From http://www.goldengatexpress.org/2013/04/07/true-organic-food-benefits-environment-sustainability/:

Another reason to choose organic products is that the environmental footprint attached to organic food is smaller than that of conventionally grown food.

Organic farming also helps provide a safer and healthier environment by not polluting groundwater, rivers, lakes and oceans with pesticides and chemical fertilizers. There is a reduction in soil erosion and soil quality is improved.

Is it true that organic food results in a smaller environmental footprint than conventionally grown food?

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    Welcome to Skeptics.Stackexchange. Can you edit your question to provide links to the most notable of the contradicting information you have seen. – RedGrittyBrick Sep 6 '13 at 14:35
  • It's not that big a deal, I think I can answer it anyways. And there's polling evidence to suggest people think it's better: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_food#Public_perception – Avi Sep 6 '13 at 16:35
  • Does anyone claim that buying organic benefits the environment? I thought that the claimed benefit was health related, rather than environmental. From the wikipedia link: "There is widespread public belief that organic food is safer, more nutritious, and tastes better than conventional food." – user5582 Sep 6 '13 at 17:52
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    @Sancho: I think you have it backwards. Organic certification (at least in the U.S.) is all about the environment--health benefits are (at least from a policy standpoint) a side-effect. Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used. – Flimzy Sep 6 '13 at 18:02
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    @Sancho I've only heard that organic is better for the environment. I don't know about claims that it would be healthier. – gerrit Sep 6 '13 at 18:03

Yield per acre

(Palmer, 2012) reviews (Seufert et al., 2012). (Seufert et al., 2012) is a meta-analysis examining 66 previous studies.

(Palmer, 2012) describes the strength of a meta-analysis:

In a meta-analysis, a researcher compiles all of the studies on a particular issue, usually discarding those that are methodologically unsound, then finds a statistical method with which to combine them. Ultimately, a meta-analysis turns a series of smaller studies into a large study, which, if done right, carries more persuasive heft and can bring real clarity to disputed scientific issues.

(Seufert et al., 2012) say:

Although several studies have suggested that organic agriculture can have a reduced environmental impact compared to conventional agriculture, the environmental performance of organic agriculture per unit output or per unit input may not always be advantageous.

and,

There are many factors to consider in balancing the benefits of organic and conventional agriculture, and there are no simple ways to determine a clear ‘winner’ for all possible farming situations.

However, with respect to the question about yield, the conclusions are clearer.

Our analysis of available data shows that, overall, organic yields are typically lower than conventional yields. But these yield differences are highly contextual, depending on system and site characteristics, and range from 5% lower organic yields (rain-fed legumes and perennials on weak-acidic to weak-alkaline soils), 13% lower yields (when best organic practices are used), to 34% lower yields (when the conventional and organic systems are most comparable).

In short, these results suggest that today’s organic systems may nearly rival conventional yields in some cases—with particular crop types, growing conditions and management practices—but often they do not.

(Palmer, 2012) rephrases:

Among wheat, corn and other cereals, organic farms were 26 percent less productive, while organic vegetable growers turned out 33 percent less food per acre than those who used pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizer.

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    I disagree that Sustainability over the long term is subjective. One can calculate quantitatively how yield develops over time for either organil or 'classical' farming, and if one is sustainable where the other is not, then ultimately, organic yield will be more than 'classical'. – gerrit Sep 6 '13 at 18:50
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    @gerrit I said how you balance the factors is subjective. I didn't say that sustainability over the long term is subjective. – user5582 Sep 6 '13 at 18:51
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    I mean that balancing sustainability and yield does not need to be subjective, but that one can relate the two quantitatively. And in turn, sustainability can be expressed in terms of most of the other factors (see planetary boundaries). Such calculations may be expressed as ecological footprint. This has some subjective elements, but is not purely so. You spend a lot of time in your answer on Yield per Acre, which can be calculated. So can the impact of the other factors... so I think the question can be answered more quantitatively, than you do. Perhaps. – gerrit Sep 6 '13 at 18:55
  • @gerrit You can answer several of the others quantitatively, yes. But not all of them, and even if you could, the importance that an individual places on each of them is subjective. What is the impact of GMOs? How important is biodiversity? Does water protection matter? How much does some unit of water pollution equal in terms of some unit of soil building? – user5582 Sep 6 '13 at 19:00
  • @gerrit "sustainability can be expressed in terms of most of the other factors" — then, would it be fair to say the FAO is double-counting? – user5582 Sep 6 '13 at 19:01

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