Organic farming could INCREASE greenhouse gas emissions because higher quality crops are less efficient and need more land, scientists warn

  • A national switch to organic would mean higher levels of polluting gases
  • As suppliers would rely on international imports to keep up with the demand 
  • Organic farming produces around half the yield of conventional farming

Greenhouse gas emissions would go up if every farm in England and Wales went organic, finds study.

The increase in the need for imported food caused by a national switch to organic farming would mean higher levels of polluting gases.

Suppliers would have to turn to overseas producers to source food as the amount grown in the UK would plummet.

And because crop yields would be almost halved in size if farms went all-natural, more land would need to be used and emissions would increase from tending to that, too.

Raw organic vegetables. Organic bread was the worst green house gas emitter as it produced a much lower yield while the difference in emissions for conventionally farmed and organic vegetables was small (stock image)

More farmland in other countries would need to be made available, where food would be grown and then imported – meaning almost double the emissions would be released.

WHAT IS ORGANIC FARMING?

Organic farming does not use chemical fertilisers on crops or feed additives for livestock.

It relies on natural forms of farming such as biological pest control and crop rotation.

Organic farming is less efficient so costs more to produce. 

Laurence Smith, at the Royal Agricultural University in the UK who carried out the analysis, told the New Scientist: ‘The key message from my perspective is that you can’t really have your cake and eat it.’  

Adding: ‘There are a lot of benefits to the organic approach’. 

The analysis details how the only way to reduce emissions from farming land, is to farm lesser amounts of land.

It states that farming and ‘changes in land use’ such as cutting down forests to make way for farming is the cause of a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. 

Mr Smith found that for every unit of food emissions are 20 per cent lower in organic crops and four per cent lower for animal products farmed organically.

This however is outweighed by the fact organic farming requires around 1.5 times as much land to produce the same yield as conventional farms (in crops such as barley and wheat).  

Mr Smith says that despite organic farming’s greenhouse gas problem people shouldn’t stop eating organic (stock image)

If half of this extra land needed for organic was sourced from grass lands the increase in green house emissions would be around 20 percent.  

But if that grass land would otherwise have been ‘reforested’ emissions could almost double that of conventional farming.

HOW DOES EATING MEAT AND DAIRY PRODUCTS HURT THE ENVIRONMENT? 

Eating meat, eggs and dairy products hurts the environment in a number of different ways.

Cows, pigs and other farm animals release huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere. While there is less methane in the atmosphere than other greenhouse gases, it is around 25 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat.

Raising livestock also means converting forests into agricultural land, meaning CO2-absorbing trees are being cut down, further adding to climate change. More trees are cut down to convert land for crop growing, as around a third of all grain produced in the world is used to feed animals raised for human consumption. 

Factory farms and crop growing also requires massive amounts of water, with 542 litres of water being used to produce just a single chicken breast.

As well as this, the nitrogen-based fertiliser used on crops adds to nitrous oxide emissions. Nitrous oxide is around 300 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere. These fertilisers can also end up in rivers, further adding to pollution.

Overall, studies have shown that going vegetarian can reduce your carbon emissions from food by half. Going vegan can reduce this further still. 

Mr Smith says that despite organic farming’s greenhouse gas problem people shouldn’t stop eating organic.

He says people may chose to eat organic to reduce pesticides used on the land or in order to ‘help’ wildlife.

Contrary to belief the study found that biodiversity would be harmed by the blanket introduction of organic farming as it would mean more natural habitats taken over for farming land.         

Rob Percival at the Soil Association, which certifies organic farms in the UK, told the New Scientist that the study was ‘untenable’ for not considering a change in diet.

He said: ‘Dietary change will benefit the public’s health and free up land, making an organic scenario entirely feasible.’

In order to feed the predicted 9.8 billion people on Earth in 2050, the world will need to produce 56 per cent more food compared to 2010.

If the level of meat and dairy consumption rises in line with current food habits, six million square kilometres (2.3 million square miles) of forests would need to be converted to agriculture – an area twice the size of India.

Johan Rockstrom, former director of the Potsdam Institute of Climate Change Impact Research, said: ‘To have any chance of feeding ten billion people in 2050 within planetary boundaries, we must adopt a healthy, plant-based diet, cut food waste, and invest in technologies that reduce environmental impacts.’ 

Overall, studies have shown that going vegetarian can reduce your carbon emissions from food by half. Going vegan can reduce this further still.

Mr Smith believes there is another way to combat the struggles of environmentally friendly food production – combining the best of organic with conventional methods to increase efficiencies whilst retaining ethical principles.

He also states that allowing gene-edited crops to be labelled ‘organic’ would increase yield. 

However authors concluded that the only way to successfully create a 100 per cent organic diet that did not cause a spike greenhouse gas emissions would with ‘widespread changes to the national diet’. 

The study was published in the Nature Communications.

WHY ARE COWS BAD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?

The livestock animals are notorious for creating large amounts of the gas, which is a major contributor to global warming.

Each of the farm animals produces the equivalent of three tonnes of carbon dioxide per year and the amount of the animals is increasing with the growing need to feed a booming population.

Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, trapping 30 times more heat than the same amount of carbon dioxide. 

Scientists are investigating how feeding them various diets can make cattle more climate-friendly.

They believe feeding seaweed to dairy cows may help and are also using a herb-rich foodstuff called the Lindhof sample.  

Researchers found a cow’s methane emissions were reduced by more than 30 per cent when they ate ocean algae.

In research conducted by the University of California, in August, small amounts of it were mixed into the animals’ feed and sweetened with molasses to disguise the salty taste.

As a result, methane emissions dropped by almost a third. 

‘I was extremely surprised when I saw the results,’ said Professor Ermias Kebreab, the animal scientist who led the study.

‘I wasn’t expecting it to be that dramatic with a small amount of seaweed.’

The team now plans to conduct a further six-month study of a seaweed-infused diet in beef cattle, starting this month.

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