Are There Environmental Benefits To Organic Farming?
April 26, 2012

Are There Environmental Benefits To Organic Farming?

Brett Smith for

While seemingly well intentioned, the organic food movement has generated some common misconceptions over the course of its evolution.

The latest example is the perceived the environmental benefits of organic farming, according to a study published in Nature this week.

A joint team of researchers from McGill University in Canada and the University of Minnesota found that some crops grown with organic farming methods produce about one-third less than their counterparts grown with non-organic or so-called conventional methods.

Critics of organic farming might argue that its environmental benefits are somewhat compromised by the idea that more habitat-destroying farmland is necessary to produce the amount of crops grown on the same amount of land using conventional methods.

In the study, scientists reviewed 66 studies comparing 34 different crop species in both organic and conventional farming systems, taking land use into account. Many previous studies have ignored the size of the area planted for organic farming methods, which is sometimes bigger than the area used conventional methods on various farms.

Some organic crops fared as well as their conventional counterparts, but the yield of others was significantly less. Organically grown vegetables, barley, and wheat produced about 33 percent less than the conventionally grown crops. Well managed fruit trees and legume plants often produced the same yield, regardless of farming method.

"Instead of saying either organic or conventional,(we should) just realizing that both approaches can be good under some conditions and bad under others,” lead researcher at Canada's McGill University, Verena Seufert, told Sarina Locke of Australia´s

Seufert seemed to suggest that a hybrid of organic and traditional farming methods might be the best approach to maximizing yield and minimizing land use.

“We should try to learn from those systems that perform well in terms of yield but also environmental performance and just adopt the systems in those places where they do well,” she said according to the AFP news agency.

“We just need to examine systematically and combine the best of both approaches."

An irony of this study is that it only adds another layer of complexity to an issue that is already multi-faceted. The conventional farming and pesticide industries have come under increased scrutiny over their potential impact on both the environment and the public health.

One of the hidden costs of conventional farming is the environmental damage and health risk incurred by using pesticides and fertilizer. In 2003, a study showed Zimbabwean cotton farmers suffered both physically and economically from pesticide-related illnesses.

Another impact of traditional farming that is difficult to measure is the effect it has on non-pest insects like bees.

An article in last month´s issue of Science said that two different research teams have found low levels of pesticides in the environment can have a significant impact on the bee population. A team of French researchers found that the chemicals alter brain functions in honeybees, making it difficult for them to return to their hive. In a different study, a UK research team revealed evidence that suggested pesticides affect the ability of bumblebees to maintain a steady food supply.