New Scientist’s recent article ‘Stop buying organic food if you really want to save the planet‘ inevitably caused a stir, and the Soil Association fought back with the accusation of ‘unscientific’. As the title suggests, there were some sweeping statements from New Scientist. The Soil Association’s response also had some bold claims, so I’m taking the opportunity to comment on a few of the claims from both sides and point out some logical flaws.
One major point in the New Scientist article is that the gap between carbon emissions from organic food and conventional food will increase because organic labels don’t accept genetic modification. As the New Scientist article points out, it seems that the organic movement also won’t accept genome editing, meaning that they will be denied any future benefits which may come from crops produced using biotechnology.
The New Scientist’s claim could be right in theory, but a few things would have to change if it was to be right in practice. For a start, we would need to actually see these promised crops which reduce carbon emissions (I hope we do). Even if this happens, GM crops are largely rejected by conventional farms in Europe so until that changes there’s no possibility of a gap materialising.
There were also claims about clearing forests to make way for agriculture. An important aspect of the organic vs conventional debate is whether the increased wildlife on organic farms justifies the use of more land. Organic farms have lower yields, so arguably this means more land is used for agriculture rather than wildlife. In the words of New Scientist “organic farms require more land, which in the tropics often means cutting down more rainforests.”
Sadly there’s no link in the New Scientist article backing this up. Although lower average yields from organic farms is widely documented, exactly how that links to more land use for agriculture is less clear. For a start, certified organic farming is a very small minority of food production.
The Soil Association’s opposing claim that organic certification leads to less deforestation has nothing to do with avoiding the use of synthetic pesticides. Their point is that organic beef is largely grass fed rather than fed with crops grown on deforested land. The take home message is therefore not about organic farming per se – it is related to whether cows eat grass or grain (a big debate in itself, one I’m looking forward to hearing more about at the Nobel Week Dialogue tomorrow).
It is also worth pointing out that not all organic agriculture is created equal, which makes sweeping statements somewhat dangerous. The issues are very different for subsistence farmers on marginal land than for commercial organic farmers in the developed world.
The New Scientist article might not have presented all the arguments needed to justify its position, but I believe its conclusion is correct: we need an evidence-based carbon certification scheme. The organic label is often used as a proxy for an ecolabel, but it starts with an ideology rather than by looking for evidence about what foods actually have lower environmental impact.
Should you spend the extra money on organic? That’s too big a question to address in a single blog post so, unlike the New Scientist and the Soil Association, I’m not going to try. I’m interested to hear any comments though, and to know what people have chosen themselves.