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Daily News Blog

23
May

Study Shows Value of Organic Practices in Lowering Environmental Impact of Agriculture 

Research comparing the impact of organic and conventional food production using finds organic has a significantly lower environmental impact.

(Beyond Pesticides, May 23, 2024)  A study recently published in the journal Nature compared the impact of organic and conventional food production using eight environmental health indicators and found that organic food has a significantly lower environmental impact than conventional food production for six of the eight indicators, including a lower potential for contributing to acidification of the environment, energy use, and biodiversity loss. For the analysis, scientists reviewed 100 different “life cycle assessments” (LCA) of organic and conventionally grown food products from cradle-to-farm gate.   

LCA is a commonly used methodology to estimate food production system impacts on the environment through resource depletion and pollutant emissions. The results—that organic food production is less impactful on the environment—add to the robust body of research that underscores the importance of organic farming to the development of a sustainable global food system while addressing climate change. Beyond Pesticides has long argued that one of the most powerful tools in fighting global warming is organic agriculture, as it sequesters atmospheric carbon, eliminates the use of fossil fuel-based synthetic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, and provides environmental and human health benefits. This study and most of the 100 studies it evaluates, do not recognize that conventional industrial agriculture relies on a treadmill of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, from cradle to grave, exacerbating the climate crisis.   

The impact of food production on the environment has been well documented. In 2015, it was estimated that food production accounted for 34% of the total emissions of greenhouse gases for the year. In addition, it is estimated that global food systems account for 70% of the world’s freshwater use and 78% of freshwater pollution. Agriculture is also responsible for much of the change in land use (primarily deforestation) and loss of biodiversity.  

Study Methodology 

To measure the impact of organic versus conventional food production systems, the Nature study looks at data from 100 studies, including 75 comparative studies of organic and conventional food production and 25 studies of organic food production between 2000 and 2020. Products analyzed include animals (milk, pig, cattle, lamb, seafood, chicken, and eggs) and plants (vegetables, grain and cereals, fruits, nuts, and aromatic beverages such as tea) from geographical regions around the world, except Africa for which no data was available. 

The study includes impacts per mass (amount of food produced) and per production unit (amount of land farmed). Significant differences in the environmental impact of organic versus conventional systems are found when measured per production unit. Specifically, organic dairy production has an estimated 22% lower impact on Global Warming Potential (GWP), which measures the potential increase in acidity of an ecosystem. Organic systems demonstrate a 47% lower eutrophication potential (or potential enrichment of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems with nutrients), likely due to the lack of use of chemical fertilizers. Energy use is 32% lower in organic systems. Eco-toxicity, or the “fate, exposure, and effects of eco-toxic substances on different species in soil and water,” is significantly lower for organics, given the lack of use of toxic pesticides. Water use analysis finds a generally lower level of use of water in organic systems, likely due to the increased water retention capacity of healthy soil.    

Study Limitations 

The Nature study finds no significant difference in the environmental impacts of organic versus conventional farming systems when measured per unit of mass produced. When measured by volume, the environmental impacts of conventional practices are watered down, in part due to the type of data collected. Specifically, the review cites the lack of information on biodiversity Impacts and eco-toxicity potential. The study also cites limitations to LCA approach and calls for more research to “model potential biodiversity loss, pesticide effects and changes in soil organic carbon in LCA…although the use of pesticides affects both toxicity and biodiversity impacts, (they) were rarely considered in LCA of food products.”  

Thus, while the study demonstrates the need to transition to organic agriculture as soon as possible to stop the increasingly devastating effects of climate change, it also demonstrates the limitations of the LCA (life cycle assessments) methodology to fully understand the impacts of agriculture on the environment. Few of the studies in the Nature analysis include data on soil carbon sequestration (SOC), meaning only a portion of the environmental benefits of organic agriculture are being captured.  

Measuring Sequestration of Carbon (SOC) 

As Beyond Pesticides reported previously, under organic management, healthy soil can absorb and store 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre foot of soil annually. This translates to about 3,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre drawn down from the air and sequestered into organic matter in soil. (It is noteworthy that use of synthetic fertilizers undermines the carbon-capture ability of some kinds of terrain, such as salt marshes.) A fact often overlooked by policy makers—and researchers—in examining climate strategies is that carbon-sequestering soil practices are federally mandated in certified organic agriculture. 

Many readers are familiar with one of the first research efforts on this topic:  For over 40 years, the Rodale Institute has been studying and comparing organic and conventional agricultural practices at their 386-acre farm in Pennsylvania (see full report here). Three agricultural systems have been developed over time: the “conventional” system, which represents a typical U.S. grain farm that fertilizes with synthetic nitrogen and controls weeds with synthetic herbicides; the “organic legume” system, which represents an organic grain system of annual grain and cover crops with leguminous cover crops for fertility; and the “organic manure” system, which represents an organic dairy or beef operation of annual feed grain and perennial forage crops with leguminous cover crops and periodic applications of composted manure for fertility. They found that after 40 years, the SOC was significantly higher in the organic manure system than in conventional and organic legume systems. In addition, microbial biomass, diversity, and activity is higher in the organic plots and those plots had reduced soil compaction, all measures of good soil health. Without sufficient measures of SOC, a substantial portion of the organic story is not being told. Beyond Pesticides corroborates the findings in the Rodale study that organic agriculture is a crucial solution to address cascading crises relating to climate change and public health.  

