Is organic agriculture really better for the environment?

Is organic agriculture really better for the environment?

The whole point of organic agriculture is soil. Farm in such a way that your soil stays healthy — rich in organic matter, nutrients and microbial activity — and you can grow crops without the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides used in conventional farming.

Organic farmers employ lots of techniques to improve their soil. They use compost and manure, rotate their crops and grow many kinds of plants. They do use pesticides, but only certain ones (mostly non-synthetic, with a few approved synthetics), and often only when other pest-control methods fail.

But plenty of conventional farmers do a lot of those things, too. When you pony up the extra money to buy organic produce, are you supporting environmental benefits? I wanted to know, and it was probably one of the most difficult questions I’ve tried to answer in this column.

We don’t have data about soil health or environmental pollution (in the form of soil erosion, nutrient runoff or greenhouse gases) that allows us to comprehensively assess all organic and conventional acreage and say whether one type or the other is doing better, but scientists all over the country are working on comparisons, so we do have something to go on.

Go on that, and you find that, yes, organic agriculture — which for purposes of this discussion means farming certified as adhering to rigorous standards defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — has some important environmental benefits.