Greenwashing: Organic Foods

This is the third report in a series about companies “greenwashing” products to make them appear to be better for the environment than they actually are. You can read our other greenwashing reports here. Keep an eye on the Periodic Fabels blog for future updates to the series. 

Organic foods have always marketed themselves as eco-friendly alternatives. Organic products carry the perception of being better for the environment because the logos often come with catchphrases like “all-natural” or “pesticide-free” and feature cute pictures of happy cows or other feel-good, pastoral imagery. Even the United States Department of Agriculture’s logo is green with a field of produce growing in the background.

But in many ways, organic foods are actually worse for the planet than other so-called “conventionally produced” foods.

Under the USDA’s approval process, organic foods are any foods that are not produced using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. The word “synthetic” is key here. Organic farmers can still use other fertilizers and pesticides — many of which carry the same risks to the environment as synthetic compounds. Both synthetic and organic pesticides and fertilizers can harm the immediate environment if they are used irresponsibly.

Organics do not have the upper hand when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, either. In fact, they’re much worse than traditional foods.

Organic produce yields are 40% less than regular produce, according to a U.K. study from Cranfield University. Because organic foods have lower yields, they require more land. The Cranfield study estimated that organic foods require 1.5 times as much land. Natural grasslands and forests — which absorb CO2 to reduce carbon in the atmosphere — are plowed over to allow for organic crops to be planted. (Studies have determined that organic foods are not superior nutritionally, either.)

The additional land needed is often in countries that have lax environmental regulations. The USDA has been criticized for granting the legitimacy of its organic seal to farm operations that have contributed to deforestation and fires in the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon rainforest, which has been dubbed the lungs of the earth, plays a key role in reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

In total, organic produce emits 21 percent more greenhouse gases than standard produce because of the need for additional land, according to a report from the MIT Technology Review.

Meats, eggs, and dairy products sourced from organically raised animals present similar emissions problems. The livestock raised organically grows slower than standard livestock. Cows and other animals take longer to grow which gives them time to emit more methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas, and requires more water and feed.

Organic foods also have a track record of being less safe for human consumption than standard foods. Organic foods are recalled four to eight times more often than standard foods, according to a report from the National Library of Medicine. Foods are recalled when they contain pathogens like salmonella or E. coli. While this can take a toll on human health, it also takes a toll on the environment because wasted food is left to rot in landfills while emitting harmful greenhouse gases.

Organic food producers may paint themselves as environmental heroes, but the science doesn’t back up their claims. If families have been dropping extra cash on organic foods because they care about the environment, they may want to stop paying for the organic mark-up and spend their money on causes that actually help the planet.