Research suggests we should take a harder look at the benefits of organic foods

The Green Party’s food policy may need revisiting, in the light of research published in the past week.

The policy was introduced in May 2017 by Green Party MP Mojo Mathers, who lost her list place in Parliament at the general election.

How we produce, distribute and consume food is of critical importance to growing
resilient healthy communities, minimising our ecological footprint and maintaining a
stable economy, she said.  That’s why food policy lies at the heart of Green policy.

Mather said:

“Aotearoa New Zealand can reap multiple benefits from a healthy and equitable food system that ensures environmental protection, social connection, and healthy communities.”

She brought organically grown tucker into considerations:

“Organic food is recognised as safer, with less pesticide residues and no genetically engineered (GE) content than most non-organic or imported foods.”

Mather set out several key policy principles, including:

Food must be sustainably produced with minimum harm to the environment.

The Green Party would develop a National Food Strategy for self-sufficiency in food production and security of food supply in New Zealand.

This strategy will include protecting high value food growing land, promoting local food production and processing, investigating the need for a national food and seed reserve, and providing support and funding for organic and other food growing initiatives.

The party further said it would support organic food production (this was incorporated in their Agriculture and Rural Affairs policy).

Ah – but will the policy be revisited in the light of this ScienceDaily report and this research from Sweden?

Organically farmed food has a bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed food, due to the greater areas of land required. This is the finding of a new international study involving Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, published in the journal Nature.

The researchers developed a new method for assessing the climate impact from land-use.  They used this – along with other methods – to compare organic and conventional food production.

The results show that organic food can result in much greater emissions.

“Our study shows that organic peas, farmed in Sweden, have around a 50 percent bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed peas. For some foodstuffs, there is an even bigger difference — for example, with organic Swedish winter wheat the difference is closer to 70 percent,” says Stefan Wirsenius, an associate professor from Chalmers, and one of those responsible for the study.

The reason why organic food is so much worse for the climate is that the yields per hectare are much lower, primarily because fertilisers are not used. To produce the same amount of organic food, you therefore need a much bigger area of land.

The ground-breaking aspect of the new study – apparently – is the conclusion that this difference in land usage results in organic food causing a much larger climate impact.

“The greater land-use in organic farming leads indirectly to higher carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to deforestation,” explains Stefan Wirsenius. “The world’s food production is governed by international trade, so how we farm in Sweden influences deforestation in the tropics. If we use more land for the same amount of food, we contribute indirectly to bigger deforestation elsewhere in the world.”

Even organic meat and dairy products  — from a climate point of view — are worse than their conventionally produced equivalents, claims Stefan Wirsenius.

“Because organic meat and milk production uses organic feed-stock, it also requires more land than conventional production. This means that the findings on organic wheat and peas in principle also apply to meat and milk products. We have not done any specific calculations on meat and milk, however, and have no concrete examples of this in the article,” he explains.

The researchers used a new metric, which they call “Carbon Opportunity Cost,” to evaluate the effect of greater land-use contributing to higher carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation. This metric takes into account the amount of carbon that is stored in forests, and thus released as carbon dioxide as an effect of deforestation. The study is among the first in the world to make use of this metric.

“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,” says Stefan Wirsenius.

“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. It is also serious because today in Sweden, we have politicians whose goal is to increase production of organic food. If that goal is implemented, the climate influence from Swedish food production will probably increase a lot.”

So why have earlier studies not taken into account land-use and its relationship to carbon dioxide emissions?

“There are surely many reasons. An important explanation, I think, is simply an earlier lack of good, easily applicable methods for measuring the effect. Our new method of measurement allows us to make broad environmental comparisons, with relative ease,” says Stefan Wirsenius.

The results of the study are published in the article “Assessing the efficiency of changes in land use for mitigating climate change” in the journal Nature. The article is written by Timothy Searchinger, Princeton University, Stefan Wirsenius, Chalmers University of Technology, Tim Beringer, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, and Patrice Dumas, Cired.

Stefan Wirsenius notes that these findings do not mean conscientious consumers should simply switch to buying non-organic food.

“The type of food is often much more important. For example, eating organic beans or organic chicken is much better for the climate than to eat conventionally produced beef,” he says. “Organic food does have several advantages compared with food produced by conventional methods,” he continues.

“For example, it is better for farm animal welfare. But when it comes to the climate impact, our study shows that organic food is a much worse alternative, in general.”

Consumers who want to contribute to the positive aspects of organic food production, without increasing their climate impact, are advised to focus instead on the different impacts of different types of meat and vegetables in their diets. Replacing beef and lamb, as well as hard cheeses, with vegetable proteins such as beans, has the biggest effect. Pork, chicken, fish and eggs also have a substantially lower climate impact than beef and lamb.

The report at ScienceDaily goes on to examine the investment in biofuels.

“Today’s major investments in biofuels are also harmful to the climate because they require large areas of land suitable for crop cultivation, and thus — according to the same logic — increase deforestation globally, the researchers in the same study argue.

“For all common biofuels (ethanol from wheat, sugar cane and corn, as well as biodiesel from palm oil, rapeseed and soya), the carbon dioxide cost is greater than the emissions from fossil fuel and diesel, the study shows. Biofuels from waste and by-products do not have this effect, but their potential is small, the researchers say.

“All biofuels made from arable crops have such high emissions that they cannot be called climate-smart, according to the researchers, who present the results on biofuels in an op-ed in the Swedish Newspaper Dagens Nyheter: “The investment in biofuels increases carbon dioxide emissions.”

Uh, oh.  How will that go down with the Greens?

We remember Gareth Hughes, MP, talking of the Green Party envisioning a New Zealand in which the role of direct electric power, biofuels and hydrogen from renewable energy for public transport and transport services would be examined.

He said :

“Our plantation forests could become a major source of energy in the future, including eventually for transport fuel. Waste wood from plantation forests can be used in cogeneration plants to provide process heat and electricity for industry, with some power exported to the national grid.

“Waste wood chip also offers a credible way of phasing out coal as an industrial fuel, for instance in large industrial boilers, as well as in hospitals, universities and schools. Dry wood pellets and firelogs are also an acceptable fuel for household space heating in a high efficiency wood stove and this can help cut the electricity peak load.

He did recognise the need to take care to ensure that crops grown especially for fuel produce more energy than is used in the process, and that they do not take land out of food production on a significant scale.

The Green Party would ensure research and development was undertaken to establish the potential for woody biomass and biofuels within New Zealand and review the Wood Processing Strategy, in partnership with the industry, to incorporate planning for fuel wood.

3 thoughts on “Research suggests we should take a harder look at the benefits of organic foods

  1. One of the biggest problems with the Greens and indeed the left is that they simply don’t believe anything at all that they don’t want to believe. Further more they suspect the motives of anyone who disagrees with them and all of this makes it impossible to reason with them in any meaningful way at all in my experience. Much of New Zealand that is farmed is hill country of very low growing value. It suits sheep and cattle raising and not a lot else. I lived for 40 years on class six land (with seven being the lowest value) which was overlooking some of the most fertile plains in the country. The fertile land was/is used for dairying and will one day be more producively be used for crops and horticulture but the hill country – apart from returning it to native bush which would be a mamoth task ( I know because I tried witha small bit!) -and taking at least a century, is fit only for pine forest and even they must be suitably managed. Water -either too much on the Plains or not enough in the hills is also a problem that the Greens and their ilk seem determined to avoid facing or don’t even know exists.

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  2. Like all of these dopey ideas there almost always unintended consequences, The market is nearly always the most efficient user of resources.

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