Organic vs. conventional farming: Which has lower environmental impact?

The Swedish Food Agency (Svenska Livsmedelsverket SLV) recently published a report on a many-faceted breakdown of environmental effects in farming per one kilogram of farming product. This report was also discussed in an opinion piece in the Sweden’s largest newspaper, Dagens Nyheter (under the title “Organic farming has never been better for the environment”).

In SLV’s report, researchers looked at environmental impacts separated into the subtopics of climate, over-fertilization, acidification, eco-toxicity, energy use, and land use. They determined there to be a difference between the organic and conventional farming when a study would find more than 10 percent variation in the two farming systems’ respective impacts, and when two thirds of the studies considered would be in agreement over the effect. The number inside each cell signifies the number of studies considered. They compared these effects per one kilogram product for nine categories of food product: milk, beef, pork, chicken, eggs, fish and seafood, vegetables, and fruits and berries. (Note, category fish and seafood shortened to ‘fish’ and category fruit and berries to ‘fruit’ for space reasons in the version I translated and created into the infographic you see below. The table with its numbers and colors was provided as is in the report).

Environmental impact of organic vs conventional farming

The table can be found in the DN article or originally on page 41 in the SLV’s report

What conclusions can be drawn from this summary?

Neither conventional or organic is clearly environmentally superior. The claim that one of these two systems would be worth special subsidies, higher cost to consumer, or a better reputation, is not well founded – if such a difference is hinted at, the benefit seems to reside slightly on the side of conventional farming.

Organic is on top in 14 aspects, half of them in the area of ecotoxicity. This does not address the question whether ecotoxicity is a great risk in contemporary agriculture, or greater or lesser one than any one of the other aspects. It is worthwhile to considering that pesticides have become dramatically safer over the past 50 years. Some perspective on herbicides is given in the piece: Herbicides: How harmful are they? They write:

Although there have been pesticides that were toxic and dangerous to handle, most of these products are no longer used and have been replaced by newer chemistry. Pesticides now must go through rigorous testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before they can be sold. This has led to many herbicides that possess little or no mammalian toxicity and are less harmful than many everyday household products (Table 1). Surprisingly, household chemicals that many of us store under the kitchen sink pose more risk to the handler than herbicides.

Another good overview comes from Steve Savage over at Applied Mythology: Pesticides – Probably Less Scary Than You Imagine:

All the registered pesticides are also extensively studied in terms of their effects on “non-target” organisms and their environmental fate. The rules for how any given pesticide can be used (the label requirements) factor in worker and environmental risk. Once again, the sort of issues that were common in the 1960s are not at all reflective of the modern situation.

This does not mean that pesticides should not be carefully studied and monitored to make sure we apply them in a way that has minimal adverse effect on organisms which fall outside their scope (managing pests and weeds). I have written more about the research done on bees and neonicotinoid here, for instance.

Meanwhile, conventional farming (representing about 94 percent of all farming in Europe) ends on top on eighteen aspects in this table summary – that is only four ‘winning’ aspects more than organic. Once more, neither these columns nor rows are a one plus one kind of metric, as there are local and global differences to importances of the different environmental impacts, differences to how large areas the farming of each product category represents, and differences too to how pronounced and reliable each of the measured differences between the systems are. Bearing this in mind, the conventional’s clearest strong side, outperforming organic in seven out of eight categories, is land use. It may not be surprising that these are the clearest signals: whereas organic excludes pesticides and fertilizers of a certain type (ones that are considered too man-made), conventional makes careful use of them, and partly thanks to just that, ends up making more optimal use of its area, producing more product on less land.

Ecotoxicity vs land use – which is a larger problem?

