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Living Green

Organic farms, not that healthy for environment or people?

The green fields of an organic farm might bear fruit in a healthier ecosystem but that doesn’t mean what they grow is lower carbon.

An analysis led by Oxford University scientists have found that while an organic farm is good for the surrounding area and wildlife, the products of organic farms generate greenhouse gas emissions that are similarly high or higher than their conventionally farmed counterparts.

Organic farms do not necessarily have a positive impact per unit of production. In general, organic products require less energy input but more land to produce the same quantity as a conventional farm.

According to Dr. Hanna Tuomisto of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, the variations in the environmental impacts of farming are the result of very different management practices.

“This suggests that there could be a lot to gain by moving beyond the simplistic "organic" versus "conventional" debate and look at how to combine the most environmentally-friendly practices from both types of farming,” said Dr. Tuomisto.

In terms of biodiversity, generally organic farms has a 30 percent higher species richness than conventional farms, but a minority of the studies (16 percent) suggested that it could have a negative impact on species richness.

“People need to realize that an “organic” label is not a straightforward guarantee of the most environmentally-friendly product,” said Dr. Tuomisto.

The agricultural sector would be wise to integrate new techniques to reduce the environmental impact of all types of farms to ensure food production continues with minimal damage to the environment.

These would include technologies such as anaerobic digesters to use animal waste for heat and power and livestock and crops that were selectively bred to have minimal emissions and minimal need for pesticides and fertilizers.

Not so healthy?
While the Oxford University study focuses on the environmental effects of an organic farm, a study from Stanford University looked into the held benefits of organic foods and found them not so much lacking but not so different then the products you’d get from conventional farms.

“There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health, said Dena Bravata, MD, MS, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy.

While the popularity or organic food rests largely on the fact their grown “healthier” – without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics or growth hormones – the researchers did not find strong evidence that they are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks.

While the consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure, no consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products. There was also no difference in the protein or fat content of organic and conventional milk.

“What I learned is there’s a lot of variation between farming practices,” said Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, MS, and an instructor at the Division of General Medical Disciplines.

“It appears there are a lot of different factors that are important in predicting nutritional quality and harms,” she added.

While the researchers are not discouraging the consumption of organic food, they emphasized that people should aim for healthier diets overall – with more fruits and vegetables, regardless of how they are grown. – EcoSeed Staff

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