"Going organic" is kind of a loaded proposition. In the average consumer mind, it conjures a sheen of healthful purity, sun-dappled berries, and clean-living cukes, free from Big Agriculture's menacing taint.
But as more consumers embrace an organic lifestyle, questions have been raised—and the answers can be quite the bummer. Are organic chickens happy chickens? Not necessarily. Are organic foods more nutritious than conventional? Probably not. Is the growth in organic farming better for the planet? Um, we've got some bad news.
In a study published in the June 2015 issue of Agriculture and Human Values, research showed that—contrary to widely held perceptions—organic farms may be producing more greenhouse gases than their conventional cousins. Additionally, the organic pesticides used on these farms can wreak great havoc on our waterways.
We talked to lead researcher Julian McGee, a graduate teaching fellow at the University of Oregon, on myths, realities, and staking out a career as an organic party-pooper.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Julius. Tell us what inspired you to undertake this research. Julius McGee: I had been noticing that more and more organic products were showing up on the shelves at conventional supermarkets. If these products were reaching such large-scale distribution, it seemed like the farms must be pretty huge operations. I wanted to know if these farms are having similar impacts to more traditional agribusiness.
You were looking specifically at climate change? Yes. And when I started to look into the standards enforced by the USDA, I found that many practices that organic farmers would need to implement to reduce climate change were not mandated. Practices which we associate with organic farming—as kind of a replacement for synthetic pesticides and fertilizers—are not being used at a lot of these large-scale organic farms.
What kind of practices? Like crop rotation, where you switch out crops from season to season, which has shown great benefits in pest management and soil fertility. Or using compost or mulch as a replacement for synthetic fertilizers. You don't see much of that on large-scale organic farms.
Your findings show that organic farms may actually release more CO2 than traditional ones. Why would that be? There are multiple factors but a big part is the machinery. You find that if you aren't using synthetic fertilizers, there ends up being a lot more heavy equipment involved. A lot of smaller studies have noted that any kind of greenhouse gas mitigation these farms are able to accomplish are basically offset by the machinery they use. Another factor is the increased use of manure as a replacement fertilizer. There's a lot of methane involved in that.
Do you think organic companies try to convince us they are climate change-friendly? That's a really good question that I think we need to ask ourselves as consumers: What are we doing when we buy organic goods? If you did a poll at Trader Joe's, I think you'd be more likely to hear that people are buying organic because it's good for their bodies. They just don't want to ingest synthetic chemicals. So it's not like the organic industry has to convince anyone that it's mitigating climate change. But I think many consumers might be surprised to hear organic farming can have these negative environmental impacts.
Are there other examples of these impacts? Yes, definitely. If you increase the scale of organic production to a certain level, you're essentially going to have to increase pesticide use. There are just too many little critters out there going, "Look at all this food for us." Many organic farms use pesticides; they just aren't synthetically produced.
Recent studies have shown organic pesticides are less regulated. They're ending up in waterways and you're finding all the same issues with other pesticides—aquatic dead zones and the like.
Did your research draw a line between large-scale organic operations like Horizon or Nature's Valley and smaller farms? It's kind of a tough thing to do. We have now what I call the bifurcation of organic—basically two types of organic. Ninety percent of organic goods are sold in grocery stores; these goods typically come from very large farms. That's where you can find measurable greenhouse gas impacts.
If I was to look at analysis of tiny organic farms that sell primarily at farmers markets and CSAs programs, it's such a small percentage. It would be really tricky to find a correlation between their practices and any measurable effect on greenhouse gas emissions. The real trend is the large-scale organic we're seeing.
You've done other studies on the negative impacts of organics. Are you carving out an academic career in being an organic killjoy? [laughs] It's funny, I'm actually a consumer of organic goods, but I'm also a social scientist by training. I'm just trying to show that the tech fixes we apply for ecological problems often have a lot of social implications and counterintuitive outcomes.
So why do you shop organic? When I teach classes on this stuff, my students say they're never going to buy organic again, but that's not the answer. I shop at farmers markets and take part in CSAs; the smaller farms are typically much more conscientious. These farms care more about addressing environmental degradation and having a positive impact. That is the way forward.
Thank you for speaking with us, Julius.