Negative Climate Impacts of Synthetic Fertilizers and Pesticides 

As reported by Beyond Pesticides in October 2021 before COP26, the use of synthetic fertilizers is a particular and noxious contributor to the rising planetary temperature. This happens largely through these products’ emissions of nitrous oxide (NOx)—another potent greenhouse gas that also pollutes the air and feeds the development of ozone. (For more, see here and here).  

Measuring Biodiversity 

In the current Nature study, the Biodiversity Impact assessment is limited to only three studies of dairy farms and has widely varying results. It has long been established that food production is a major contributor to global biodiversity loss. Over one-third of land is currently used for agriculture and expansion of food production is predicted to reduce habitat for approximately 88% of terrestrial birds, mammals, and amphibians by 2050. While this study did not recognize a meaningful way of measuring biodiversity loss, the 2021 United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report, Food System Impacts on Biodiversity Loss, identifies the global food system as the primary driver of biodiversity loss. The UNEP report points to the conversion of natural ecosystems to crop production and pasture, with concomitant use of toxic chemicals, monoculture, and production of greenhouse gases. This highlights the limitations of a “life cycle assessment” approach in the Nature study.  

Animal Food Production and Climate Change 

A similar blind spot of this study’s methodology is in not addressing the larger impact of animal production, organic or conventional, on climate change. According to the International Panel of Climate Change, agriculture and forestry account for as much as 25% of human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The contribution of animal agriculture has been estimated at 14.5% to 87% or more of total GHG emissions. These estimates include emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ammonia. The carbon dioxide contribution comes from converting land from natural forest to pasture or cropland.   

Diets that include animal products have been shown to contribute significantly more to climate change than diets that include low amounts or no animal products. For example, a 2023 study published in Nature Food, examined 570 LCAs and found that compared to high meat diets, the diets of vegans produce 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions, 27% of the eutrophication, 34% of the biodiversity loss, and use 46% of the water. Even between low meat-eaters and high meat-eaters there was a 30% reduction in climate impacts.  

Cost 

Another study in Nature Communications from February 2024 looks at not only the difference in climate impacts between animal-based and plant-based diets, but also the difference in nutrition and cost to consumers. The study finds that diets in Sweden that include plant-based alternatives to meat or whole foods, such as legumes as the protein source, emit 30-52% fewer greenhouse gases, and use 20-45% less land and 14-27% less water. Diets of plant-based meat alternatives are comparable in nutritional value to meat-based diets, except for vitamin B12, vitamin D, and selenium. These diets also enhanced iron, magnesium, folate, and fiber supplies, and decreased saturated fat. The study also finds that while these diets are lower in protein, they still meet or exceed dietary recommendations. A notable finding is that diets of plant-based alternatives to meat (often ultra-processed, containing genetically modified ingredients) increase the cost of food to consumers by 3-5%, although a whole food diet decreases food costs by 4-17%.   

Critics of organic agriculture have long justified the use of toxic chemicals in food production by the increase in the quantity of food that can be produced with conventional practices. The Rodale Institute found that their organic manure plots meet the output average for other plots in the county, which primarily follow chemical-intensive practices. The organic legume plots and non-tilled plots both have lower production rates than the county average (20% and 6.7% respectively), but the financial loss may be compensated for by reduced labor and materials costs.  

The Rodale Institute finds that the total cost of operations on organic farms is significantly lower than on conventional farms and the addition of organic price premiums makes their organic plots much more profitable than the conventional plots. Importantly, organic grain crops are surpassing the yields of conventional crops during drought years, likely owing to the increased soil health, and demonstrating the ability of organic crops to withstand climate change better than conventional practices.   

The true cost of conventional, petrochemical pesticide use is critical to the calculation of overall benefit. However, many of these costs are not borne by the pesticide user, but by society or taxpayers who bear the cost of environmental and human health harms, lost ecosystem services such as die-off of pollinators, water contamination, and the cost of fighting climate-induced fires and flooding. (See Beyond Pesticides database of Pesticide Induced Diseases and Gateway on Pesticide Hazards and Safe Pest Management).   

A Cautionary Note on Defining Regenerative Agriculture  

Undefined “regenerative” agriculture risks derail the urgent need to end the use of petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers and their direct negative climate impacts, including damage to soil health, human health, and ecosystem services. Regenerative and no-till farmers can, and often do, continue to rely on petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, including glyphosate-based herbicide products that impose adverse health impacts, such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, on farmers, farmworkers, frontline communities, and the broader public. 

Surveys collected in a 2019 Friends of the Earth report, Pesticides and Soil Health, “… indicate that the majority of no-till farmers [in this study] rely on herbicides such as glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. In fact, 86% of No-Till Farmer readers said they planned to plant Roundup Ready corn in 2017, while 80 percent planned to plant Roundup Ready soybeans, and some 92 percent planned to use glyphosate for weed control.”  

