Eating organic is better for the environment: myth or Not?

As a science-based method, LCA is an excellent tool to bust the myths that surround sustainability. In this monthly series, we look at some common sustainability ideas to see if they are myth or true. In today’s episode: organic food.

The debate on whether eating organic is better for you as a person, for the world or for the environment has raged for years. Numerous studies have compared conventional and organic products, and the debate is still ongoing. Over time, the debate has become more heated, as the discussion has moved from facts to ethics, as it touches on people’s way of life and values. A recent article in the Guardian disputes that organic products are healthier for you and the comments to the article show how sensitive the topic is.

I think is worth taking a look at both sides of the discussion.

From an LCA perspective, conventional is better

Most LCA studies that compare the environmental impact of conventional agriculture with organic agriculture show that organic has a higher impact. This is mostly because organic farming usually has a lower yield, and that increases the impact per unit produced. A study by Seufart et al. showed that the yield from organic farming can be 5 to 35% lower than the yield from conventional farming.

Even though organic farms tend to have less of an impact per area of farmed land, the environmental impact per unit is higher. This means more land is needed to produce the same quantity of organic produce. This why leading experts such as scientist Louise O. Fresco state that we can’t feed the world by switching to organic farming entirely.

So why would you buy organic?

Organic production also has benefits, but those are difficult to quantify. For example, the efforts of organic farmers to move away from monocultures, where crops are farmed in single-species plots, cannot be captured in LCA. Another of the heard differences is that the small-scaled nature of organic farms means they are better for the local environment and that they often value and support a higher standard of living of farmers and their employees, but this, too, is hard to quantify. It is also difficult to use LCA to verify that organic farming uses lower amounts or less harmful types of pesticides, and what the benefits of that are.

But LCA professionals are increasingly working towards developing methods to quantify these intangible benefits of organic farming. My colleague Laura Golsteijn has been working with fair-trade importer Agrofair to calculate the impact of pesticide use in the cultivation of bananas on different farms. One of their findings is that conventional production of bananas in Panama resulted in about 50 times more human toxicity impact per tonne of bananas than banana production with reduced amounts of pesticides in Ecuador. The ranking lists of the chemicals that contribute most to the overall human toxicity and ecotoxicity impacts also differ between the farms. Laura will present her insights during the next SETAC conference in Nantes.

Eating organic is better for the environment: myth or not?

Status: Half-myth

Unfortunately, I think that the debate on organic versus conventional farming will keep going because it is mainly based on ideology.  Instead of fuelling this debate with ever more studies, I would argue that we should look at the benefits of both systems.

On the one hand, organic farming undeniably has practices and values that would benefit the world and the environment if they became common practice in the conventional agricultural sector. On the other hand, the conventional agricultural sector has been able to feed the world’s ever-increasing population by continuously innovating. Conventional farmers and growers have worked on their farms for many generations and are proud of the products they produce.

In a way, the only thing that’s fair to say is that neither system is superior and both can learn from each other.

Uncover more sustainability myths

This is the ninth part of our Sustainability Mythbusters series. See other episodes:

It’s easy to use ‘common sense’ and make assumptions in sustainability, but does that get you the results you want? If you want to learn how you can use sustainability metrics to uncover more myths for your company, contact us.

Anne Gaasbeek

Senior Consultant

I believe every organisation can be triggered to make a positive change, with the right information and action plan. I enjoy helping organisations get there by translating complex sustainability metrics into actionable information.

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