It is not a simple task to try to assign relative weights to environmental impacts, but it is worth the effort to try to look for evaluations of this topic in the scientific literature. Marc Brazeau has written an insightful piece on this topic: Focus On Pestidices Is a Distraction From Major Eco Impacts, where he reports on a research paper looking at the largest environmental areas of concern, titled Leverage points for improving global food security and the environment, in the journal Science. He makes some important observations on the relatively low impact of pesticides vs several other factors in farming:

The environmental impacts highlighted include water use and irrigation; nutrient leaching and eutrophication due to excess nitrogen and phosphorus; land use, especially tropical deforestation; and greenhouse gases, especially N2O but also carbon and methane. If you look at the research on the environmental impacts of food production by researchers like geophysicist Gidon Eshel of Bard College (Michael Pollan’s go-to source on these matters) you will find a similar set of concerns and the same absence of pesticides as an environmental concern.

environmental impacts of agriculture

This figure was featured in Marc Brazeau’s piece, and it is originally from the article Leverage points for improving global food security and the environment, behind paywall over at Science

He goes on to point out that pesticides actually help us address some of those other important issues. With appropriate use of pesticides, less resources (such as fertilizers, land, irrigation) are wasted on pests and weeds – thus limiting the general effects of farming. Scoring higher on ecotoxicity indeed seems potentially to be a part of the why conventional farming has an environmental edge over organic farming.

The big picture?

If you consider the columns in the table on climate, over-fertilization, acidification, and energy use – which all belong to the areas highlighted by the Science piece as crucial priorities – the only honest conclusion we can draw is: in Sweden, at least, there is no clear superiority among the farming systems. In these four important environmental aspects they are by far more often equal than they are different.

Related article:  Did Canada overestimate the risks of neonicotinoid pesticides?

What comes to situations elsewhere, an European meta-analysis of hundred studies finds that over-fertilization, acidification, and land use are the more problematic aspects in organic farming, whereas it tends to have smaller energy requirements than conventional farming. Quote from the conclusion of the meta-analysis Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts?:

…ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems. Organic systems had lower energy requirements, but higher land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit.

Land use, on the other hand, also highlighted as very important by the paper in Science on global farming issues, is where conventional farming clearly is the environmental choice. This is where the ‘ecotoxic’ substances would probably have helped avoid using more land.

Let’s sit down at a neat table: correct mistaken ideas

What makes this kind of review important is clear when you consider the common belief propagated by organic marketers: that theirs is the more environmentally friendly way to farm. I used to make the same Natural Assumption. But the environment does not in fact differentiate between a harmful impact from a ‘natural’ source (however that may be defined) and a ‘non-natural’ one.

If the organic label was committed to striving toward documented environmental benefits instead of the idea of some kind of superior naturalness, I would still be the loyal organic customer I used to be. As it is, there is little support in the science or in this SLV report for the claim of organic farming leading the way in the use of environmentally friendlier methods today.

Venn organic

Unfortunately many mistaken ideas about organic farming stem from the misleading tactics of organic marketers. Infographic created together with Alison Bernstein aka Mommy PhD, who came up with the idea behind it. Statistics on European organic farming can be found here, and you can read more about pesticides, antibiotics, GMOs, conservation tillage, and crop rotations in the piece below.

Instead organic lobbying has marketed its idea of superiority to the degree that the Swedish state pays subsidies to support organic farming to the sum of 600 million Krona per year – and half that again in the amount state institutions’ commitment to buying organic, and more still if you consider the cost to ordinary consumers who believe the same idea (figures are according to the Swedish ecologist and Emeritus Professor Torbjörn Fagerström and plant physiologist Jens Sundström in their article in DN). In the same vein, taking things to more of an extreme, a rather worrisome suggestion comes from the Swedish Green Party, where they campaign for a shift into 100 percent organic farming. It makes me wonder if farming methods have become all marketing and politics? Where does science fit in all of this?

What we really need now is an evidence-based environmental standard that we can encourage all farmers to aspire to. Organic could turn a new leaf and become that positive influence. My understanding is that it has inspired the farming-world wide adoption of several good methods in the past, such as Integrated Pest Management and use of cover crops – and it could do so again. It could help us save the environment, including the land that can be spared from being converted into fields.

This Swedish report looks at conventional farming without the environmental benefits of biotech

It is worth underlining that this report focuses on Swedish farming or studies in comparable settings, or places where a lot of their food imports come from. There is almost none of the documented positive climate effect or decreased pesticide use effect from the use of biotech varieties in these results, as adoption of biotech crops has been painfully slow in Europe.