Organic Agriculture  

Advocates of regenerative organic agriculture, including Beyond Pesticides, contend that organic certification as a baseline in defining regenerative agriculture is crucial to address compounding crises relating to climate change, biodiversity, and public health. 

There are examples of regenerative agriculture certifications that take this approach, including Rodale Institute and Regenerative Organic Alliance’s Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) label. Researchers in California quantified the reduction of total pesticide use in organic and conventional farms, noting that there is an “18–31% likely reduction in spraying of pesticides on organically managed fields compared to conventional, and a 27% likely reduction in use of pesticide products with high acute human toxicity for organic versus conventional fields” from 2013 to 2019. However, putting this finding in context requires an assessment of the researchers’ definition of permitted synthetic substances or pesticides, which are allowed on conventional farms but strictly prohibited under federal organic law’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances and required organic systems plan. Biodiversity and pollinator health are also shown to be more prevalent on organic versus conventional farms, according to a 2018 Swedish study that corroborates previous studies in 2011 and 2012. 

To engage in opportunities to protect the integrity of organic standards under the Organic Foods Production Act, see Beyond Pesticides’ webpage on Keeping Organic Strong. Stay tuned for updated resources for the Fall 2024 National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting. Each year Beyond Pesticides provides information on the meeting agendas, pertinent proposals, sign-up periods to submit comments to the Board, historical context, and potential strategies in alignment with Actions of the Week. The NOSB, with active public participation, is a powerful tool to shape the future of agriculture and of the environment broadly, as this August 2021 Daily News article underscores. Organic standard setting was envisioned as providing for continuous improvement, democratic input, and full transparency. There are important opportunities for the public to engage with the organic rulemaking process to ensure that the NOSB and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program uphold the values and principles of organic.  

Beyond Pesticides advocates for structural changes through grassroots mobilization of a concerned public, including scientists, physicians, public officials, farmers, and farmworkers. See Tools for Change for a range of strategies, resources, and tips to initiate grassroots advocacy in your community, town, city, or state against pesticide use on lawns, public land, and agricultural lands. 

Urgent Action You Can Take Now  

While negotiations have been stalled for months, the Democrat-led Senate and Republican-led House of Representatives unveiled their respective provisions for the 2024 Farm Bill last week. The office of U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, released an initial Senate framework for the (now 2024) Farm Bill. At the same time, U.S. Representative Glenn Thompson (R-PA), chair of the House Agriculture Committee, released an outline of the House version, then followed up with more detailsand legislative language (“Farm, Food, and National Security Act of 2024.”)  

While advocates say that anti-democratic Republican language in the House makes the overall bill unacceptable for advocates, the Senate Democrats’ proposal includes robust support for expanding and strengthening organic product supply chains and domestic production, recognizing their economic, ecological, and public health benefits. House Republican language in support of organic is undermined, according to advocates, by its broad attack on pesticide restrictions and the right to sue chemical manufacturers and allied users of pesticides when harmed. The language, if adopted, is viewed as a crippling setback for efforts to meet the existential health and environmental threats of the day. 

While advocates object to the Republican Farm Bill moving forward because of provisions they say will weaken protections from pesticides and undermine local democratic decision making and the right to sue chemical companies when harmed, there are  elements  in the Senate and House framework that would help nurture the growth of organic agriculture by: 

  • Addressing organic certification costs; 
  • Funding organic oversight and enforcement; 
  • Supporting organic transition; 
  • Addressing bottlenecks in organic regulatory actions; 
  • Providing mandatory funding for organic research and data collection; 
  • Making organic programs work for organic farmers; and 
  • Establishing an Organic Agriculture Research Coordinator who will coordinate and establish annual strategic priorities. 

The bipartisan consensus that organic supply chains and markets must continue to be nurtured as recognition of their importance to sustainability, rather than put on the legislative chopping block, is welcomed. Certified organic agriculture has grown over the past four decades from a voluntary standard organized by farmers and grassroots consumers and organizations representing farmers, environmentalists, community leaders, physicians, and rural and urban communities to a $70 billion industry. In the same period, considerable scientific literature continues to underscore  the significance of a wholesale transition to organic  from chemical-intensive food systems to adequately address the cascading crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and public health. 

>> Tell your U.S. Congressional Representative and Senators to support organic agriculture in the Farm Bill, but not at the expense of undermining local and state authority to enact more stringent restrictions of pesticides. 

Join the movement to end the use of fossil fuel-based pesticides and synthetic fertilizers in 10 years and receive Action of the Week and Weekly News Updates here 

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.  

Sources  

Organic food has lower environmental impacts per area unit and similar climate impacts per mass unit compared to conventional, Nature, May 10, 2024 

Vegans, vegetarians, fish-eaters and meat-eaters in the UK show discrepant environmental impacts, Nature Food, July 20, 2023 

A comprehensive quantification of global nitrous oxide sources and sinks, Nature, October 7, 2020 

Research Shatters Myth of Pesticide Benefits, Beyond Pesticides, Retrospective: Pesticides and You, 2021  

Organic Management Practices Ensure a Sustainable Future, Beyond Pesticides, Retrospective: Pesticides and You, 2021 

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