Among the general public, the term “organic,” when applied to food, has long been accepted as a sort of shorthand for “healthy and environmentally friendly.”
That reputation is mainly attributable to the fact that organic food is produced without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides (despite the fact that it’s about much more than that for dedicated organic farmers), which can damage ecosystems and be harmful to human health at certain levels.
But as the climate crisis has become the defining environmental issue of our time, questions about how organic farming fares specifically when it comes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have started to percolate. And a few recent studies led to surprising headlines like this one: “Sorry, organic farming is actually worse for climate change.”
Of course, it’s not that simple, and even credentialed experts disagree on what current research can tell us. “It’s just not going to be a meaningful part of the climate solution,” says Timothy Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton University and the lead author of the recent World Resources Institute report “Creating a Sustainable Food Future.” Meanwhile, scientist Yichao Rui, PhD, who oversees soil health research at the Rodale Institute, holds the opposite view. “There’s no doubt that organic systems could reduce greenhouse emissions and improve carbon sequestration,” he says.
Understanding that discrepancy is a matter of digging into the research, analysis, and expert opinions available. It’s also important to ask whether examining GHG emissions isolated from and above all other factors is a productive approach to thinking about the impact of food choices. Given the severity of the climate crisis, is that now necessary? Or will a systematic way of thinking that takes all environmental impacts into account better serve the planet (and its people)?
Beyond GHG Emissions: The Bigger Picture
Dr. Rui emphasized that there is a lot of room to improve organic farming practices, which is why more research is crucial. He also pointed out that while looking at yield variations in grains like corn and soy is valuable, it cannot tell the full story of organic farming’s potential benefits. That’s because in its best iterations, organic farming involves complex, diverse systems with varied crop rotations and other soil-building practices, animal integration, and ecosystem preservation. Comparing a diversified organic farm to conventional row cropping in an apples-to-apples way, then, is difficult.
Rodale is also moving towards “regenerative organic” practices that focus not just on the absence of pesticides, but on the many practices that build soil and the climate-friendly reasons to do so. As a proponent of “true cost accounting,” it’s the direction Rangan thinks farming systems should move in to provide maximum environmental benefits across the board.
“It is important to make sure that we are holding the soil onto the ground, physically, and the way you do that is root depth, constant cover cropping, and increased topsoil. So that as inclement weather comes in, for example, as a result of climate impacts, those lands are going to be able to tolerate that disturbance much more easily,” she said. “That’s what we saw in the Midwest this past summer — more resilience on these regenerative farms.”
In other words, measuring environmental impact means considering greenhouse gas emissions but also how chemical inputs impact pollinators, how integrated livestock can impact the ecology of soil, and how keeping soil covered at all times to hold nutrients and carbon in place is integral.
“All those things matter,” she said. “They also have a whole lot of other benefits that we need to be thinking of when we’re thinking about a resilient system overall. Organic gets you started in that direction If you’re practicing it right…and then we can actually sequester carbon in the soil and draw it down. Agriculture can be part of that solution.”
The Path Forward
Research on how much carbon agricultural soils might actually be able to store using regenerative methods and how to measure it is still in its infancy. And forests will always store much more carbon in trees and other vegetation, so no matter how much farmed soil holds, land that can be kept as forest will always be better in terms of GHG emissions.
More studies are necessary to look at how regionality impacts carbon sequestration, Dr. Rui said, and Rodale is in the process of setting up research centers in Iowa, Georgia, and California to apply its methods to different climates and soil types. But results from international studies already look promising. “Most of them agree that organic, or a more regenerative way of farming, has a lot of potential in sequestering carbon,” he said.
The question about land use and yields will continue to be debated, especially if the question of organic farming’s climate impact is applied to simply changing a few variables within the current agricultural system. But Rangan thinks a bolder transformation of that entire system is necessary. “The practices invented in organic are not the only ones that are going to be necessary to deal with the full spectrum of climate impact when it comes to agriculture, but they are central,” she said. “In other words, the best systems will incorporate all of those principles at the end of the day, as we transition to regenerative.”