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Thread: Organic farming is worse for climate change

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    Organic farming is worse for climate change

    MIT Technology Review

    Organic practices can reduce climate pollution produced directly from farming Ė which would be fantastic if they didnít also require more land to produce the same amount of food.

    Clearing additional grasslands or forests to grow enough food to make up for that difference would release far more greenhouse gas than the practices initially reduce, a new study in Nature Communications finds.

    Other recent research has also concluded that organic farming produces more climate pollution than conventional practices when the additional land required is taken into account. In the new paper, researchers at the UKís Cranfield University took a broad look at the question by analyzing what would happen if all of England and Wales shifted entirely to these practices.

    The good news is it would cut the direct greenhouse-gas emissions from livestock by 5% and from growing crops by 20% per unit of production. The bad news: it would slash yields by around 40%, forcing hungry Britons to import more food from overseas. If half the land used to meet that spike in demand was converted from grasslands, which store carbon in plant tissues, roots, and soil, it would boost overall greenhouse-gas emissions by 21%.
    Nature Communications link

    Abstract
    Agriculture is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and must feature in efforts to reduce emissions. Organic farming might contribute to this through decreased use of farm inputs and increased soil carbon sequestration, but it might also exacerbate emissions through greater food production elsewhere to make up for lower organic yields. To date there has been no rigorous assessment of this potential at national scales. Here we assess the consequences for net GHG emissions of a 100% shift to organic food production in England and Wales using life-cycle assessment. We predict major shortfalls in production of most agricultural products against a conventional baseline. Direct GHG emissions are reduced with organic farming, but when increased overseas land use to compensate for shortfalls in domestic supply are factored in, net emissions are greater. Enhanced soil carbon sequestration could offset only a small part of the higher overseas emissions.
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    Interesting article. I always found it peculiar that people chose organic products vs mass farmed ones, but would then also add a chocolate bar or something in their shopping basket. The science is uncertain whether organic is indeed better than mass farmed, but at the end of the day an apple is an apple. Maybe an organic one is 20% better, but both are far, far, far, far more healthy than a candy bar.

    In the end, if we're willing to eat heavily processed foods, we might as well eat mass farmed ones too (as long as they respect health and safety regulations).

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    Quote Originally Posted by Spyrith View Post
    Interesting article. I always found it peculiar that people chose organic products vs mass farmed ones, but would then also add a chocolate bar or something in their shopping basket. The science is uncertain whether organic is indeed better than mass farmed, but at the end of the day an apple is an apple. Maybe an organic one is 20% better, but both are far, far, far, far more healthy than a candy bar.

    In the end, if we're willing to eat heavily processed foods, we might as well eat mass farmed ones too (as long as they respect health and safety regulations).
    Yes, people's decisions about such things are curious.

    My problem with such labels as "organic" is that they describe a very wide variety of practices, some of which I strongly approve of, some of which I have mixed feelings about, and some of which I oppose. For example, there are some pesticides that I think are particularly harmful to humans or the environment, but there are others that are worth the cost/benefit analysis. Similarly, I think some Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are great (golden rice) and others that are not a good idea.

    Broadly deciding to oppose all non-organic practices and products is to me lazy and is causing as much harm as good.
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    I'm not sure this is correct. They* appear to have assumed the overseas growing of food to make up any shortfall. They* also are claiming a 40% drop in yields. In any change like this there are many variables. For example, an organic crop will not be using fertiliser derived from oils, and will not be depleting the soil in the same way. It might even be possible to grow 2 crops simultaneously whereas intensive farming is a monoculture.
    All in all, its easy to say intensive farming has a higher yield when you don't concern yourself with how long that can continue before the land is useless. It's already happening in various parts of the world as salts build up.

    * I realise that there are two separate organisations mentioned.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    Yes, people's decisions about such things are curious.

    My problem with such labels as "organic" is that they describe a very wide variety of practices, some of which I strongly approve of, some of which I have mixed feelings about, and some of which I oppose. For example, there are some pesticides that I think are particularly harmful to humans or the environment, but there are others that are worth the cost/benefit analysis. Similarly, I think some Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are great (golden rice) and others that are not a good idea.

    Broadly deciding to oppose all non-organic practices and products is to me lazy and is causing as much harm as good.
    Speaking of golden rice, I recently came across an article on slate.com about the battle over GMOs.
    Personally, I support the ones that fulfil a useful purpose for dietary reasons but don't support the ones that exist purely to make money for the patent holders via not producing seeds or allowing drenching the plants with proprietary weedkillers or insecticides.

    E. T. A. Just to add, the article does claim that Roundup is perfectly safe. But this report was written before it started showing up in breakfast cereals.
    Last edited by headrush; 2019-Oct-23 at 03:41 PM.

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    Doesn't the original report say that it was based on the assumption of no changes in diet?

    Well, there's your problem! Of course keeping diet the same as it is today is going to yield similar problems. It's how we GOT those problems. That's like saying a dirigible makes a very poor submarine. Calculate the organic farming methods that will give optimal GHG results, then see what diet results. Don't do it backwards!
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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    Doesn't the original report say that it was based on the assumption of no changes in diet?

