Commercial organic farming is a growing industry, mostly seen as a force for good by way of reduced pesticides and herbicides. But large-scale organic operations are receiving their fair share of scrutiny, particularly among animal agricultural operations for ballooning to commercial farming sizes and bending organic regulations. Now, new research says commercial-size organic farms may also be contributing higher levels of greenhouse gases to the environment per acre.
The research, led by Julius McGee out of the University of Oregon and published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, warns that large-scale organic growers may not be following the recommended organic practices, specifically because it’s harder to do the larger a farm gets—and this could be problematic.
“The big questions are what are we doing when we shift from conventional to organic production, and what are the environmental consequences,” McGee said to Food Navigator.
McGee and his team looked at state-level data between 2000 and 2008 on organic and conventional agricultural greenhouse gases in every state except Louisiana.
“This study says that the organic farming industry is in the early stages. So far, we don’t see any mitigating effect on greenhouse gasses. We need to pay close attention to what processes in organic farming operations make them the sustainable alternatives that we want them to be, and we are going to need to more strictly follow those.”
McGee’s team warned that as organic agricultural operations increase in size, this may involve the use of more machinery, which can significantly contribute to greenhouse gases. “We are not going to solve all these problems with technology,” said McGee. “The issue of agriculture and climate change doesn’t derive only from technology.”
In 2014, the Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog group, obtained aerial footage of certified organic feedlots the group says violate organic industry guidelines. “The federal organic regulations make it very clear that all organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and that ruminants, like dairy cows, must have access to pasture,” said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute. “The vast majority of these massive, industrial-scale facilities, some managing 10,000-20,000 head of cattle, and upwards of 1 million laying hens, had 100% of their animals confined in giant buildings or feedlots.” Large-scale operations like this also have an increased environmental footprint.
McGee also points to another serious issue: “overproducing” food at levels that exceed what we need. Previous studies have found that food waste is a significant contributor to global warming. Approximately one-third of all food produced goes uneaten.
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