Organic farming is 'much worse' for the climate than conventional food production, researchers say

More farm space equals more carbon.

  • A report from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, found that organic food production leads to higher carbon emissions.
  • This includes livestock as well as vegetables, as organic farming requires no fertilizer usage.
  • Certain types of organic foods are less impactful than others, the researchers note.

History has not been kind to Earl Butz. From 1971–76, the Indiana native served as secretary of agriculture, reengineering several New Deal-era farm programs. One of his most famous statements, that large-scale farmers need to plant commodity crops from "fencerow to fencerow," became a historical landmark for the destruction of the family farm — critics were surprised given that he grew up on his family's dairy farm. His championing of corn, for example, has led to numerous problems for our soil and stomachs today.

Yet I couldn't help but think of Butz when I read a new report, published in Nature on December 13, from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden. The school's researchers studied the impact of organic and conventional food production on the climate. What they found is that organic farming results in higher carbon emissions than conventional farming.

Associate professor Stefan Wirsenius explains:

Our study shows that organic peas, farmed in Sweden, have around a 50 percent bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed peas. For some foodstuffs, there is an even bigger difference — for example, with organic Swedish winter wheat the difference is closer to 70 percent.

The reason for this is simple: organic farming takes up much more land. This applies to vegetables, but also meat, as organically-raised livestock require food that is free from fertilizers, according to Wirsenius. The "Carbon Opportunity Cost," their new measure of agriculture's environmental impact, includes the deforestation necessary to clear more land for organic farms.

This is tough news for those of us that support and purchase organic foods. Thanks to the journalist Michael Pollan, I too am a fan of Joel Salatin's food writings on natural agricultural cycles, not only from an ethical standpoint but also in honoring how all aspects of farming interact with one another. Mono-cropping — growing the same fruits and vegetables on same plot of land each year — has caused disastrous environmental and cultures impacts, such as soil erosion and the displacement of indigenous peoples. There is no doubt that fertilizer-heavy "conventional" techniques are not good for the planet either.

Yet we have to face the fact that the planet might not be able to sustainably support 7.7 billion people — by 2050 we are poised to reach 9.8 billion. While many people champion organic food (whether for health or ethical reasons) Wirsenius states an increase in organic food production will likely raise carbon output, compromising sustainability. He does note that type of food matters, however.

Eating organic beans or organic chicken is much better for the climate than to eat conventionally produced beef. Organic food does have several advantages compared with food produced by conventional methods. For example, it is better for farm animal welfare. But when it comes to the climate impact, our study shows that organic food is a much worse alternative, in general.

Cows on a pasture are pictured on November 10, 2018 in Koenigshain, Germany. Photo credit: Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

Wirsenius also says that beef and lamb are the worst for the environment, while pork, chicken, fish, and eggs have less of an impact. He recommends choosing beans over cheese for a protein source if environmental impact is important to you.

Butz was a corporate shill whose legacy was more harmful than helpful. Yet, he was right that we needed the best yield from the least amount of space. His methods of attaining such have been damaging to our ecology and bodies, but it doesn't change the fact that sustaining our current population produces serious consequences. If anything is "natural," it's this fact: There is only so much the planet can provide before we've exhausted its resources.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.