    Well, there's your problem! Of course keeping diet the same as it is today is going to yield similar problems. It's how we GOT those problems. That's like saying a dirigible makes a very poor submarine. Calculate the organic farming methods that will give optimal GHG results, then see what diet results. Don't do it backwards!
    Sorry, what does GHG mean?


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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    Doesn't the original report say that it was based on the assumption of no changes in diet?

    Well, there's your problem! Of course keeping diet the same as it is today is going to yield similar problems. It's how we GOT those problems. That's like saying a dirigible makes a very poor submarine. Calculate the organic farming methods that will give optimal GHG results, then see what diet results. Don't do it backwards!
    I don't exactly understand what you mean. If we change our diets (meaning to eat less) even without organic farming, we will also end up using less land because of the decreased consumption. Or do you mean that organic products are less appetizing so we eat less of them?
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    The problem with organic is that it is a knee jerk reaction to lackadaisical practices. Pesticides have been used to indiscriminately? We won't use any, except ones used hundreds of years ago, which may not be any better.

    Plus it is a philosophy that says anything old is "natural" and anything modern is not and therefore old is good and modern is bad.

    That's not to say some aspects that can fall under the organic label can't be good, but it's like Dara O'Briain said about the fetishing of traditional medicine over modern medicine, "Yes traditional medicine has been around for hundreds of years. Then we tested it all and the stuff that worked became medicine."

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    Sorry, what does GHG mean?


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    My guess: Green House Gases
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    I don't exactly understand what you mean. If we change our diets (meaning to eat less) even without organic farming, we will also end up using less land because of the decreased consumption. Or do you mean that organic products are less appetizing so we eat less of them?
    Not less (although we do overconsume), but a different ratio of foods. Legumes largely replacing beef and dairy, for instance, means much more efficient use of land. Less methane, too.
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    Quote Originally Posted by profloater View Post
    My guess: Green House Gases
    Yup.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    Not less (although we do overconsume), but a different ratio of foods. Legumes largely replacing beef and dairy, for instance, means much more efficient use of land. Less methane, too.
    If I understand correctly, though, there is organic beef and other meats as well, so eating organic foods doesnít mean giving up meat. I certainly agree it is better for us to eat more vegetables and less meat, but I donít think that eating organic food necessarily implies that.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    If I understand correctly, though, there is organic beef and other meats as well, so eating organic foods doesn’t mean giving up meat. I certainly agree it is better for us to eat more vegetables and less meat, but I don’t think that eating organic food necessarily implies that.
    Exactly my point. Just changing over to the organic version of our existing Western diet is not, by itself, a solution.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    Exactly my point. Just changing over to the organic version of our existing Western diet is not, by itself, a solution.
    I completely agree, but it seems that the paper was aiming to compare the effects of regular farming and organic farming assuming no change in diet. You could also compare regular farming and organic farming with people changing their diets in both cases. I mean, you could theoretically make four comparisons.

    1 Organic (change) versus regular (change)
    2 Organic (change) versus regular (no change)
    3 Organic (no change) versus regular (change)
    4 Organic (no change) versus regular (no change)

    Now, it might be that for 2 and 3, the one making the change will turn out to be better. So I think they thought the real issue would be 1 and 4, where the diets are the same, and you look at which is more efficient.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    I completely agree, but it seems that the paper was aiming to compare the effects of regular farming and organic farming assuming no change in diet. You could also compare regular farming and organic farming with people changing their diets in both cases. I mean, you could theoretically make four comparisons.

    1 Organic (change) versus regular (change)
    2 Organic (change) versus regular (no change)
    3 Organic (no change) versus regular (change)
    4 Organic (no change) versus regular (no change)

    Now, it might be that for 2 and 3, the one making the change will turn out to be better. So I think they thought the real issue would be 1 and 4, where the diets are the same, and you look at which is more efficient.
    Well, "regular" farming is unsustainable anyway, so it's going to go sooner or later. And the only reason beef is currently cheap enough to be a staple is because of those farming methods, so the diet will change too. The only questions are when and under whose control it happens.

    The fast food "not meat" burgers being sold are, it seems, a sign of already changing trends.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    Well, "regular" farming is unsustainable anyway, so it's going to go sooner or later. And the only reason beef is currently cheap enough to be a staple is because of those farming methods, so the diet will change too. The only questions are when and under whose control it happens.

    The fast food "not meat" burgers being sold are, it seems, a sign of already changing trends.
    I think we are agreeing. The higher cost of organic agriculture means that people will be forced to either have smaller portions (a good thing, IMO) or to cut down on beef compared to vegetables (again, a good thing).
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    I think I read somewhere that around 60% of food produced in the US goes to waste. Ludicrous. If the situation was similar in the UK, we could cut our waste down to 20% and change to organic methods with no other change needed (if we take the research as correct),

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    This question gets very complicated.
    From the internets:

    "Roundup, a weed killer suspected of causing cancer and feeding toxic algae blooms."

