Health

Surprise: An Organic Diet Means A Larger Carbon Footprint

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Consumers are surrounded by claims about the benefits of organic food: it's healthier, it's tastier, it's better for the planet. Unfortunately, studies have demonstrated that most—maybe even all—of those claims are false. The most recent bad news? Organic farms take up significantly more land than conventional ones, and that means an organic diet is nowhere near as eco-friendly as you might think.

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All Things Being Equal

For a study published in May 2017 in the Journal of Cleaner Production, a team of German and Swedish researchers took a look at the overall carbon footprint of the average organic diet as compared to the average conventional diet. They used food consumption data from Germany's national nutrition survey, considering the organic diet to be the "average diets of consumers whose food purchases include a large share of organic food products" and the conventional diet to be the average diet of people who don't buy organic food. Then, they took a look at carbon footprint and land-use data from studies of both organic and conventional agriculture.

What did they find? From the study: "The carbon footprints of the average conventional and organic diets are essentially equal." Wait, what? No, we didn't mislead you. If you delve further into the results, a different picture emerges. They found that organic agriculture uses 40 percent more land than conventional agriculture—and on a planet that devotes half of its land to agriculture, that's no small detail.

The big wrench in the study's conclusion is the fact that they considered the average conventional diet to contain 45 percent more meat than the average organic diet. That's not to say they were wrong—it's plausible that people who strive to eat mostly organic also strive to reduce their meat consumption—but it muddies the results. That is, to compare apples to apples when it comes to organic and conventional, you'd need to determine the carbon footprint of the same diet with only the organic or conventional variable changed. Eating meat, especially beef, has a massive carbon footprint. If you were to remove the difference in meat from the equation, you'd find that diets that rely on organic food have a larger carbon footprint overall.

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Why does organic farming have a larger carbon footprint? It produces less food per acre—25 percent less on average, according to a 2012 study in Nature. That's mainly due to the fact that organic farmers can't use synthetic fertilizer or pesticides to super-charge their crops and protect them from pests. (Although, contrary to popular belief, natural pesticides can often be more harmful than ones used in conventional agriculture).

That's not to say organic farming is bad—it's just to say that there are many myths around it. There are plenty of beneficial methods that many organic producers follow, such as rotating the crops in any given plot to keep the soil from being sapped of nutrients. But it's also not a "with us or against us" debate between organic and conventional food, as some would have you believe. As Christine Wilcox writes for Scientific American, "You, the wise and intelligent consumer, don't have to buy into either side's propaganda and polarize to one end or another. You can, instead, be somewhere along the spectrum, and encourage both ends to listen up and work together to improve our global food resources and act sustainably."

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. Organic food is grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, or hormones. 00:47

  2. Several studies have found no significant differences between bacteria contamination levels in organic and inorganic foods. 03:25

  3. Organic food is much more expensive than conventionally grown food to produce, and it's unlikely that it could sustain Earth's population on its own. 06:07

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