Environmental Impacts of Organic and Conventional Agriculture

by Brian Rigby, MS, CISSN



Almost two years ago, I wrote a long article about organic agriculture. The overall theme of the article was that the organic label isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; it’s not always (or even routinely) healthier, it’s not always better for the environment, and remove from its marketing, it’s not often subjectively “better” in terms of taste, appearance, etc. It was a long article, but even longer articles could be written about each of these sub-topics—and I came across a fantastic one the other day.

The article “Is organic really better for the environment than conventional agriculture?” by Hannah Ritchie takes an in-depth look at the various ways organic and conventional agriculture impact the environment, and then grades them based on their relative impact. On the surface, organic agriculture would seem to be a clear winner environment-wise since its practices are by-and-large less impacting on the environment, but the question gets stickier because organic agriculture also yields far less food per acre, and the whole point of any farm is to produce food. When controlled for food production, there is far less benefit to organic agriculture—though it may be beneficial in certain scenarios.

The article isn’t too wordy, and definitely worth a read. And in case you’re worried, it’s not an article about sticking it to organic agriculture, but rather about approaching the topic with scientific data. When we use data to form our opinions, it’s a lot harder to become polarized on the topic because it becomes clear that no system in use today is perfect—each has some advantages and some disadvantages. The ideal future isn’t one where conventional agriculture wins out over organic or vice-versa, but rather one in which the best practices from both systems are used to maximize consumer value and minimize environmental harm.

The author also makes another, more incisive point: if you’re focusing your environmental concern on organic vs. conventional agriculture, you’re focusing on the wrong topic. You would make a significantly larger impact on the health of environment simply by choosing to eat one less meal with meat per week than you would by eating organic produce, even if organic produce were far-and-away the better choice environment-wise (which again, it’s not). That doesn’t mean small impacts aren’t meaningful, but rather that there are easier, more powerful—and hell, cheaper—ways to help the Earth that you would be better off using.

Anyway, read the article. It has some nice graphs and charts that help show the relative impacts of conventional vs. organic agriculture (and many more related charts), so it’s worth it for that alone!

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