Despite its undeniable advantages, organic farming is not a silver bullet solution to the crisis facing our food system and planet.

At the moment, agriculture and climate change are caught in a death spiral. Worsening drought, wildfires, flooding, and extreme weather events all place our agricultural system in jeopardy, threatening our ability to feed the planet. At the same time, agriculture is itself one of the largest emitters: one third of total greenhouse emissions come from our food system, according to the FAO. Crop and livestock production, food transportation and processing, and land clearing for agriculture are some of the biggest emission culprits. 

Given these hefty impacts, many have called for a more “climate-friendly” food system. In particular, organic farming (which prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilisers, and GMOs) has often been touted as a sustainable alternative to industrial farming, for its purported advantages to human health and the environment. Proponents argue that by transitioning from industrial to organic methods, the agricultural sector could reduce its steep emissions. As one report from the UN Environmental Programme puts it: “Organic farming is not just a trend, it’s the future of agriculture.”

However, critics point out that organic agriculture has hidden costs. With lower yields, organic farms often require more land to produce the same amount of food (and thus more emissions from deforestation and land clearing). While organic tactics remain pivotal, these critiques remind us that no farming system — including organic — is a silver bullet solution to the climate crisis in the agricultural sector. Policy leaders will need to implement a diversity of approaches, within and outside of the organic framework, to create a sustainable, equitable food system.

Why organic?

Organic farming has a range of demonstrated benefits to human and environmental health. In organic systems, workers and consumers are less exposed to carcinogenic pesticides, and for a variety of metrics, organic farming is better for local ecosystems: mitigating the pollution of water sources by fertilisers, promoting local biodiversity, and reducing soil erosion. Organic farms also tend to perform better under drought and extreme weather — a vital role in the context of a changing climate. 

From the perspective of emissions, organic again seems to beat industrial farming — at least, on an acre-by-acre basis. Organic farms don’t use synthetic fertilisers, which require immense emissions to produce and which continue to emit nitrous oxide after being broken down by microbes in the soil. Meanwhile, by relying on traditional inputs like compost and animal manure, organic farms build more soil carbon — taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in the ground. As a result, when scaled to the same area, organic farms outperform industrial ones in lowering greenhouse emissions.

In light of these benefits, organic farming has been lauded as the future of climate-friendly agriculture. It has grown dramatically over the past few decades, now at almost 100 million hectares of farmland, a 5-fold increase since 2000. However, as critics have noted, organic is not a blanket solution to the problems of industrial agriculture, or to the threat of climate change.

The hidden costs of organic

While many consider it the gold standard for sustainable farming, organic has its fair share of shortcomings. Perhaps its largest challenge is a persistent gap in yields: one of the leading comparative studies across a range of crops and locations found that organic crops have 25% lower yields on average, due to pest pressures and insufficient nitrogen.

This is a major problem for organic’s “climate-friendly” status. The largest driver of emissions in the agricultural sector is land use change — the conversion of existing wildlife ecosystems to agriculture, resulting in deforestation and plowed-up grassland. If, for instance, organic farms produce a quarter less than industrial systems, then they require 33% more land to grow the same amount of food. Some land demand estimates are even higher, from 50% to a staggering 80% increase. And with more land, comes more emissions. 

That being said, not all organic yields fall short. Yield gaps depend on region and crop, and as advocates point out, organic yields will likely continue to increase with improving technology and global investment. At the Rodale Institute, leading organic researchers conducted a 40-year comparative “Farming Systems Trial,” showing that under ideal management and growing conditions, organic crops can match or even outperform industrial ones. “We can’t derive the conclusion that organic is worse for the environment,” they conclude

For the time being, however, organic farming is not a panacea for the global agricultural system. For many crops, yield gaps remain high, and so too do pressures to clear natural landscapes for more farmland. Already, one half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture. The last thing our agricultural system needs is more pressure to rip up forests and grassland — destroying key carbon sinks and unearthing emissions in the process.

Organic as part of a larger picture

These critiques, without ruling out organic farming entirely, demonstrate that a complete conversion to organic across the global food system comes with a string of undesired environmental consequences: specifically, less natural land and more emissions. Facing the climate crisis in the agricultural system is thus more complicated than choosing the most “sustainable” system on an acre-by-acre basis. Yields and efficiency also play a critical role in protecting forested and non-farmed land, and in keeping emissions low.

Again, organic tactics remain critical to reducing emissions: they sequester carbon better in the soil and provide a range of other environmental benefits: preventing soil erosion, reducing eutrophication, and preserving local biodiversity. However, there must be a middle ground between staggering pesticide and fertiliser use in industrial farming and the strict guidelines of organic and regenerative farming. 

Consider, for example, heat-resistant GMOs and the strategic, efficient use of fertilisers — both non-organic, but nonetheless useful in mitigating and adapting to warming temperatures. Or look to no-till industrial farming, which reduces soil erosion while keeping yields high (and demand for land low). Not to mention a range of other approaches that shrink agricultural land use, including lower meat consumption, reduced food waste, and urban and vertical farming. These are all middle-ground strategies, somewhere between organic and industrial, that cut down on emissions while helping farms adapt to a changing climate.

In the fight over the future of agriculture, defenders of organic and industrial farming have drawn harsh lines in the sand. And yet, given the complexity of the mounting crisis to our crops and climate, a diverse range of tactics and approaches — organic, industrial, traditional, and scientific — are needed to pull our food system in the right direction. Organic agriculture is an essential tool, but for a resilient, “climate-friendly” food system, we’re going to need the whole toolbox.