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Thursday March 22, 2018


Regular readers know that Farmer Goes to Market has not been shy about recommending retail grocers approach merchandising organic foods with a healthy dose of skepticism. Although organics can offer higher margins than many conventionally raised foods, particularly for store-perimeter items, and a generous proportion of shoppers do appear willing to try them, organic is not without its risks. For one, the message that organic is healthier to eat may be widespread, but it's unsustainable. For another, the message that organics help small and local farmers maintain a stronger business is suspect. Thirdly, the argument that organic equals pesticide-free is outright fiction.

Still, the environmental sustainability message has always remained in organic's court, particularly in light of the recent controversy over global climate change and the United States' role in preventing it. Critics of modern food technology point to organic as a cure for the environmental pollution caused by modern agriculture, including increasing greenhouse gas emissions and diversion of wild and natural lands into more and more farmland to grow food.

Now that last bulwark, too, is under question.

A new study from Germany, scheduled for publication in September's issue of the Journal of Cleaner Production, drew on actual mapped food consumption and nutritional behavior of its citizens, and then matched those consumption patterns against the carbon footprints and land use for organic vs. conventional foods, based on past research studying the relative productivity of each crop. The results are particularly important, the study authors point out, because Germany is a nation where conversion to organic in the interest of protecting the environment has achieved wide support. They found:

  • Organic consumers, on average, require about 10 percent more food than consumers of conventional diets, mainly because organic diets tend to contain a larger proportion of food with lower energy density, in other words, more fruits and vegetables and less meat.
  • The carbon footprint of the organic and conventional diets were virtually the same; no statistically significant difference was found between them in the amount of greenhouse gases produced by growing, handling and transporting food to retail. However, the average hides the fact that the conventional eaters on average eat about 45 percent more meat than the organic eaters do, which skews the greenhouse gas effect higher for conventional diets. When you look at each food category by itself, with the exception of the category they labeled "meat from other animals," which includes lamb, game animals other minor species, the organic meats produced equal or higher carbon footprints than the conventional ones. The same was true of organic cheese and butter, which were about 15 percent and 25 percent higher, respectively, in the organic diet.


  • Taken on average, an organic diet requires 40 percent more land than a conventional diet. The German study confirms the effect in the population's diet of other studies showing organic farming requires anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent more land than conventional farming to grow the same amount of food. That difference is due to organics' use of less productive technology and need for more land in order to leave fields fallow more often than conventional farming does, as well as the need for more land in animal-based organic food production. The food categories with the greatest demand for land are beef and pork in both diets.

The study authors write, "Productivity-increasing measures are of particular importance in organic animal farming in order to increase the competitiveness and cost-effectiveness." However, the same can be said for all farming. Both land use and greenhouse gas production are affected by production efficiency, and the difference between organic and conventional will only grow as new and better technology is refined and adopted by conventional farming, including the use of genetically modified organisms, which is currently banned in organic farming.


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