With biotechnology, it has been documented that conventional farming becomes more environmentally friendly, saving more resources, such as reducing pesticide-use, and allowing for the wider adoption of no-till, limiting erosion and run-off. Studies on the key environmental impacts that crop biotechnology has had on global agriculture in 2012 and 2013 point out following advances:

The adoption of GM insect resistant and herbicide tolerant technology has reduced pesticide spraying by 553 million kg (-8.6%) and, as a result, decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on these crops (as measured by the indicator the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ)) by 19.1%. The technology has also facilitated important cuts in fuel use and tillage changes, resulting in a significant reduction in the release of greenhouse gas emissions from the GM cropping area. In 2013, this was equivalent to removing 12.4 million cars from the roads.

GMOs and CO2 updated

From the piece: GMOs and the Environment

Another thing worth noting is that Sweden also has some of the most restrictive pesticide rules for organic. This might also factor into having organic rate better for ‘ecotoxicity’.

It’s good to keep in mind that many pesticides are still allowed even in Swedish organic, the following list comes from the most restricted organic brand, KRAV: azadiracthin, pyrethrines, lecithins, hydrolysed proteins, bee wax, quassia, micro-organisms, spinosad, pheromones, Iron(III)phosphate, Kaliumsalt, calcium polysulphide, paraffine oil, kvartssand, sulphur, calcium hydroxide, kalium carbonate, aluminium silicate, and laminarin. Many consumers are in fact unaware of any pesticide use being allowed in organic farming, partly thanks to their marketing which spreads the misleading idea (like they did in Coop’s popular organic ad which has now been sued for misleading tactics). But organic farmers, like any farmers, do have a great need for pesticides, because they all direly need to have a way to handle pests. Otherwise there would in many cases be no crop to speak of. In the wise words of the weed ecologist Andrew Kniss: Everything in agriculture is a trade-off.

A similar detail analysis, such as this Swedish one, would be very interesting to see for instance for the U.S., where farmers enjoy the benefits of biotech-induced drop in pesticide use and reduction in carbon emissions.

The bottom line for me is this: no matter the label, I want to buy food that uses methods that best help reduce environmental impacts, particularly the ones that pose most urgent threats to our natural world today. It is very important for me that we focus on environmental issues in farming, and that we do so based on accurate scientific information, not misleading marketing ideas.

If you would like to read more, I have written on this topic many times, for instance here: On Farming, Animals, and the Environment, Myth: UN Calls For Small-scale Organic Farming, or other pieces under the categories: The Environment and Farming and GMOs.

This article originally appeared on Thoughtscapism under the title: Environmental Impacts of Farming and was posted with permission from the author.

Iida Ruishalme is a writer and a science communicator who holds a M.Sc. in Biology from Sweden. She is a contributor to both Genetic Literacy Project and She blogs at Thoughtscapism, where this article originally appeared. Follow her on twitter: @Thoughtscapism or on the Thoughtscapism Facebook page.

44 thoughts on “Organic vs. conventional farming: Which has lower environmental impact?”

    • So then, you are contributing to inefficient land use over a silly non-issue; glyphosate, one of the safest and most innocuous herbicides we’ve ever had in our toolkit helping to produce the most abundant safe affordable food supply in the history of the world.

        • What a childish argument. Diesel, gasoline, chlorine, methyl alcohol, etc, are used extensively with lots of beneficial results but are not meant to be ingested. Glyphosate is not toxic and I would drink a glass of it to prove it. What is somewhat toxic is the surfactant, the vehicle that allow glyphosate to penentrate the leaves and reach the plant interior. But Roundup is a pre-emergence herbicide: it is sprayed before the seeds are sown and do not reach the soybean that, ,still worse, are encapsulated inside a sheath. You have been reading too many brochures by Grenpeace.

          • As an FYI, glyphosate is not a preemergent herbicide. Is is a completely post emergent product, meaning that it needs to be sprayed on an actively growing weed. It has no soil activity at all. In the Roundup ready system it is sprayed over the top of the growing crop, albeit within the crop is very young.

