OK, maybe this one doesn’t rise to the level of major life decision, but when you’re staring at a wall of options at the grocery store, it can give you pause. If you’re looking to help the planet while putting food on your table, what’s the best choice?
As it turns out, there isn’t really a cut-and-dry “best.” Both organic and conventional farming affect the environment in different ways — and farms don’t divide neatly into two simple categories. Conventional farms aren’t all the same, and organic farms aren’t all the same. Individual farmers make their own choices, using a variety of approaches that all come with their own benefits and tradeoffs.
Let’s take a look.
What’s in a Name?
First, what does organic actually mean?
There are lots of definitions out there, which vary depending on where you live, but to paraphrase the Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine: Organic farming aims to control pests, diseases and weeds with approaches such as crop rotations, using recycled organic materials (like animal manure), and non-chemical methods. This generally means no synthetic pesticides, but when non-chemical approaches fail, organic farmers do have access to a limited number of pesticides, mostly from natural sources.
So, what does this mean for the environment? We asked Rob Wallbridge, an organic agronomist in Quebec, for his perspective (hint: that means he’s an expert in organic farming).
“To say that organic farmers make decisions that prioritize things like soil health, water quality, and biodiversity may be true to some varying degree,” Rob says. “But I think it's more accurate to say that the organic standards help channel farmers into making decisions that are more likely to result in these benefits. For example, without access to economical, easy-to-use synthetic herbicides and insecticides, organic farmers are more likely to end up with a greater diversity of habitat for, and populations of, beneficial insects. Those beneficials, in turn, provide a large part of the pest control function that insecticides would otherwise provide.”
Sounds great, right? But benefits like this come with tradeoffs.
“The tradeoffs are less convenience, less predictability, less control, and a higher degree of risk,” Rob says. “Which is why it's not for everyone and a large part of the justification for premium prices.”
Fertilizers and Pesticides
Fertilizers and pesticides tend to dominate discussions about organic and non-organic food. Fertilizers are used to nourish plants, while pesticides serve to protect them from pests and diseases. While synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are convenient, manufacturing them produces greenhouse gas emissions. Plus, when not used correctly, these chemicals may accidentally hurt other living things, in addition to pests. However, the World Health Organization says, “pesticides need not be hazardous if suitable precautions are taken.”
Meanwhile, organic farmers can use non-synthetic fertilizers — such as manure and mined minerals — along with certain biological pesticides. We’re going to take the high road and skip the elementary school jokes, but let’s just say manure is, um, naturally produced.
But “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean these chemicals have no impact on the environment. For example, while synthetic fertilizers release nutrients when the crops need them, manure can sometimes release excess nutrients. The rain can wash away excess nutrients from fertilizers, manure, and even urban areas and they may end up in rivers and lakes. And too many nutrients in the water can cause eutrophication. That’s a fancy word to describe how excess nutrients can reduce water quality and threaten fish and aquatic plant habitats.