Viewpoint: If you care seriously about the threats posed by climate change, avoid organic farming

RE-journalists enjoy lecturing the public on the importance of science while promoting blatantly unscientific ideas when it suits them. The pandemic has thrust this contradiction into the spotlight as news outlets like CNN, The Guardian and The Washington Post have championed COVID-19 vaccines while publishing regularly. sloppy stories about the dangers of pesticides and the benefits of eating organic foods.

Such inconsistency is not exclusive to the popular press; it’s also very common in the science media. Scientific American fell into this trap several times, as does The Conversation. While bragging about his “academic rigor” and chiding people for reject the scientific consensus, The Conversation also publishes misleading stories like this from Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of Arizona State’s Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems: Unlike the US, Europe is setting ambitious targets to produce more organic food.

Recent polls show that a majority of Americans are concerned about climate change and willing to make lifestyle changes to deal with it. Other surveys show that many American consumers are concerned about the potential health risks of eating foods produced with pesticides, antibiotics and hormones. One way to address all of these concerns is to expand organic farming.

Americans say a lot to pollsters, but what ultimately matters is the evidence — and there’s none to justify the expansion of organic farming. Let’s examine some of Merrigan’s claims to see why.

Organic production generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional agriculture, largely because it does not use synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. And it prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides and the giving of hormones or antibiotics to livestock.

Organic farmers generally use fewer pesticides, but so what? the tracks of these chemicals found in conventional foods cannot cause any harm. Treating sick animals with antibiotics, as the CDC noted in 2019, is the most humane thing to do. The results of the poll cited by Merrigan suggest, and that a recent review confirms that “The desire for meat raised without antibiotics is part of a broader consumer movement towards more ‘natural’ and sustainable food sources, not a critical threat to human health. Hormones are used in very small quantities produce more beef with fewer cows, but there is no risk to human health. More importantly for our purposes here, fewer cows means less greenhouse gases (GHGs).

A solution to climate change?

Globally, Studies show that emissions are lower in organic farming per unit area, but not per unit of production. Since conventional yields are higher for most crops (up to 40% in some cases), we would have to devote much more land to agriculture to produce the same amount of food organically. “Increasing land under organic cultivation means either converting conventional farms to organic farms – with a variable but certain reduction in yield; or converting new land to agriculture,” as our own Dr Chuck Dinerstien Explain earlier this year.

This fundamentally changes the climate change equation, which is why studies used to justify increasing organic farming must do unrealistic assumptions on food waste, meat consumption and agricultural efficiency – there is no significant reduction in GHG emissions without them. “All the data I know suggests that organic farming is not the right strategy to reduce global GHG emissions,” agricultural economist Matin Qaim told the Genetic Literacy Project in March. “When the effects of land-use change are taken into account, organic agriculture may even have higher global GHG emissions than conventional alternatives (which is even more true when considering development and lending). use of new breeding technologies, which are prohibited in organic farming).


The European Union’s Farm to Fork Strategy… sets ambitious targets for 2030: a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, a 50% reduction in the use of pesticides and a 20% reduction in the use of fertilizers.

Europe’s goals are admirable; they are also decidedly impractical. A recent assessment conducted by Wageningen University in the Netherlands found that the EU could see yield declines of between 10 and 30 percent, depending on the crop in question, thanks to its Farm-2-Fork program. Reducing the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers also means more crop damage, which also contributes to lower yields [1]. Lower production in Europe means more farmland elsewhere in the world, the study’s co-author noted. John Bremmer:

If demand remains unchanged, Europe will have to fill the void by importing more. The plus: if Europe exports less, countries outside Europe will themselves have to produce more… In all scenarios, this indirect change in land use is considerable.

With all this in the background, consider that we are already cultivating about half available land on earth suitable for growing food, and almost all prime arable land. Back to conversation:

The world’s farmers already produce enough food to feed the world. The question is why many people are still hungry when production increases year after year.

The answer, in short, is poverty. Poor countries lack the resources to produce and distribute the food they need, although fortunately the number of people living in poverty continues to decline. But here is an equally pressing question: what happens when governments impose organic farming on their people? Responnse: food shortages. It turns out that denying farmers access to production-boosting tools like biotech seeds and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers has serious consequences. Merrigan calls these observations “American talking points,” which she is free to do. But that doesn’t make them any less correct.


None of this means that organic farming is inherently flawed. When farmers are ready to produce organic products for consumers who wants them, everything is as it should be. The obvious problems arise when policymakers and activists decide to impose these unsustainable cultivation practices on millions of people who clearly do not want them. As Merrigan noted, organic operations represent less than 2 percent agricultural land around the world. What more do we need to prove that this whole endeavor is an exercise in wishful thinking?


[1] Synthetic vs. natural is a dubious distinction for pesticides. As my colleague Dr. Josh Bloom points out, this paints a false picture of what pesticides really are by making an artificial distinction between the chemical and its source.

Cameron J. English is Director of Biosciences at American Council on Science and Health. Visit his website and follow ACSH on Twitter @ACSHorg

A version of this article originally appeared on American Council on Science and Health and is republished here with permission. The American Council on Science and Health can be found on Twitter @ACSHorg


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