Organic farming can harm the climate

Does Organic Farming Have a Positive Impact on the Global Footprint of Greenhouse Gas Emissions? British scientists come to sobering results.

Assuming that all farmers in a country would only farm organically, would not that have to have a positive impact on the global greenhouse gas emissions record? This conclusion seems obvious – and is obviously wrong. Scientists at the Royal Agricultural University in England came to this conclusion when they calculated the impact of a consistent switch to organic agriculture in England and Wales. Although this would reduce the regional emissions of greenhouse gases, the global economy would grow.

First, the positive effect: So if all farmers in England and Wales only work ecologically, then the resulting emissions from the cultivation of grain and vegetables would fall there by 20 percent and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases caused by livestock by four percent. But now the catch: The researchers around Laurence Smith assume that this would reduce yields by up to 40 percent. And exactly this break-down would, according to her analysis, lead to the import of more food from other countries.

Organic farming causes yields to shrink – this triggers a chain reaction

In the model of the British researchers, the growing demand for imported products triggers a chain reaction that ultimately harms the climate: in the countries that will deliver food to England and Wales in the future, new land for agricultural use would have to be tapped.


Add to that the transport of food, and according to the calculations of the British scientists, there would be so many additional greenhouse gas emissions that the regional savings would be exceeded. The authors conclude that switching to organic farming alone is not a path to more climate friendliness * – rather that it will lead to additional greenhouse gas emissions without changing dietary habits *. The researchers published their findings yesterday in the journal “Nature Communications”.

Conversion to organic farming with “unwanted consequences”

Even scientists who were not involved in the study find the scenario of their English colleagues comprehensible. It turns out that the conversion to organic farming could have “quite unintended consequences” and “does not contribute to a global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” says Klaus Butterbach-Bahl, head of the Department of Bio-Geo-Chemical Processes at the Institute for Meteorology and Climate Research – Atmospheric Environmental Research of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).

A further finding of the study for him is that “organic farming and eco-products would lead to massively higher prices for food supply”. This is not a major problem for “many high-income groups of people”, for people with less money, however: “So it is a luxury issue in the diet.”

Complete conversion to organic farming: food production is reduced

The bottom line of the British researchers’ negative balance is based on their thesis that food production would be reduced by 40 percent in a complete conversion to organic farming in the regions studied. Put the case that this bill is right: could this burglary catch up if consumers were throwing away less food? Estimates suggest that up to 50 percent of the food produced is not consumed. Butterbach-Bahl is skeptical. It seems to him “somewhat illusory to assume that ultimately no food will be thrown away”.

But even if no food were to end up in the garbage, in his view, at least in the UK, “sustainable, regional supply by organic farming alone is unlikely to be feasible.” Already today, the UK needs to import food and feed “on a large scale”.

Like the British scientists, Butterbach-Bahl also sees it as necessary for people in industrialized countries to change their eating habits. This is also emphasized by Stefan Frank, a scientist in the Ecosystem Services and Management program at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria. Like many other scientists, he also rates the high meat consumption in some countries critically.

Agriculture: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions through other measures

As far as agriculture itself is concerned, the emission of greenhouse gases could also be reduced by other measures than pure organic farming, says Klaus Butterbach-Bahl. Examples include “adapted” fertilization and feeding, better management of humus soils and “networking of animal and grain production”. “The potential here is far from exhausted.”

For Adrian Müller of the Institute for Environmental Decisions at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, it is not enough to capture the sustainability of agriculture * alone in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. “This is just one indicator among many”. For him also surplus nitrogen and other nutrients play a role as well as the toxicity of substances used by farmers or the erosion and destruction of soils.

A 100% conversion to organic farming, as the English researchers have adopted for their analysis, the Swiss scientist finds unrealistic – and does not necessarily see them as the best solution. It would be sensible and feasible to bring agriculture to 60 percent organic farming, reduce food waste by 50 percent, and also reduce concentrated feed for livestock by 50 percent.

Organic farming in Europe is booming


Organic farming in Germany: details depend on local conditions

Now, scientists from the Royal Agricultural University have looked specifically at the situation in England and Wales in their study. Can this also be outperformed by other countries? Although the results are not generally comparable, says the Swiss Adrian Müller, since they depend partly on the situation in these two countries. Nevertheless, he assumes that a changeover to organic farming in Germany, Austria and Switzerland would have a similar effect, since all three countries are also “with relatively high yields”. “What it looks like in detail, but depends on the local conditions” – including how much area as arable land and how much is used as grassland, which amount of concentrated feed imports, how high the proportion of grain and how high the of feed maize.

“In calculations that we carried out for Switzerland and Austria, switching to bio led to less drastic losses,” says Müller. Thus, the scientists “only” on a productivity loss of 25 to 30 percent – and not like the English researchers to 40 percent. One reason for this discrepancy is that pulses have played a major role in the Swiss analysis, while the British have reported higher levels of cereals, potatoes and sugar beets, which are more likely to generate revenue gaps.

By Pamela Dörhöfer