If your primary reason for buying organic is that you want to do your part to lessen the impact farming has on the environment, then you’re doing the right thing. A tremendous amount of research has been done on this subject over the last 30 years or so, and with few exceptions, these studies have found the practices used by organic farming cause less harm to the environment than nonorganic practices. These findings are not surprising, since the food production and handling practices prescribed by the USDA regulations for organic food are based on environmental stewardship and resource conservation. Examples of how organic production is less taxing on the environment include—

  • The pesticides that are used by organic farmers are safer for wildlife (organic farmers try to use beneficial insects and birds, mating disruption, or traps to reduce pests). Several studies have noted that wild flora and fauna within and around organic farms are more diverse and abundant than around nonorganic farms. Careful selection of natural pesticides means important pollinators are preserved. Also, pesticides used in organic farming are far less likely to contaminate waterways.
  • The natural fertilizers used by organic farmers are less likely to harm waterways than the synthetic ones often used on nonorganic farms.
  • Organic farms are more apt to maintain and build soil quality using environmentally friendly methods such as crop rotation rather than constantly artificially reenergizing soil with fertilizers.
  • Organic farmers typically use less fertilizer, which means nitrate runoff into groundwater is lessened.
  • Instead of controlling weeds by spraying entire crops with pre- and post-emergent herbicides—which can pollute area waterways—organic farmers rely on soil tilling, crop rotation, hand weeding, or mulch.
  • Less water is often needed on organic farms because they rely on growing crops in soil with high organic content, which retains water better.
  • On organic farms, soils tend to have higher biological activity and a higher total mass of microorganisms, so nutrients are recycled more rapidly and overall soil structure is better, meaning the land doesn’t have to be constantly supplied with outside nutrients and water to grow plants.
  • For beef and dairy production, relying on pasture part of the time for feed means organic farms don’t rely as much on crop-based feed, meaning less water and energy are needed to grow crops to feed livestock.
  • Organic farms produce fewer overall greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Most organic farms try to conserve energy resources. Organic methods generally use less energy for both crops and livestock.
  • On organic farms, waste is typically recycled.

It is important to note that nonorganic farming is constantly evolving, and that many farms are adapting some organic methods or even beginning the process of converting crops to organic production. And although organic farming is typically more environmentally friendly than nonorganic, the process of food production itself can still injure the environment. For example, runoff of natural fertilizers applied to organic crops still harms waterways, and these fertilizers are just as likely to run off as synthetic ones if applied in the same way. Similarly, although the pesticides used by organic farms are natural-biological, they are still designed to kill organisms. In many cases, the compounds that make up these pesticides are less understood than those that make up conventional pesticides.

There is also some debate as to whether organic meat production is markedly less harmful to the environment. The runoff of animal waste into waterways can occur whether a farm is organic or not. Farms may contain runoff or handle manure in a way that limits the possibility of its contaminating water supply, but organic guidelines don’t require more stringent controls. Similarly, it is likely there is little difference between organic and nonorganic farms from pollution from ammonia or nitrous oxide, which are emitted from the surface of manures. And methane emissions, on a per-animal basis, are probably higher from organically raised animals because of their diets.

Another big consideration is whether organic farming yields less food than nonorganic; scientists are so far divided on the issue. It’s an important topic that deserves a great amount of study. Organic livestock and dairy production require more land for pasture than conventional production. If organic grain and produce farms net lower yields, then more acreage would need to be used to switch to organic crops. The question is whether or not the increased acreage demands negate any environmental benefits.

Of course, if organic farming means lower yields, then additional organic farming means less food, raising the question whether organic farming can feed the world’s already-hungry population.

In sum, buying and eating organic likely does lessen the impact agriculture has on the environment. But the most environmentally friendly approach is probably to eat less meat (or none); minimize purchases of highly processed and packaged food; as much as you can, eat what’s in season; and whenever possible buy products that were grown or raised locally and therefore didn’t have to be shipped a long distance.