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Is organic food better than non-organic food at reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

Not necessarily. Although there is a consensus on the advantages of organic agriculture concerning human health, the same is not true of greenhouse gas emissions. Several authors argue that regarding the environment, the production of organic food is not the recommended option to mitigate climate change.

Despite requiring less energy use, organic systems have greater land use and eutrophication potential per unit of food produced, tending to have a greater potential for acidification. Another point addressed in scientific literature is that organic agriculture is largely dependent on manure as a source of nitrogen, in contrast to the use of synthetic fertilisers by conventional agriculture. Thus, organic systems have an imbalance in terms of nutrient release since nutritional input does not occur due to the specific demand of crops. These incompatibilities end up reducing crop productivity and, consequently, increasing land use.

The use of manure in agriculture as a fertiliser ends up becoming a relevant source of greenhouse gas emissions – nitrous oxide (NO) and methane (CH₄) – due to its high concentration of nitrogen, carbon and water. As a consequence, nitrogen is the compound most present in leaching and runoff. Even though it is emitted in smaller quantities compared to carbon dioxide (CO) and methane, NO is a highly potent greenhouse gas – 265 times more potent than CO – and with high durability in the atmosphere.  

Therefore, the trade-off between the application of synthetic fertilisers in conventional systems and the use of manure in organic systems makes greenhouse gas emissions similar in both systems. However, the comparative environmental impacts of organic and conventional systems may differ on a regional, national or global scale. Optimising the application of nutrients and adopting techniques such as rotating agriculture, cover cropping, multi-cropping, and polyculture in organic systems can halve the difference in land use between organic and conventional systems.


McGee, J. A. (2015). Does certified organic farming reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production? Agric Hum Values. 32 (2), 255–263.

Boer, J., Witt, A., & Aiking, H. (2016). Help the climate, change your diet: A cross-sectional study on how to involve consumers in a transition to a low-carbon society. Appetite. 98, 19-17.

Venkat, K. (2012). Comparison of Twelve Organic and Conventional Farming Systems: A Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions Perspective. Journal of Sustainable Agriculture. 36(6), 620-649.

Knudsen, M. T., Meyer-Aurich, A., Olesen, J. E., Chirinda, N., & Hermansen, J. E. (2014). Carbon footprints of crops from organic and conventional arable crop rotations – using a life cycle assessment approach. Journal of cleaner production. 64, 609-618.

Clark, M., & Tilman. D. (2017). Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice. Environ. Res. Lett. 12(6).

Sarah Keyes, S., Tyedmers, P., & Beazley, K. (2015). Evaluating the environmental impacts of conventional and organic apple production in Nova Scotia, Canada, through life cycle assessment. Journal of Cleaner Production. 104, 40 -51.

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