    "Will it kill moss or algae?
    No. Use a product that is specially formulated to kill moss and algae."

    I suspect that there are too many variables to get anywhere near a definitive answer.
    The step from two variables to 10,000 is a rather large one.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Squink View Post
    I suspect that there are too many variables to get anywhere near a definitive answer.
    The step from two variables to 10,000 is a rather large one.
    Answer to what question?
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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    Answer to what question?
    Is organic farming worse for climate change than conventional farming?
    You might as well ask for an analytical solution to some arbitrary n body problem.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Squink View Post
    Is organic farming worse for climate change than conventional farming?
    You might as well ask for an analytical solution to some arbitrary n body problem.
    No, it's solvable, given enough data.

    The problem is, we lack data. The article in question does not even define organic in any meaningful way.

    The trouble with conventional farming is, it's not gonna be around forever, and we have yet to come up with enough factual stats on viable replacement methods. Any or all of which could be called "organic". So we're running full tilt into the dark, without first determining which version of "organic" actually produces the desired results.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    No, it's solvable, given enough data.
    I expect there's some hard integrals in there, as there are in Biochemistry. Toss more of a couple in, and modelling becomes impossibly hard with today's slow computers.
    This isn't electrical engineering, where you've only got electrons and holes to deal with. The number of things that must be treated as "conductors" grows large quickly. That increases the number of feedback effects you have to account for quickly. Tell us why Glycolysis output in a typical cell oscillates at about 60Hz, then come back and tell me we can solve this farming question, if only we had enough data.
    There are lots of problems where any finite amount of data is not enough. The dimensionality of this farming question is huge, and no one's made much useful progress in complexity theory these past 40 years. I understand the temptation to think of most problems as something we can solve, especially as we are quite good at that within our individual little domains, but extrapolating into unknown fields where the number of irreducible variables runs into the hundreds is not justifiable - barring some fundamental mathematical breakthrough.

    Oh, yeah, all of civilization has been "running full tilt into the dark". Amazingly, we are still around.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Squink View Post
    I expect there's some hard integrals in there, as there are in Biochemistry. Toss more of a couple in, and modelling becomes impossibly hard with today's slow computers.
    This isn't electrical engineering, where you've only got electrons and holes to deal with. The number of things that must be treated as "conductors" grows large quickly. That increases the number of feedback effects you have to account for quickly. Tell us why Glycolysis output in a typical cell oscillates at about 60Hz, then come back and tell me we can solve this farming question, if only we had enough data.
    There are lots of problems where any finite amount of data is not enough. The dimensionality of this farming question is huge, and no one's made much useful progress in complexity theory these past 40 years. I understand the temptation to think of most problems as something we can solve, especially as we are quite good at that within our individual little domains, but extrapolating into unknown fields where the number of irreducible variables runs into the hundreds is not justifiable - barring some fundamental mathematical breakthrough.
    IMO we don't have to answer all the potential variables in the world to make a practical go of it. Ask any farmer, or gardener for that matter; it's always a matter of making adjustments as you go. Just as we don't need to analyze every word of a book to tell if it was a good read or not. If it's good enough to work, it's good enough.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    If it's good enough to work, it's good enough.
    Agreed. I just think we'd have to get incredibly lucky to find an answer good enough to work here.
    I expect the chance of our leading ourselves astray is far higher. Right or wrong, we'll go with that.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Squink View Post
    Agreed. I just think we'd have to get incredibly lucky to find an answer good enough to work here.
    I expect the chance of our leading ourselves astray is far higher. Right or wrong, we'll go with that.
    Astray in what way?
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    We'll pick a variable, give it greater weight than it deserves, and miss another one entirely.
    We don't really know how many variables there are in this complicated a question.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Squink View Post
    We'll pick a variable, give it greater weight than it deserves, and miss another one entirely.
    We don't really know how many variables there are in this complicated a question.
    Can you give an example?
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    Have a look at the current vaping nicotine/THC causes lung illness problem.
    We are screwing that up royally, as we usually do, and by comparison, it's not even a very complex problem.
    The problem there is more social than mathematical, but have no doubt that real mathematical barriers still exist for us, even this late in the silicon age.
    Turing's halting problem still hurts our brains. As I stated before the general n-body problem is not soluble in any reasonable time frame.
    Any of the unsolved Millenium prize problems would suffice here, but the real trouble is not so much conceptual here, it's the sheer number of at least semi-independent variables, the domensionality of the issue that overwhelms us.
    Last edited by Squink; 2019-Oct-27 at 07:05 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Squink View Post
    Have a look at the current vaping nicotine/THC causes lung illness problem.
    We are screwing that up royally, as we usually do, and by comparison, it's nit even a very complex problem.
    The problem there is more social than mathematical, but have no doubt that real mathematical barriers still exist for us, even this late in the silicon age.
    Turing's halting problem still hurts our brains.
    ...What's the connection? Mathematical problems are not social problems. The reasons our diet and farming methods continue have nothing to do with solving math.
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