          • In Argentina we spray glyphosate after sowing, and just before the seeds are sprouting. Much later, according to conditions, if we see the emergence of weeds we make another light sprying. We, and not anyone I know eats soybean or corn leaves. Only the grain, where glyphosate is not found. But about 905 of our soybean production is for export to China. And the transgenic variety used here is not intended for humane consumption as it lack some nutrients other varieties have. The same applies to Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Bolivia has banned transgenic species, but then you know why Bolivia has always been lagging behind more advanced countries.

        • Glyphosate is EXTREMELY dangerous. The International Agency for Reseach on Cancer – a subsidiary of the World Health Organization now acting as a loose cannon – has classified it as « probably carcinogénic ».

          In the same category as, for instance, red meat. In a lower category than, for example, sausages…

          You should stop eating… very dangerous…

          • “Probably carcinogenic” means it amy ot may not cause cancer. The available data does not justifiy that fear. IARC has included it in the Group 2A along with other chamicals, produce and activities that they SUSPECT might cause cancer if ingested in very doses high with hige frequency. Examples of carcinogenic activities are drinking mate, tea, coffee, chocolate at high temperatures. Or being a hairdresser, or a cook frying fried potatoes. And of course, they include meat derivatives as bacon, salami, ham, and also red meat. That Group 2A is a joke, and a very politically correct one.

      • We have a very small farm here in Maine. Glyphosate is an absolute godsend for us, saving energy, time, and money in our orchard and along stone walls.

    • Unfortunately many people try to scare people about glyphosate without good cause, and this seems to be an unfortunate tactic for many who try to find any means to make conventional agriculture or GE crops seem frightening. Glyphosate is actually one of the least harmful herbicides one can find. If you would like to read more about glyphosate, there are several good resources into the research on that. Here for instance from Science-Based Medicine:

      “numerous published systematic reviews show clear evidence that glyphosate has very low toxicity. More careful study when it comes to any agent being used as heavily as glyphosate is always welcome. Science is complicated, and it is always a good idea to consider factors that may have been previously missed. However, failure to show any adverse effect from glyphosate in epidemiological studies is very reassuring. Given its widespread use, any adverse effect must be tiny or non-existent to be missed by the evidence we have so far.

      The evidence, however, will not stop ideologues from cherry picking, misusing evidence, presenting pure speculation as if it were evidence, assuming causation from correlation, and generally fearmongering about a safe chemical in order to grind their ideological axe.”

    • When it comes to the tactic of making people fear pesticides in general, I’ve written more about it here:

      Fear of fruits and vegetables as a sales tactic

      Organic marketing wishes to imply that eating conventional produce is not healthy. But eating more of fruits and vegetables, whether organic or conventional, is hands down one of the most important factors for a healthier diet. Making people afraid of eating vegetables with no basis in evidence is not an ethical practice. You can read A half a dozen reasons to ignore the Dirty Dozen to learn about the Environmental Working Group’s baseless attempts to frighten consumers into buying organic.

      This image of healthfulness is false on so many levels. While conventional synthetic pesticide residues are regularly tested for and found to be of no concern to consumers, organic pesticides have so far remained outside of any testing regimen (read more by Steve Savage at: Pesticide Residues on Organic: What Do We Know?). Some wine farmers are even switching from organic citing health and environmental issues of organic allowed pesticides vs those available for non-organic farmers. Meanwhile, organic marketing perpetuates the idea of organic as ‘pesticide free’, happily forgetting to mention the kinds of pesticides that are used in organic farming.

      The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) brings some valuable perspective to the question of pesticides: how harmful are they? They write:

      Although there have been pesticides that were toxic and dangerous to handle, most of these products are no longer used and have been replaced by newer chemistry. Pesticides now must go through rigorous testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before they can be sold. This has led to many herbicides that possess little or no mammalian toxicity and are less harmful than many everyday household products (Table 1). Surprisingly, household chemicals that many of us store under the kitchen sink pose more risk to the handler than herbicides.

