Is organic food environmentally friendlier?

In a new Swedish study published in Ambio on organic farming, Andresson et al (2005) report that “we found that organic farming and organic products were not in general superior to conventional products and practices with respect to environmental impact and product quality.”

Later in the paper the result is qualified as follows:

The question is, does organic farming lead to sustainable agricultural production? This was studied in several research projects within the Food 21 program. A general answer is maybe in terms of some aspects, but not in others. Although the organic concept for animal production is less related to a systematic health and welfare approach, it seems to be more in agreement with long-term sustainability (36) than that of crop production. A high risk for N leaching related to the use of organic manures (37) and insufficient compensation for some essential nutrients (19) are two of the main obstacles to achieving sustainability in organic crop production systems. On the other hand, pesticides are not used and can therefore not pollute natural waters in such systems.

Product quality was compared for conventional and organically produced milk, pig meat, and bread. The general picture was that no significant differences were found with respect to most parameters analyzed (22, 23, 24, 38). For parameters with detectable tendencies for more favorable levels of a specific substance, sometimes in conventional products and in other cases in organically produced products, the differences were always found to be so small that any animal or human health effects are unlikely.

In an earlier Finnish study Maatalouden tuotantotavat ja ympäristö (2000) by Juha Grönroos and Pasi Voutilainen, a similar result was found with respect to rye bread. When the environmental impacts were calculated per unit produced rather than per hectare farmed, the most environmentally friendly mode of production of rye bread was not organic farming but conventional farming. On the other hand, organic milk production had a lower environmental impact than conventional milk production. (for more background information on this study from here )

These results suggest that organic food is not always environmentally friendlier nor healthier than conventionally produced food.
How then should we interpret the choices of consumers who do not purchase organic food? Given the above results, it may be problematic to say that they fail to express “pro-environmental behavior” if they favor conventional over organic food. This assumption is however done in many survey-type studies of pro-environmental behavior.

As far as food is concerned, a better indicator of consumers’ pro-environmental behavior would be his/her level of meat consumption.
In ‘Anderssons et al (2005) words

Animal production in Sweden today is, to a large extent, based on feed concentrates from tropical countries. However, this production is very much associated with severe land degradation, and the transport of these products to Sweden represents a considerable part of the environmental impact caused by the animal production (40).

It may also be concluded that a balanced diet with less meat would feed more people and decrease environmental problems like the greenhouse effect and eutrophication of waters due to nitrogen and phosphorus losses. It would also reduce the energy consumption per unit of protein in food produced and improve human health.

References

Andersson, R. , Algers B., Bergström, L., Lundström, K., Nybrant, T., & Sjödèn, P-O (2005) Food 21: A Research Program Looking for Measures and Tools to Increase Food Chain Sustainability, AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment: Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 275–282.

Grönroos, J. & Seppälä, J. (2000) SY431 Maatalouden tuotantotavat ja ympäristö, Suomen ympäristö 431, luonto ja luonnonvarat, 244 s.
URN:ISBN:9521107715. Julkaisu on saatavissa vain painetussa muodossa (In Finnish)

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