Organic Farming Produces More Greenhouse Gases Than Conventional Farming? This Study Says Yes.

Organic soybean field in Michigan.

Does Certified Organic Farming Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Agricultural Production?, Agriculture and Human Values, June 2015

The answer to the question in the title of this study is, no, certified organic farming does not reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and it may increase them:

My analysis finds that the rise of certified organic production in the United States is not correlated with declines in greenhouse gas emissions derived specifically from agricultural production, and on the contrary is associated positively with overall agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

I saw it on Quartz:
Organic Farming Is Actually Worse For Climate Change Than Conventional Farming, Quartz, 15 July 2015

[University of Oregon researcher Julius McGee] found that, counterintuitively, organic farming led to higher emissions of GHGs. This is happening, McGee says, because so much of today’s organic farming is done by corporate entities responding to consumer demands, not by activist farmers trying to counteract the impacts of conventional agriculture.

“The certified organic market has experienced a rise in corporate participation,” McGee writes, “which has facilitated the weakening of standards.”

Plus, he says, when organic processes are implemented at large conventional scales, the lower yields combined with the heavy use of machinery results in higher GHG emissions. And some organically grown crops, like tomatoes, simply make more GHGs than their conventional counterparts, and this is amplified when done en masse.

I can sure attest to the weakening of organic standards!

This isn’t what I expected. But it makes sense. If you have to use more machines, more physical means of farming, then you might increase GHG. Lower yields would mean more acreage or more farming cycles to get the same output, so there again, more GHG. One benefit with organic farming is that you might be spraying fewer chemicals, but again, as I saw, you might be spraying more too, just different kinds.

I think there may be externalities that he’s not accounting for. Production of synthetic fertilizer is an energy-consuming endeavor, and should increase GHG in the conventionally-farmed column. But he limited himself to “agricultural production.” And what about water? Which uses more water, organic or conventional?

This was the question in my original post about organics, the one where I found organic food is grown with manure from GMO-fed cows in factory farms and with synthetic pesticides. What happens when you scale up organic? How “organic” is industrial organic?

All of this is disturbing. I thought organic was so much better.

9 thoughts on “Organic Farming Produces More Greenhouse Gases Than Conventional Farming? This Study Says Yes.

  1. Bix Post author

    If I hadn’t known that the soybeans in this photo were organic, I’d have assumed conventional. The distinction between the two is getting less each day.


  2. Melinda

    So he’s saying that corporate involvement causes the certification standards to be weakened (and yet still be posted on the product)??? “The certified organic market has experienced a rise in corporate participation,” McGee writes, “which has facilitated the weakening of standards.”


    1. Bix Post author

      Yep. Exactly as you said.

      I read that entire USDA Guide For Organic Crop Producers document over the July 4th weekend. I wasn’t bored at all. I was shocked by every page, this especially:

      Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production: … The list includes algaecides, disinfectants, sanitizers, irrigation system cleaners, herbicides, animal repellents, insecticides, miticides, pheromones, rodenticides, slug baits, plant disease controls, soil amendments, and plant growth regulators.

      Organic farmers may use synthetic herbicides. Roundup/glyphosate is a synthetic herbicide. (Not saying that particular herbicide is on their allow list, still …)

      Everywhere I go, people and institutions are saying organic farmers are forbidden from using pesticides, and certainly not synthetic pesticides. That is patently false.


  3. Melinda

    Is your quote from Chapter 9? You don’t by any chance have a page number handy, do you? Haven’t got a weekend free to read it through , but would like to dip into it gradually as I have the time.


  4. Melinda

    In looking at the list of allowed inputs on p. 38, I know from my own reading that some of those are not harmful–slug bait, for instance, can be a bowl of beer. The slugs love it, crawl in, get drunk, and drown. I don’t use it b/c I don’t like killing things. On the other hand, there probably *are* slug baits that are toxic, so I think maybe these guidelines are too general. Same with the list of allowed fertilizers on page 39–some of those can be harmless but different varieties of same could be harmful (e.g., manure or compost, as you’ve pointed out). TOO general. Hopefully those online resources on p. 41 are more specific, particularly the name-brand list. No, wait, I see you have to go to another site to get brand names. When these guidelines were being formulated some years ago, I remember BIG outcries from groups like PASA & others that the guidelines were being too heavily influenced by lobbies for agri-biz.


  5. Darryl

    It certainly takes more energy to grow chrysanthemums in Kenya or Ecuador, extract dilute pyrethrum, concentrate it, and fly it to organic fields, than to synthesize nearly identical pyrethroids. How many fields in the tropics are devoted to Derris production for rotenone? No-till agriculture, perhaps the best way to prevent soil erosion and lock up stalk/leaf carbon in the soil, is highly dependent on glyphosate/GMO seed. Meanwhile organic farms have to plow extensively, apply (non-organic) corn gluten meal, vinegar, clove oil, and propane flame to achieve similar weed control.


  6. Donnell

    Scientists have found that rather than reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released, organic farming may actually be increasing them. They found the shift to large scale organic farming in order to meet growing demand for organic products in shops has led to an increase in emissions for each acre of land.


  7. Pingback: Who Gets The Organic Food? | Fanatic Cook

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