  1. Well researched article. In the end it all comes down to land use. As far as ecotoxicity, conventional agriculture has come a long way and continues to improve. Organic agriculture is static or, if anything, possibly trending in the wrong direction as organic farmers clamor for approval of more chemicals in the National List…oh, and, uh… also considering the obvious cheating that goes on among organic produce growers — nearly half of all organic produce tested in the U.S. and Canada was found to have pesticide residues.

    Conventional agriculture continues also to work on improvements in the other categories: energy use, overfertilization, acidification, climate (all things that make us more efficient and save us money as we continue to reduce our impact). Organic agriculture is stubbornly static on all these, having cast their goofy rulebook, the NOP, in stone, so to speak. It is apparent organic agriculture is not sustainable and by design it can never improve. The difference is clear to any reasonable clear-thinking person.

    • Research like the one which is described in the – superb – article above suffers by necessity from a selection bias affecting the background material.

      The ecotoxicity issue is a case in point : do you think researchers would investigate the ecotoxicity of the active substances particularly used in organic agriculture ? For fruits, two studies would find that organic is better on ecotoxicity. Really ? With copper sulphate, pyrethrins, quassia, azadirachtin, spinosad… used on the organic side (possibly also conventional) ?

      Two studies find that organic is better on land use for vegetable production. Really ? Organic would produce higer yields than conventional ? What if, in addition, we add to the area under vegetable cultivation the area required to produce the compost and manure ?

      • Yep, one has to evaluate organic farming pretty superficially in order to perceive advantages. Far more similarities to conventional. Ironically it tends to be organic advocates who are always whining about the “external costs” associated with modern agriculture.
        Consider also how commercial organic production amounts to only a small fraction of commercial food production — those few surviving organic operations must be quite exceptional in their own way, not easily replicated and certainly not representative of what a full-blown commercial organic farming industry would have to actually look like. That’s a built-in bias, usually compounded by a naïve linear extrapolation into wishful projections for what organic agriculture eventually “should be”. Delusions of grandeur, all easily debunked.

    • I take science and protection of of the environment very seriously, and am sorry if you find the topic ridiculous. These issues are very important to me. I don’t get paid to write at all, in fact, as I do it entirely on my spare time. While I have a M.Sc. in biology and have done some research and worked in the field medical biology earlier, currently I am at home taking care of my two little children.

    • Yes, I bet you DO “go” organic. Lots of salmonella, e.coli, and listeria making you race to the toilet. Read up on organic contamination. Read while you’re already on the toilet, though…. please.

    • If they did, then conventional no-till would win, hands down. It isn’t even a contest

      between soil conserving conventional minimum-till or no-till and commercial organic’s use of historically erosion-prone moldboard plowing and frequent tillage, no contest.

      They probably also did not consider the vast quantities of methane released during composting. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, something like 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide! All that composting and mulching in organic farming is hideously destructive to our climate.

    • Erosion would probably correlate with nutrient losses, like nitrogen leeching, and acidification effects, but I’d have to confirm my thinking on that to be sure. GMOs particularly have helped increase the amount of conventional farming area with no-till, which is the greatest protection against erosion. In Europe, that effect might be less pronounced, but weedkillers do give an edge there, as they limit the need of mechanical weed control in the form of tilling. Organic, while it does use many insecticides and fungicides, is particularly short on the department of herbicides, so it tends to rely more on tilling (along with some experimental blow-torch methods and traditional stuff like hand weeding).

      In other words, even in Europe, the indicators available to me point toward somewhat less effects of erosion from conventional farming.

      • I think you will find modern agriculture has been very responsive over the years to concerns about soil erosion — it is in our own best interests, after all. Now with no-till planting we have achieved a quantum leap in soil conservation. This responsiveness of modern agriculture is frequently overlooked, especially in light of obsolete organic farming tillage protocols dating from the 1950s which are mandated as a consequence of banning chemical interventions and will not be permitted to evolve, soil conservation practices in organic farming are primitive, at best, and can never improve under organic standards!

