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Organic food production has a significantly higher environmental impact than intensive agriculture, a new study suggests.
Food that is free of pesticides and fertiliser is usually considered to be a more environmentally aware and responsible choice, however, the new study, published by the scientific journal Nature, ‘Assessing the efficiency of changes in land use for mitigating climate change’, suggests the opposite. Arguing that organic farming produces lower crop yields than traditional intensive agriculture due to avoidance of fertilisers and pesticides and that it requires greater landmass.
The study shows that organic peas, farmed in Sweden, have around a 50 % bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed peas. For other foodstuffs the impact is even greater, rising to 70 % for Swedish winter wheat.
As food production and the effect of agricultural expansion contribute to between 20-25% of global greenhouse gas emissions, future strategy, that satisfies the growing demand for food (set to increase 50% by 2050) needs to concentrate on maximising land efficiencies both from production and carbon-storing perspectives.
Farming organically has a beneficial effect on the local environment as intensive agriculture sees chemicals leach into soil and water table, upsetting the ecosystem. However, as food production is highly globalised, lower crop yields in a local area can indirectly affect land use in other parts of the world, contributing to deforestation.
It presents a conundrum for those wishing to make a difference with their food choices. Do you prioritise local environments over global ones? If we’ve learned anything from the recent impact of climate change, it’s that there effectively is no difference between the two, except in our own minds. What we do at a local level affects climate globally and major ‘climate events’ don’t respect borders, policy or political ecosystems.
It is more important than ever that an integrated approach to future agriculture emerges to ensure we form best practices for food production as demand increases. It is widely accepted today that the single best thing any one individual can do to offset carbon emissions is to reduce the amount of red meat they consume or avoid it altogether if possible. But our menu choices will become increasingly politicised in the future and just as we demand that our meat and fish is traceable, perhaps we should be asking the same of the fruit, vegetables and the grains that we consume.
We are moving towards an integrated and trustworthy supply chain with the likes of blockchain technology, even if real-world applications remain thin on the ground. However, one interesting application of the immutable ledger is a proposed tokenisation of carbon credits. Just as blockchain has been used to trade excess energy they produce on a microgrid, pioneered by LO3 Energy, the same principle could be applied to food producers and consumers. Projects to keep an eye on are IBM’s partnership with environmental Fintech company Veridium Labs Ltd. to tokenise carbon credits that can be used to incentivise companies to pollute less, while Ben & Jerry’s have partnered with non-profit Poseidon to allow consumers to offset their carbon footprint by applying a portion of their retail sales to purchase carbon credits.