Think organic farming is climate friendly? You might want to think again. A study published recently in the journal Agriculture and Human Values suggests that as organic agriculture emulates conventional industrial agriculture, the environmental benefits may not be the slam-dunk that Earth-loving proponents might like them to be.

It’s well known that organic practices offer climate benefits in terms of management practices that help sequester carbon in soils and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions associated with fertilizer production. What’s less clear is the extent to which other variables, such as lower per-acre productivity and more intensive use of machinery in fields, counteract these savings.

Analyzing preexisting data on agriculture greenhouse gas emissions and amount of certified organic farmland across 49 states and eight years, sociology doctoral student Julius McGee from the University of Oregon discovered that the amount of farmland in organic production and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture were positively correlated, even when adjusted for population, GDP and total amount of agricultural land.

“What these findings ultimately suggest is that organic farming is not working as a counterforce to greenhouse gas emissions stimulated by agricultural production, and is currently positively correlated with the problem,” he concluded.

Noting recent trends toward “conventionalization” of organic agriculture, McGee called for the organic food system to be more deliberate in its efforts to adopt sustainable practices and for additional oversight to make sure that production of certified organic foods is as environmentally friendly as consumers hope — and often assume — it is. View Ensia homepage