meta-Analysis of European Research.” Journal of Environmental Management, vol. 112, 2012, pp. 309–320., doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2012.08.018.
Varanasi, Anuradha. “Is Organic Food Really Better for the Environment?” State of the Planet, 21 Oct. 2019, blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2019/10/22/organic-food-better-environment/.
“What Are the Environmental Benefits of Organic Agriculture?” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq6/en/.
Zimmerman, Naomi. “So, Is Organic Food Actually More Sustainable?” State of the Planet, 5 Feb. 2020, blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2020/02/05/organic-sustainable-food/.
Written by Nicole Shimizu, Communications and Outreach Coordinator