You might want to think twice when buying organic, new study claims

13 Dec 2018

Image: © Syda Productions/

Researchers in Sweden have revealed that while we think buying organic food is better for the planet, it actually does more harm than good.

As much of the world starts coming to terms with the catastrophe that awaits our planet due to unabated climate change, the weekly shop of many households has changed with it. This is not only because of a desire to be more sustainable, but also to live a healthier lifestyle.

One such change in consumer spending has been a growth in organic food, which promises items that are sourced more sustainably and ethically than cheaper, standard farmed goods.

However, a team of researchers from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden suggests buying organic might be doing significantly more damage to our planet than non-organic.

Publishing its findings in Nature, the team said it has found evidence that organically farmed food has a bigger climate impact that conventional farming. This is due to the greater amount of land required to grow organic food, significantly increasing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Our study shows that organic peas, farmed in Sweden, have around a 50pc bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed peas,” said Stefan Wirsenius of the research team. “For some foodstuffs, there is an even bigger difference – for example, with organic Swedish winter wheat, the difference is closer to 70pc.”

With crop yields per hectare much lower than standard agriculture (because fertiliser isn’t used), a farmer needs to use significantly more land, thereby indirectly creating higher carbon emissions. The same problem is found with meat and dairy production, where the use of organic feed requires greater amounts of land than conventional production.

‘A big oversight’

To come to this conclusion, the researchers developed a new model for assessing the climate impact from land use. With this and other methods, they compared organic and conventional food production. Calling it the ‘carbon opportunity cost’, it takes into account the amount of carbon that is stored in forests, and thus released as carbon dioxide as an effect of deforestation to create more arable land.

Wirsenius said the fact that more land use leads to greater climate impact has not often been taken into account in earlier comparisons between organic and conventional food. “This is a big oversight because, as our study shows, this effect can be many times bigger than the greenhouse gas effects, which are normally included,” he said.

“It is also serious because today in Sweden, we have political goals to increase production of organic food. If those goals are implemented, the climate influence from Swedish food production will probably increase a lot.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic