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A recent study from Cranfield University highlights the multiple benefits of organic and warns about the risk of increased emissions from agriculture, if consumption patterns do not change. Several headlines put a somewhat sensationalist spin on this study claiming that organic could increase emissions. So, we want to take a look behind the headlines to see what all the fuss is about.

Transitioning to 100% Organic

Published in Nature Communications, the study examined what would happen if England and Wales transitioned to 100% organic farming and the potential impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

One of the authors, Dr. Laurence Smith, states that “organic farming generally creates lower GHG emissions per commodity, up to 20% lower for crops and 4% for livestock”, but highlights that if consumption patterns do not change it might be necessary to import food. This would thus increase the carbon footprint from agriculture.

Dr. Laurence Smith also says that “although resource-use can be improved under organic management, there is a need to consider the potential effect on land-use. Under a 100% organic scenario in England and Wales, a net-reduction in greenhouse gases would only be achievable if accompanied by a major increase in organic yields or widespread changes to national diets.”

Food Waste and Dietary Habits

However, the study did not look at the potential of reducing food waste to fill any potential yield gap. Yet, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), between 25% to 30% of all food produced is lost or wasted worldwide accounting for as much as 10% of GHG emissions.

Moreover, consumption patterns and the way food is produced often have hugely negative impacts on our natural environment. Here the study points out

“There are undoubted local environmental benefits to organic farming practices, including soil carbon storage, reduced exposure to pesticides and improved biodiversity.”

The study did not look at dietary habits with the authors stating “whether a different national diet could be provided by the same land area under all organic production is a different study.”

Headlines Versus The Big Picture

But when we talk about changing the food system, we are talking about change on multiple levels, which together can bring true sustainability to food and farming. This means, for example, eating less meat, choosing locally grown, seasonal, organic produce, and ending food wastage.

Unfortunately, this study is grabbing headlines that focus on the single issue of emissions. It does not take a holistic perspective of what is needed to fundamentally transition toward sustainable food systems. You can read responses from the Sustainable Food Trust and the Organic Center for further insight on the study.

Louise Luttikholt, Executive Director of IFOAM –  Organics International says “We are in a climate crisis. We need responsible communication that puts issues into context, not one-sided debates that simply cannot lead to holistic solutions for sustainable food and farming.”

Organic Can Be a Solution

Overall, we need to rethink how we are using the earth’s resources. This means mitigating the negative impacts of unsustainable agriculture and restoring what has been degraded. Organic agriculture, based on the principles of health, ecology, fairness and care, can be a solution to this and help us stay within planetary boundaries. Learn more in our video on sustainable food and farming.