Are Organic Farms Worse When It Comes to Greenhouse Gases?

Posted by on August 2, 2015 in Environment, Farming with 0 Comments
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Dan Nosowitz | Takepart

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A new paper making negative claims has scientists defending organic food.

Organic farming earned some negative press recently with the publication of a paper that linked it to higher greenhouse emissions, but the truth is a little more complex.


The paper, by University of Oregon Ph.D. student Julius McGee and published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, found what appears to be a shocking bit of information: “Organic farming,” McGee says, “is correlated positively and not negatively with greenhouse gas emissions.”

The study used data from 49 states collected between 2000 and 2008 (Louisiana is the lone holdout, and data for Alaska was not available for 2000 or 2001) and measured the average levels of greenhouse gases coming from an acre of farmland in the U.S. Though McGee wouldn’t tell me how much those levels have increased, his paper finds that the levels have been on the rise. “The way I’ve set up my model, it’s really hard to see it as the result of anything else,” he says. Given that organic products are on the rise, he figures, isn’t it a disturbing correlation?

Except, not so much. For one thing, McGee’s paper does not compare emissions from conventional farms with emissions from organic farms, which seems to me a strange omission when you’re trying to talk about this subject. What the paper does is look at total emissions over time, consider the rise in organic farming, and connect the two trends with analysis rather than data.

“The model itself doesn’t establish any causation,” McGee acknowledges. “I sort of make that claim with theoretical analysis in which I cite other literature that gives credence to the idea that, hey, maybe this is a causal pattern that’s the result of larger social processes behind organic that’s making it positively correlated with greenhouse gases.”

The paper has been criticized by organic advocacy groups and experts alike.

From a sheer scientific standpoint, not everyone is convinced the study is trustworthy. “I think the conclusions that he came to don’t seem to make a lot of sense with the way he analyzed the data, and the data that he utilized has some issues in it,” says Kris Nichols, chief scientist at the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit that does research relating to organic farming. Nichols also listed, politely, 11 major flaws in the study.

The Organic Center, a nonprofit research institution that works with science concerning sustainable agriculture, wrote in a damning response: “The statistical model used is simplistic and the data insufficient to draw any meaningful conclusions regarding the actual source of GHG emissions.” The Organic Center further notes that McGee’s paper does not account for the massive increase in conventional farmland, much of it to be used for livestock, in the past 15 years. A single acre of new farmland dedicated to conventional cattle would counteract any benefit from dozens of acres of organic farming, which is largely dedicated to fruits and vegetables.

In an op-ed for The Guardian, McGee claims that large organic farms are ruining the reputation of true organics by looking at loopholes, saying that beneficial tactics like crop rotation “are encouraged, but not required” for organic certification. This is wrong, for what it’s worth; crop rotation is required by law (though some would argue the requirements could be more elaborate).

So, McGee’s study has its detractors. But that doesn’t mean examining the impact of organic farming on greenhouse gas emissions isn’t worthwhile. That’s partly because reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not a core tenet of organic farming.

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