Is organic food really better?

Food is labelled as “organic” if it’s made without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as limited antibiotics [1,2,9]. Does this make it better for you, the environment, and farmers?

Is it HEALTHIER? Some studies say organic food contains more Vitamin C and Omega 3 [3,4,14], but others say there is little difference [5,14]. Organic crops use “natural” pesticides [18]; these are not always safer than synthetic alternatives [6,14].

Is it better for the ENVIRONMENT? On some metrics it is, but on some not [9]. Organic crops grow less well, so it takes more land to produce the same amount of food [9]. Given agriculture takes up 50% of the world’s habitable land [9], we want to grow as much as possible on the land we already use [13].

What about GREENHOUSE GAS emissions [9]? This is important because agriculture is responsible for about 25% of emissions [9]. Here, there is no clear winner. On average, organic fruit causes less emissions than non-organic, whilst for other food either can be better [9].

ENERGY use is generally lower with organic methods [9]. Although organic vegetables use more energy, organic versions of other foods use less [9]. This is much less important than land use and emissions, however, since agriculture accounts for only 2% of global energy use [9].

FARMERS are affected by a mix of aspects that they have to weigh based on their needs [15]. They can sell their produce for a higher price, and can be healthier due to not being exposed to chemicals [15,16]. This comes at the cost of more manual labour [15].

So, our research suggests that on average non-organic food is better for the environment because it is less land-intensive, with the exception of fruit [9]. Some aspects of organic farming are really useful though. E.g. planting a mixture of crops in every field is better for the soil and protects from disease [18,19,20], increasing production by an average of 38% [21]!

In the end, the best type of farming will vary between places and crops, and will involve a mixture of methods, some organic, some not [14,17,19].

References

[1] https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/7/part-205/subpart-C

[2] http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq1/en/

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24968103

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5658984/

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19640946

[6] https://aces.illinois.edu/news/going-organic-are-organic-pesticides-safer-their-synthetic-counterparts

[7] https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=186c36f172c2a5f98f740677f73ae152&node=40:24.0.1.1.27&rgn=div5#se40.26.180_11328

[8] https://ec.europa.eu/food/plant/pesticides/max_residue_levels/eu_rules/mrls_2018_en

[9] https://ourworldindata.org/is-organic-agriculture-better-for-the-environment

[10] https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/76958641.pdf

[11] https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/global-agricultural-land-use-by-major-crop-type?time=1961..2014

[12] https://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6392/987

[13] https://tinyurl.com/yympw92a

[14] http://www.agroecologia.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Reganold-2016-Organic-farming-in-XXI-Nature-Plants.pdf

[15] https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/renewable-agriculture-and-food-systems/article/potential-and-limitations-of-organic-and-fair-trade-cotton-for-improving-livelihoods-of-smallholders-evidence-from-central-asia/586921501E1FB1838C826470EA96F853

[16] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9498903

[17] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263201409_Organic_vs_conventional_farming_dichotomy_Does_it_make_sense_for_natural_enemies

[18] https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/httpblogsscientificamericancomscience-sushi20110718mythbusting-101-organic-farming-conventional-agriculture/

[19] http://www.ask-force.org/web/Organic/Trewavas-Urban-Myths-2001.pdf

[20] https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1890/13-0616.1?casa_token=ftWYFyJGNCgAAAAA%3Armolw0CDbJy-ky7lPbQEKhrKpzpvvqKoWVG6N8_9tjSYLivIJ3-Wals37tzOfVtABNY-ebwTjM_e0Bw

[21] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28992501

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