        • Many thanks to Farmer with a Dell and Lida for your replies. It is good to be reminded of the responsiveness of modern agriculture to these issues. It often seems that the two camps – organic and conventional – are not talking to eachother at all, when really they should be working together for the greater good.

  2. I’m a 30-year organic gardener and orchardist, as well as a commercial beekeeper. I’ve also become appalled by how far “organic” certification has gone from the vision of Rodale. The information in this article puts the lie to many of the marketing claims made by those selling certified organic products. It is time for us to shift from blindly demanding a totally arbitrary organic certification to a more eco-friendly and sustainable model of agroecology.

  3. Environmental, Energetic, and Economic Comparisons of Organic and Conventional Farming Systems

    Various organic technologies have been utilized for about 6000 years to make agriculture sustainable while conserving soil, water, energy, and biological resources. Among the benefits of organic technologies are higher soil organic matter and nitrogen, lower fossil energy inputs, yields similar to those of conventional systems, and conservation of soil moisture and water resources (especially advantageous under drought conditions). Conventional agriculture can be made more sustainable and ecologically sound by adopting some traditional organic farming technologies.

    Several organic technologies, if adopted in current conventional production systems, would most likely be beneficial. These include (a) employing off-season cover crops; (b) using more extended crop rotations, which act both to conserve soil and water resources and also to reduce insect, disease, and weed problems; (c) increasing the level of soil organic matter, which helps conserve water resources and mitigates drought effects on crops; and (d) employing natural biodiversity to reduce or eliminate the use of nitrogen fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. Some or all of these technologies have the potential to increase the ecological, energetic, and economic sustainability of all agricultural cropping systems, not only organic systems.


    A systematic overview of more than 100 studies comparing organic and conventional farming finds that the crop yields of organic agriculture are higher than previously thought. The study, conducted by UC Berkeley researchers, also found that certain practices could further shrink the productivity gap between organic crops and conventional farming.

    “In terms of comparing productivity among the two techniques, this paper sets the record straight on the comparison between organic and conventional agriculture,” said the study’s senior author, Claire Kremen, professor of environmental science, policy and management and co-director of the Berkeley Food Institute. “With global food needs predicted to greatly increase in the next 50 years, it’s critical to look more closely at organic farming, because aside from the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, the ability of synthetic fertilizers to increase crop yields has been declining.”

    The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 115 studies — a dataset three times greater than previously published work — comparing organic and conventional agriculture. They found that organic yields are about 19.2 percent lower than conventional ones, a smaller difference than in previous estimates..

    The study, to be published online Wednesday, Dec. 10, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, tackles the lingering perception that organic farming, while offering an environmentally sustainable alternative to chemically intensive agriculture, cannot produce enough food to satisfy the world’s appetite.

    “It’s important to remember that our current agricultural system produces far more food than is needed to provide for everyone on the planet,” said Kremen. “Eradicating world hunger requires increasing the access to food, not simply the production. Also, increasing the proportion of agriculture that uses sustainable, organic methods of farming is not a choice, it’s a necessity. We simply can’t continue to produce food far into the future without taking care of our soils, water and biodiversity.”


    Lag in application of organic techniques may be attributed to the pushback from agribusiness and public attitude towards food
    production. For agribusiness, distribution of capital is the main incentive to fight the growth of organics. The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 (U.S. Farm Bill) provides subsidies for farmers across the country. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Farm Subsidy Database (Environmental Working Group 2011), about 10 percent of recipients of these subsidies collect 73 percent of the available funds, averaging at almost $100,000 per farm. Support gained for the local, organic industry is support lost for commercial agribusinesses, so they lobby to sustain control of government funds and public support.


  4. This article beautifully highlights one of my pet peeves with usual discussions about “organic” versus “conventional”: those terms are meaningless until you tell us what crop/product you are raising and what conditions they are grown under.

    “Organic” apples grown in Maine has nothing to do with “conventional” cows grown in Utah.

  5. The result of energy use part is impossible, did the agency just pick the worse organic farm to compare? And organic farm suddenly beats conventional farm in land use in vegetables? I am in doubt how credile this is .

Leave a Comment

News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.

Send this to a friend