People are more aware of being more eco-friendly these days, especially when it comes to making ethical, environmentally sustainable food purchases. However, there have been recent negative news headlines about the environmental impact of organic produce. New Scientist has argued the case against.

The debate surrounding this has been heating up, with critics saying that organic farming methods are far less efficient than conventional farming. It uses more land, which leads to greater deforestation, and that in turn increases carbon dioxide emissions and the resulting loss in biodiversity.

A recent publication stated that if England and Wales were to go 100 per cent organic, it would raise CO2 emissions by up to 56 per cent.

However, the findings from this paper and similar studies appear to be rather simplistic and tend to neglect the positive aspects that organic farming brings. It’s important to see the full picture.

A life cycle assessment (LCA) is an approach that looks at the relationship between environmental impacts to the volume of product harvested from a given area of land. This approach shows that intensive farming is more efficient, giving higher yields, but it mostly ignores all the environmental aspects, such as the role of land degradation, the decline in biodiversity, and the impacts of pesticides.

Biodiversity is an exceptionally important factor in the health and resilience of ecosystems, and worldwide it is in decline. Intensive farming has been linked to the decimation of insect and bird populations.

But organically managed land has been shown to support the levels of biodiversity, at around 30 per cent higher than conventionally farmed land.

Critics have argued that much of the land saved via conventional farming could be used for increased biodiversity and carbon dioxide absorption, but this relationship is largely unclear. In Brazil, agricultural intensification has coincided with more deforestation.

Between 1990 and 2015, the use of pesticides used worldwide has increased by over 70 per cent, which causes much concern. The use of pesticides can be harmful to the land, and once it enters the natural aquatic ecosystems it can harm the biodiversity there, as well as our own health.

Organic farming avoids the use of synthetic pesticides and has a much lower use of pesticides in general, which is overlooked in LCAs. New Scientist reviewed 34 studies that compared organic with conventional farming, and only nine considered pesticide-related impacts.

Without looking at all the factors concerned, the debate surrounding organic farming has been reduced to its simplest terms and is too narrow to create a proper view. New Scientist notes that their review shows the strengths and benefits of organic agriculture than are ignored by current research.

The claims that organic farming is worse for the environment are misleading, and the current use of LCAs needs to be reviewed and improved, as well as integrated with all available environmental assessment tools, to give a balanced picture.

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