When Is Organic The Worst Option?

Some 28% of the world’s land is used for grazing. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

We favor organic, for our coffee, for just about everything, almost always. And yet George Monbiot offers a fully obvious answer to the counterintuitive question in the title:

The most damaging farm products? Organic, pasture-fed beef and lamb

You may be amazed by that answer, but the area of land used for grazing is vast compared with the meat and milk produced

Perhaps the most important of all environmental issues is land use. Every hectare of land we use for extractive industries is a hectare that can’t support wild forests, savannahs, wetlands, natural grasslands and other crucial ecosystems. And farming swallows far more land than any other human activity.

What are the world’s most damaging farm products? You might be amazed by the answer: organic, pasture-fed beef and lamb. I realise this is a shocking claim. Of all the statements in my new book, Regenesis, it has triggered the greatest rage. But I’m not trying to wind people up. I’m trying to represent the facts. Let me explain.

Arable crops, some of which are fed to farm animals, occupy 12% of the planet’s land surface. But far more land (about 26%) is used for grazing: in other words, for pasture-fed meat and milk. Yet, across this vast area, farm animals that are entirely pasture-fed produce just 1% of the world’s protein.

Livestock farmers often claim that their grazing systems “mimic nature”. If so, the mimicry is a crude caricature. A review of evidence from over 100 studies found that when livestock are removed from the land, the abundance and diversity of almost all groups of wild animals increases. The only category in which numbers fall when grazing by cattle or sheep ceases are those that eat dung. Where there are cattle, there are fewer wild mammals, birds, reptiles and insects on the land, and fewer fish in the rivers. Perhaps most importantly – because of their crucial role in regulating living systems – there tend to be no large predators.

Read the whole op-ed here.

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