Organic food is not as “green” as you think


To Hindus, cows are sacred. Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) and Muslim dietary laws (halal) prohibit pork consumption. Traditional Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Religion and food have forever been intertwined. Food is deep, emotional stuff.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that devotees of organic food often embrace with quasi-religious fervor the practice of growing food without synthetic fertilizer or pesticides. [See, for example, my blogpost about Maria Rodale.] But if we want to understand impact of organic agriculture on the planet and on our health, science and not faith ought to guide us.

New scientific research points to a key drawback of organic agriculture, unfortunately: It is typically less efficient and productive than conventional growing methods. That’s a problem for fans of organic because the world has a limited supply of farmland, a billion or so undernourished people, a growing population, an expanding middle class and therefore a vast appetite for affordable and nourishing food. If, in fact, organic methods are less productive, scaling up the production of organic food at will require more land, contribute to deforestation and cost more than growing our food using conventional methods. That suggests that organic methods alone can’t feed the world in a sustainable way.

In a meta-analysis of 66 research studies  called “Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture” published last month in Nature, Verena Seufert, Navin Ramankutty and Jonathan A. Foley write:

Overall, organic yields are typically lower than conventional yields.

They go on to say that the yield differences are highly contextual, depending on  crops and localities. The studies that they studied, it must be noted, use different methods and many are a decade or two old. This is by no means the last word on this issue. Still, they report that the yield differences

range from 5% lower organic yields (rain-fed legumes and perennials on weak acidic to weak-alkaline soils), 13% lower yields (when best organic practices are used), to 34% lower yields (when the conventional and organic systems are most comparable)

Of course, there are other reasons to embrace organic methods, which may be able to match or even outperform conventional farming methods under certain conditions. Organic methods reduce the use of agricultural chemicals that damage farm workers’ health, for example. But, as the authors write, the yield issue should not be ignored:

To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems.

Navin Ramankutty

To learn more, I called Navin Ramankutty, a geography professor at McGill University and an author of the study. Much of the debate that goes on about food today focuses on methods rather than outcomes, he told. That was obvious to me after he said it,  but I’d never thought about it that way. Organic farming is a method, or management system; it may well  generates less water pollution and fewer greenhouse gases than conventional agriculture, but organic certification doesn’t measure those outcomes. Likewise, locavores, a group that includes not just the folks browsing the stands at a farmer’s market, but also Walmart, which has promised to buy more locally-grown produce, are all about location, and the environmental benefits of localism, if any, are unclear. One reason why we don’t look at outcomes, Navin said, is that “measuring those outcomes is extremely difficulty.” Broad generalizations about agriculture don’t tend to hold true because, like politics, all farming is local. Florida tomatoes have a different environmental profile from those grown in California.

Instead of wondering how and where an agricultural product was grown, we should be asking different questions, Navin suggested: “Is it good for the environment? Can it feed people? Is it good for the farmer?” To answer those last two questions–can it feed people and is it good for the farmer–you have to understand yields. Land is scarce and expensive, and if organic methods require more land (because they produce fewer calories per hectar), they will drive up food costs. That’s troubling in a world where hunger is a bigger problem than obesity.

The Nature report has provoked a variety of responses. In an email to Andrew Revkin, who wrote about it at Dot Earth, author Jon Foley wrote:

The bottom line? Today’s organic farming practices are probably best deployed in fruit and vegetable farms, where growing nutrition (not just bulk calories) is the primary goal. But for delivering sheer calories, especially in our staple crops of wheat, rice, maize, soybeans and so on, conventional farms have the advantage right now.

I asked Stave Savage, a scientist and industry consultant who blogs about agriculture at Applied Mythology, for his reaction. He looked at the underlying studies and told me that the evidence for the claim that organic can compete with conventional methods, even when it comes to growing fruits and vegetables, is skimpy. He told me by email:

The authors ultimately come out saying that some sort of hybrid would be a good idea.  On that I agree.  Organic was very ahead of its time in the early 20th century by focusing on building soil quality.  No-till and cover cropping achieve the same benefits without having to haul in massive amounts of compost or manure.

The problem is that many of the avid supporters of organic have no interest in anything like a hybrid or one learning from the other.  There is too much emphasis on philosophical purity and about demonizing regular agriculture rather than observing how much it has changed over time.

I agree, and I must say that  I wasn’t surprised by what the Nature study found about yield.  To believe that organic agriculture is as productive or more productive than conventional, you have to believe that most American farmers don’t know what they are doing–because the overwhelming majority cho0se not to grow organic. As I wrote last May:

Less than 1% of US farmland is farmed organically. If farmers could improve their yields by giving up chemicals and genetically modified seeds, why wouldn’t they?

I’m planning to interview Laura Batcha of the Organic Trade Association this week, and I’ll ask her that question. We’ll also talk about the Farm Bill, the campaign to label genetically-modified foods and mad cow disease. I’ll report back in a few days.


  1. says

    Worldwatch (Lester Brown’s group) has been following this issue for a long time, and has considerable research on this topic. Disclosure: I used to be a member but haven’t been for several years.

  2. Jonathan Wilson says

    Mr. Gunther,

    I’m interested in this ongoing debate of organic growth vs. conventional. As to your point about using hybrid crops or genetically modified seeds, it is my understanding that it has become nearly impossible for many farmers to even purchase non-genetically modified seeds, especially with crops such as soy beans. This being said, I am not necessarily against the idea of utilizing genetically modified seeds, but it seems like the potential for long term health implications have not been properly studied.

    Lastly, having struggled with paying higher prices for organic foods vs. their much cheaper conventionally grown counterparts, I have trouble with the idea that organic food is not ‘green’ or a superior option due to inconsistent research about its inefficiencies. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but again, my understanding is that in the US a great deal of our useable farmland is allowed to remain fallow in order to help maintain prices. Additionally, much of our crops are converted into ethanol, which certainly reduces how many calories and nutrients we could potentially produce. Efficiency in organic farming is certainly something that should be researched and explored, and hopefully improved upon, but there are many ways that America specifically could increase its current agricultural output while not solely utilizing modified crops and harmful pesticides and farming practices.

    • Marc Gunther says

      Thanks for your comment. Your point about inefficiencies and waste in US agriculture is very well taken. If we truly want to produce more food, we ought not to devote as much land to biofuels, particularly, ethanol, as you say. There’s also the problem of food waste, which I hope to address in a future post. And some people I respect argue that today we can produce enough food to feed everyone in the world, that the “food” problem is more about poverty and distribution than yields.

      Having said all that, I think — given what we know now and given what this study says — to assume that organic is a synonym for sustainable. It looks to me as if sustainable agriculture will have to borrow the best of organic and traditional methods, depending on the circumstances. And that we should try to have a civilized, science-based conversation about all this, as Navin suggests in his comment.

  3. Navin Ramankutty says

    Nice post Marc! Just wanted to make a broader point about our work. Our ultimate hope, and an underlying message of our paper, is to try to generate a more healthy discussion between the pro-organic and pro-conventional ag community. Not necessarily trying to find the middle ground, but at least moving away from a divisive debate.

  4. says

    I fully agree with your desire for a health discussion on this topic. That is going to be difficult to achieve. If we did it just based on the science it would be possible. There are some aspects of Organic that are very positive, but there are also some practical ways to achieve some of those positives (like improved soil quality) that would never pass muster under the philosophically-driven rules of Organic.

    The study that your group has published represents a lot of difficult and rigorous work. I just hope it contributes to the goals you have expressed.

    • Navin Ramankutty says

      Steve: There are probably some people on all sides of this debate who would never give up their idealogical points of view. They are passionate about their chosen “solution” (and more strength to them, I have no problem with passion, as long as it is not fundamentalism.) But hopefully there are enough people who are willing to consider alternate arguments (and evidence) in a respectful fashion. I think they do exist — we have had a few organic farmers write to us saying our study was enlightening, even if not the final word on the debate. So hopefully we’ll find enough people on both sides who are willing to have a conversation. Wishful thinking maybe, but we have to hope.

  5. Kate Putnam says

    I certajnly buy into all food is local and that growing food in a desert is not a good use of water ut i do wonder about siilar land with similar growInv conditions.
    Just curious – do the studies that have been done take into account govt subsidies for certain crops? The dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi from nutrient loading? I would love to see relevant calculations of total cost for organic vs standard.

  6. Navin Ramankutty says

    Kate: Good question!, we haven’t looked at that yet. There are at least three dimensions to consider when gauging farming systems: production, environmental costs, and livelihood benefits. We only looked at one of these — production benefits, which are related to yields. They are also related to environmental benefits in the sense that lower yields would imply greater area needed for the same production (and therefore less non-agricultural land). We also need to look at the environmental costs of different kinds of farming systems in a systematic way. Some studies have shown that organic farming has benefits for biodiversity and carbon storage, considering the same amount of land in cultivation. The evidence for other environmental costs seems more mixed. So we need to look at this more carefully, especially to address important questions such as nutrient loading. Our paper is, by no means, a final word on organic versus conventional! It only presents a single dimension of the debate, and we were careful to point that out in the paper, but not sure if that came across to everyone who read the paper or the media coverage of it.

    • bongstar420 says

      What is an “environmental cost.” This term implies the environment it self has value outside of our opinions.

      Air pollution is not an “environmental cost” it is a “health cost” to us and the things we care about.

  7. Ben Cloud says

    Marc, It seems to me that the trend in US agriculture is toward biofertilizers that make farms more sustainable and less polluting. This is a trend that is infuenced by the observation of organic farms that have demonstrated viable yields and quality with locally derived non-fossil based fertlizers. This is a positive trend to sustainability. Large produce firms here in the West have required their growers to produce a percentage of their annual production as “organic” which has given them the experience and confidence of using alternative biofertilizers which is now moving into non-organic crop uses when cost factors are competitive.

  8. Kat says

    Good article! Very thought provoking. I buy local because I don’t like to pay companies that truck food across the nation and pollute with their exhaust, and, I like to put my dollars back into my community.

    Additionally, I’m learning how to grow my own, composting and all. It’s SOOOO much better comin’ outta my own garden :) My next step – a rain water catcher.

  9. Chris D says

    Rodale Institute data shows organic meets/beats non-organic. The Rodale Institute has been engaged in field studies comparing organic and non-organic farming methods for over 20 years. This research has shown that organic agriculture meets or exceeds non-organic. Please look at this, and undertake more balanced research, before coming to incorrect conclusions. I posted about this research in earlier pieces criticizing organic and it’s unfortunate this was not noted to be better informed, objective and accurate.

    Key Rodale findings include
    Organic yields match conventional yields.
    Organic outperforms conventional in years of drought.
    Organic farming systems build rather than deplete soil organic matter, making it a more sustainable system.
    Organic farming uses 45% less energy and is more efficient.
    Conventional systems produce 40% more greenhouse gases.
    Organic farming systems are more profitable than conventional

    • Marc Gunther says

      I believe–although I don’t know–that the oft-cited Rodale studies were among the many studies looked at by Seufert, Ramankutty and Foley.

      And as much as I admire the pioneering work of the Rodale Institute–I should have noted as I have before that I usually buy organic produce–they cannot be considered a neutral source when it comes to the debate over organic vs. conventional yields.

      My focus here is just that–yields. Organic has other benefits. Conventional farming has other drawbacks. This is just one metric, and not the only one to think about. But it is one that we should think about.

      • says

        What I haven’t seen in this analysis of yields is some recognition of the time scale. Sure, conventional farming may have higher yields in the early years on a spot of land, but as it depletes the resilience and diversity of a large section of land, it requires more and more fertilizers and pesticides to maintain those yields. So, is it better to have higher yields for a decade or two, and destroy that land for any future use, or to have lower yields that can be sustained indefinitely?

        And nevermind the damage caused to surrounding riverways and our health by the use of those fertilizers and pesticides.

  10. says

    Marc – I enjoyed this article and upon reflection wanted to offer some consumer and industry perspectives and solutions.

    Navin – thanks for your good research! To look at bridging the gap between organic and conventional in Canada, I’d suggest taking a look at the work of Local Food Plus –

    1. Consumers: Many consumers, particularly the Millennial generation of which I represent, are primarily concerned with their personal health. Planetary health is a more distant concern, albeit one I care deeply about given the interconnected world we live in. While not everyone may be able to afford or choose to eat organic, it is helpful to know which fruits and vegetables are currently sprayed with more pesticides or herbicides. With such information you can choose to avoid them, reduce consumption or consider buying organic options. The Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists produced by The Environmental Working Group is based on good scientific research of pesticide residue levels found on conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables after washing. By following it you could reduce your exposure to pesticides by about 80 percent -see:

    2. Industry: Having work in eco-apparel over the past five years, it became apparent to everyone concerned about the harmful effects of conventional cotton production on people and the planet that organic cotton was not a viable long-term solution for the mass market. The formation and growth of the Better Cotton Initiative over the past few years represents a hydrid approach between organic and conventional production methods whereby farmers can significantly reduce their use of pesticides and herbicides (thus reducing their input costs). While such an initiative was initially focused on small farms in the developing world which needed education and training, the initiative will soon be expanding to the US as well. I see the Better Cotton Initiative, which is backed by many global apparel brands, as a example of what should be adopted for other agricultural crop growers with high levels of pesticide and fertilizer use. See:

    • bongstar420 says

      1. It does an individual more good to know the inherited risk of cancer or disease than it does to know what food has more “chemicals” on it.

      2. Example of why organic is not a good bet. People promoting those ideals also promote smaller populations (of course they arn’t the ones to go- its always someone else). They also have a very misanthropic world view which essentially requires people to live more primitive lifestyles just to not be called “immoral” and “evil.”

  11. Warren Goldstein says

    You may guess that I’m not as wild about this one as most of your stuff. Of course it’s probably impossible to grow organic wheat on an immense scale. That said, I think you way understate the damage that conventional agriculture does to the environment. Nitrogen-loading through fertilizer and pesticides creates runoff that simply destroys creeks, rivers, and larger bodies of water, such as the Peconic Bay system on Long Island. Nitrogen almost certainly brought on the brown tide that destroyed the scallop crop for a generation, which will probably never come back to pre-brown tide levels. The Great South Bay has also been ravaged by runoff, destroying one of the great clam fisheries of the eastern seaboard. Groundwater on the East End of Long Island has appalling levels of pesticides. There’s almost no way to put a price tag on such damage. I don’t know anything about Midwestern rivers, creeks, and groundwater, and what pesticides and fertilizers have done to them, but I’ll bet there are folks who do.

    Second, when you say land is scarce and expensive, that’s just not true of everywhere, like the U.S, where farmland in New England, for instance, is cheap. The problem is that prices are too low to make most farming worthwhile–unless people do boutique farming in which high quality organic food sells for lots, lots more.

    • bongstar420 says

      Organic farms contribute to eutrophication just as much as any other mismanaged farm.

      Pesticide use exists because farmers need to make a living and consumers refuse to accept bugs in the product.

      For example, a whole field of Broccoli will be dumped in the trash if they find 3 cabbage worms in 3 tons of florettes regardless of the techniques used to produce it.

  12. Navin Ramankutty says

    I would like to place our study in context here. First, all of the authors of the study were/are biased toward organic. My family buys produce from a CSA each summer, because we like our farmer and like buying food from someone we know, love visiting the farm with our 2.5 year old, etc. We buy a lot of organic food. Our reasons for doing so are partly for health, but mostly for environmental reasons. The main reason my co-authors and I have chosen to work in the area of agriculture is because we recognize the huge environmental degradation wrought by agriculture. In fact, 99% of what I have written about or talked about in the past is related to this. If you don’t believe me, here’s a profile McGill did about my work recently ( So, I still strongly “believe” (although not sure about the evidence) that organic farming has environmental benefits. But one of the biggest criticisms of organic has been that it will take up more land because of its lower yields, thereby needing the clearing of forests, release of carbon dioxide, and loss of biodiversity. To test this argument, looking at yields is important. In research, we often focus on one particular issue in order to do a thorough analysis. But we haven’t forgotten the other dimensions, especially the environmental dimension, where organic may well strongly outmatch conventional, but also the livelihood dimensions (i.e., what’s good for farmers?). We do plan to look at these other issues. Unfortunately, there wasn’t room in our paper (Nature restricts us to ~1500 words) to provide a lot of context, and especially the personal context.

  13. John says

    Marc…Your quote below:

    Less than 1% of US farmland is farmed organically. If farmers could improve their yields by giving up chemicals and genetically modified seeds, why wouldn’t they?

    …does not include another factors besides yield: externalities, input costs to maintain that yield, energy to produce synthetic chemicals (estimated to be 33% of energy used for farming, usually by fossil fuels), the long-term effect of those chemicals on the soil organic matter or the farm employees, the impact on biodiversity, the run-off to waterways (the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico), the ability of the soil to sequester carbon or prevent erosion… There are many factors to consider besides yield; that is similar to saying we must grow the economy at all costs.

    Please consider and research more of the factors and possible benefits in why we should move toward more sustainable farming methods before you ask rather one-dimensional questions on yield. Just like any sustainable quest, we don’t know what a sustainable system looks like, but we generally know it’s a direction in which we should go.

    • Marc Gunther says

      The problems that you correctly cite with conventional farming (higher energy costs, higher input costs, impact on farm employees) would be reasons for more farmers to switch to organic.

      I’m not saying that yield should drive all decisions. I’m saying that the higher yields from using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are an important reason (although not the only reason) why so few farmers have, so far, been willing to turn away from them.

      • John T says

        Marc, first I tip my hat to you for your willingness to submit your views to the scrutiny of the public.

        If you’ll indulge my own scrutiny, it seems to me that framing the subject of organic vs conventional in terms of *yield* – or at least considering that aspect in isolation – plays exactly into the hands of the industrial approaches so often identified with “conventional” farming.

        Further to your point about farmers’ lack of willingness to adopt more sustainable and earth-friendly methods on account of lesser yield, I’d venture say that the pressure to extract maximum yield may in large part be the result of debt captivity typical of “industrializing” the farm. So, in effect, conversion to a wholesale *organic* or sustainable approach is virtually unthinkable under those already tenuous conditions.

        As is probably well-known to your readership, Wendell Berry’s espousal of “Solving for Pattern” seems to me a most wise and humble way of finding a way out of the conventional “debt trap” without putting the farm into such jeopardy as a blind, wholesale buy-in to organic methods.

        • bongstar420 says

          Notice the phrase “appears to be” and consider the fact that these people are exposed to 1000x more pesticides than everyone else.

  14. says

    The European Union and the United States have strong disagreements over the EU’s regulation of genetically modified food. The US claims these regulations violate free trade agreements, the EU counter-position is that free trade is not truly free without informed consent.

    • bongstar420 says

      I argue that they should pay more for “non-GMO” and leave it at that. Its safe to assume that everything that isn’t labeled “non-GMO” probably has some GMO in it.

      Anyways, they are free to test the stuff it it actually matters to them instead of burdening the producer with their specious demands.

  15. says

    Well there’s a great discussion going on here so I thought I would jump in, albeit a bit late. Steve Savage and I have exchanged comments on this topic before, but I think that the context that frames the problem is key to making sure the critique is balanced.

    It’s true that organic yields are lower, but I think it’s dangerous to say that we’re comparing that to “traditional” or “conventional” farming methods. Even though Steve is quick to point out that farming chemicals have grown to be much less abrasive than they were in the past we are still battling with a loss of soil quality resulting in the necessity of increasing amounts of fertilizer just to stay level. As we rely on pesticides and herbicides, every genus that builds a tolerance to them only means we have to apply more. Others above, like Warren, have commented on some of the negative effects of our current model.

    “…scaling up the production of organic food at will require more land, contribute to deforestation and cost more than growing our food using conventional methods. That suggests that organic methods alone can’t feed the world in a sustainable way.”

    This is really assuming that the way we’re doing it now is sustainable, which I’m not sure is ultimately accurate. Pumping out more food per acre no matter what the cost is not really a sustainable solution.

    In a different vein, author Frances Moore Lappe brings up important cultural points that address our need for food quantity. In the U.S. we end up throwing away over one quarter of our food. We also use massive amounts of grain for cattle feed–which used to be supported by pasture/grass fed methods–that accounts for a lot of acreage. The ethanol point raised above is another valid issue. Perhaps our “deficit” could be recalibrated if we changed some of the waste in our societal norms.

    Lastly, when it comes to a hybrid system, I think that organic needs to include more indoor farming . While the upfront costs are higher, so are year-round yields with much less water use (we currently use 31% of our fresh water for irrigation in the U.S.) with inherent protection against pests and disease.

    • bongstar420 says

      Sustainable is a misnomer. The universe is not sustainable. The sun is not sustainable. Your grow will never be ultimately sustainable.

      It is all about scale.

      The size of the population determines the sustainability of “conventional” ag. We have 200 years left. Then there will be only organic since there will only be nutrient recycling due to the extinction of Phosphate reserves.

      Organic ag before “conventional” ag was highly unsustainable. Sustainability is far less about “organic” vs “synthetic” and much more about efficiency and reproducibility. A competent, non-ideological grower will always be more sustainable than a incompetent ideological organic grower.

      I think people pick organic because they feel its safer to not use technology. The same crowd tends to think vaccines are bad- thats straight up wrong and a threat to the whole population.

  16. says

    Nitpick: why do you refer to kashrut and halal as “law” but merely note that “traditional Catholics abstain”? The latter is just as much a matter of law (canon law, naturally) and of course the former laws aren’t universally observed either (nor is it obvious that the strictness of their observation co-varies with being “traditional” in any generic sense).

    • Marc Gunther says

      Fair point. I was uncertain about the origin of the practice of Catholics not eating meat on Fridays, so I hedged my language.

    • bongstar420 says

      Yeah. Like a religion has a legitimate claim to the status of law. The only real law is that of the Flying Spaghetti Monster if we are going to accept religion as valid source of law.

  17. KDMS says

    I am very late in getting into this conversation, but I might have something to touch on, since I have not made my living as farmer, but I have 47 acres in Southern Ohio. I raise hay for my few head of cattle. Over the years I did as I was told in feeding my hay field, I would have the soil analyzed then put on the “correct “fertilizers and minerals. Yet I watched as my hay yield continued to drop. Now the past two years we have been very dry so that does play a part, however this year when we went to pick up the hay and bring it in I noticed the grass roots would be dug up by the tractor tires on each hard turn. The roots were only going down maybe an 1 1/2 at most. So I started doing some research on my own plus had the soil analyzed, again, but after the first hay cutting. I was fine in nitrogen but low in just about everything else, counter to what other farmers were telling me to do. Then I discovered the science of ground microbes. If I were to utilize soil microbes and very minimal fertilizer, if the research is correct, my hay yield would ago back to what it was years and years ago. It seems even though microbes are known in the farming community, the cost is high ($25.00 per acre) and most farmers are leery of promises of what they call snake oil products. These soil microbes are generally what is missing after even after a couple years of farming. If used they could solve the run off problem because far less fertilizer would be needed since the microbes help the plants utilize the fertilizer, plus they promote deeper root growth. The soil environment is made whole again and there is less use of any kind of fertilizer. Yields across the board would increase, even the organic yield. Whatever run off would happen and it would happen in major rain storms, the fertilizers would stay in the soil where they belong.

    • bongstar420 says

      Your problem is you are probably removing the entire crop from ground that is marginal at best without any input.

      The soil microbes only improve availability. They do not increase fertility in soils with high levels of P/K. You will not increase yields on ground with low P/K levels without adding P/K. It doesn’t matter what form you apply, just put it down.

  18. says

    No experiment or endeavour is perfect. Despite how promising organic farming is, there is still a drawback in terms of production. Conventional methods are productive but is questionable in terms of the health aspect. If I were to choose though, I’d still go for the organic one because it is healthier. A strategy should be devised to increase production though.

    • bongstar420 says

      You mean to say, “because you believe it to be healthier.” So far, I have not seen anything that could even come close to “evidence” to support such a claim.

  19. bongstar420 says

    Localism is actually more the result of anti-corporate influences that any actual environmentalism.

    The rich are just too rich and they arn’t that much better than anyone else.

    If we reign the ultrarich in, we will see a decline in this religious anti-futurism.

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