Is Buying Organic Better for the Environment?

In short, yes — but when it comes to sustainability, organic farming practices are just one piece of the puzzle.

November 10, 2021
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Photo by: d3sign/Getty Images

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The term “organic” has been extremely successful as a marketing tool for the food industry. More and more consumers are opting for organic food, despite the fact that it’s more expensive. According to the Organic Trade Association, the US organic food market more than doubled in size between 2011 and 2020, jumping $25.1 billion to $56.5 billion. And although some people choose organic for human health reasons (a debate we won’t get into here), much of this growth is driven by our growing awareness of sustainability and the environment.

But, is organic food actually better for the environment? The short answer is yes, but the long answer is that it’s complicated. We asked experts to explain what the organic label actually means for sustainability, and what else you can do to eat and shop sustainably now.

What Is Sustainable Agriculture?

Sustainability is a buzzword, but it doesn’t always have a clear meaning. “When we talk about sustainable agriculture and food production, what we’re fundamentally talking about is the idea that we should try to meet the needs of the present without diminishing the ability of future generations to meet their needs,” says Neva Hassanein a professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana. And technically, since sustainability is all about protecting the future, Hassanein points out that it’s impossible to know for certain whether something is sustainable or not.

That said, certain farming practices are considered more sustainable than others. Hassanein names things like intensive grazing management (moving livestock around to different pastures regularly so that they don’t over-graze), crop rotations, and opting for safer pesticides and fertilizers as common sustainability practices.

Paul Lightfoot, a member of the USDA's Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee and the author of the Negative Foods Newsletter, prefers the term “regenerative,” explaining that certain agricultural processes actually remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they release (which is a good thing).

Is Organic Food More Sustainable?

At its core, the organic food movement is all about sustainability. The term “organic farming” first appeared in a 1940 book, Lord of the Land, written by Lord Walter James Northbourne, an English agriculturalist. He described this type of farming as one that is both holistic and sustainable. The goal was to implement systems that focused not only on crop yield, but also on the overall health of their farms.

In December 2000, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) established the National Organic Program (NOP), which sets legal standards that determine whether a food can be labeled with the USDA Organic seal. To be certified organic, farmers must avoid most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers; manage their soil fertility through sustainable practices like tillage, crop rotations, composting; and avoid genetic engineering and sewage sludge. Those who grow livestock and poultry must give them 100 percent organic feed, cannot treat them with antibiotics or hormones, and must give them access to the outdoors year-round (cattle and sheep must live out on pasture for at least 120 days each year).

The catch is that it’s possible to adhere to these standards without really prioritizing sustainability. “In organics, what’s happened is what we call input substitution,” Hassanein says. For example, a certified organic farmer might just swap out forbidden pesticides and fertilizers for alternatives that are allowed under the organic standards, without making any effort to cut back on their overall use or experiment with other farming practices. Basically, they abide by legal organic standards without really focusing on sustainability. Large corporations are more likely to do this than small farmers, Hassanein says, because many sustainable farming processes, like enhancing soil microorganisms and creating habitat for species that can control pests naturally, are hard to do on a large scale.

When it comes to animal products, the answer is a bit more complicated. A 2020 article in Nature Communications found that organic beef, lamb, and chicken actually have a higher climate cost than their conventional counterparts, largely because organic livestock grows more slowly and produces less meat. (Organic pork had a slightly lower climate cost than conventional.) But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t opt for organic meat — organic livestock is raised more humanely, and many organic farmers focus on grazing practices that help keep the land and soil healthy.

What Else Can You Do While Grocery Shopping?

Farming isn’t the only link on the food supply chain that affects the climate. You’re probably already familiar with the recommendation to shop local. And sure, it’s true that buying from local farmers cuts back on transportation and, potentially, the amount of packaging required, both of which are good for sustainability. But it’s not that simple. “The key is knowing about where your food comes from,” Hassanein says. “That requires some effort that we’re not always willing to put in. But in a community, you can get a sense of who your farmers are, what their practices are, and why they grow the way they do.” When food comes from outside your community, this is really difficult. To illustrate this, Hassanein often challenges people to figure out where everything in their last meal came from. For most people, it’s not easy.

Of course, it’s unrealistic to always buy local, or to be meticulous about buying only from farmers and producers with transparent and sustainable practices. That’s why labels like organic are helpful; they provide some transparency around the production process. If you can afford to spend a bit more on food at the grocery store, buying organic is a simple shortcut that’s likely more sustainable than buying conventional (although, again, this can vary depending on the exact practices used).

Shopping at farmers markets is a good option, but expecting to get all of your food from these markets is unrealistic. But there are other things to consider as well. Focus on choosing foods sold in more sustainable packaging, like compostable materials, or in no packaging at all. Cut back on meat and dairy, which have a far greater climate cost than plant-based foods. The bottom line is that, while it’s virtually impossible to know exactly where all of your food comes from or how it was grown, there are ways to increase the sustainability of your diet overall. And yes, choosing organic is one of them.

Christine Byrne, MPH, RD, is a registered dietitian and owner of Christine Byrne Nutrition, a virtual private practice specializing in eating disorders, disordered eating, and orthorexia. She takes a weight-inclusive, gender-affirming, non-diet approach. As a nutrition journalist, she has contributed to dozens of national media outlets.

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