I've heard that organic crops and husbandry are worse for the environment than non-organic equivalents because in the absence of pesticides and fertilizers much more land is required for an organic yield equivalent to what would be achieved with fertilizer and pesticides.

Of course, I'm sure there are lots of variables across the different crops and animals, but I expect there are some generalizations that could be applied.

EDIT: Reference to "Organic foods"

By “organic crops” in this sense, I mean “organic foods” (per Wikipedia:Organic_Food):

Organic foods are foods that are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives

  • 5
    OK, we have been upright for a long time, but we have only been farming for 10,000 - 12,000 years. Regardless, that is all besides the point. This question is hard to answer because it implies that using more land is bad for the environment. I think that it is easy to prove that organic food has lower yields for a given area, but suggesting that that makes it bad for the environment is difficult. What would constitute something being bad for the environment? We could argue on that metric for days.... – user2635 May 11 '11 at 22:29
  • @Steve K: While I appreciate that the definition of "bad for the environment" is difficult, I'm sure I can be convinced of the measure of the harms based upon comparisons across several commonly accepted metrics. – Brian M. Hunt May 12 '11 at 14:07
  • 2
    Everything has its pros and cons. It is impossible to conclude one process is better than the other in every way. Here you are highlight one aspect, intensity of yield. There are many other aspects that are not considered. – Wai Yip Tung May 28 '11 at 23:34
  • 3
    I think it is not a stretch to say that rotting food and some level of pest-infested crops are actually GOOD for the environment on balance. The premise conflates "capable of sustaining more people" with "environmentally friendly" – horatio Jun 7 '11 at 15:19
  • 1
    I'm putting this here because it's not a proper answer, but addresses the question: Since we don't have any models which can accurately predict environmental impacts over the entire "environment" of the earth based on singular changes in inputs such as farming, there's no way to currently know the answer to this question. Anyone is going to be able to argue, based on some axis of an activity currently considered "pollution" that one method is better or worse. – Russell Steen Jun 7 '11 at 16:46
up vote 19 down vote accepted

Techniques like Life Cycle assesment (LCA) can be used to answer this kind of questions, but these techniques often need to make many assumptions. Some example studies and their references can be found in this presentation. It cites 20 studies that state that conventional agriculture has lower green house gas emissions than organic agriculture, vs 8 that state the opposite.

However in my opinion: if you would use a technique like LCA to find out the best management for a specific piece of land, you might end up with eg a agroforestry system which uses chemical fertiliser. This is not 'conventional' agriculture. It is not 'organic' agriculture. It is a combination of techniques without being dogmatic.

In fact, if you compare such a system vs a 'organic' system, it would have the same environmental impact if no changes are made, but if some techniques which are not allowed in organic farming are used wisely the environmental impact (according to the metric you chose) may decrease. A clever usage of all available technologies, some of which are not allowed by organic farming, should therefore always score 'better' than organic farming, and also better than 'conventional' farming.

You may also want to read this Nature article, which actually supports the same claim: Urban myths of organic farming (free download)

Organic agriculture was originally formulated as an ideology, but today's global problems — such as climate change and population growth — need agricultural pragmatism and flexibility, not ideology.

This does not mean that some of the issues that organic farming tries to tackle are not real. I like some of the research of Jules Pretty, who has been looking to external costs of agriculture: external cost UK agriculture. (Free download )

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .