The regulations do not regulate the transport of food. “That allows apples from Chile and kiwis from New Zealand can be considered organic.”

A stock image of stacked kiwifruit.

One of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions is agriculture and livestock. Therefore, our decisions when it comes to feeding ourselves can have a significant impact on reduce our footprint on the planet.

Magazine The Lancet In 2019, he published an article that analyzed all the variables and produced a kind of consensus diet, which he baptized as a “healthy planetary diet”. This took into account factors such as health, but also the gas emission greenhouse effect and the impact on The Biodiversity.

The result is a flexitarian, vegetarian-based diet in which animal products such as fish and, rarely meat.

It is difficult to find a global solution for the entire planet given the conditions regarding food production. A tomato it can have very low environmental impact in Almería and very high in Stockholm. The most beneficial diet for the planet it can’t be something universal and you have to make adjustments in each area, but it is a good approximation.

Other aspects related to food, such as avoiding food waste and trying to consume local or seasonal products are, in general, out of the question. Even so, local production can be nuanced: A tomato from Almeria brought by truck to Stockholm may have less environmental impact than one produced there in a heated greenhouse all year round.

Is ecological better?

There is one aspect of this debate that raises much controversy, such as whether organic food is better for the planet. Some support this thesis, but a rigorous analysis of this topic indicates just the opposite.

By law, for a food to be considered organic it must have been produced according to a organic production regulation. This must have been accredited by a certifying company that grants the seal (in Europe, the relief of a leaf made with white stars on a green background).

If we read the regulation we see that does not talk about environmental impact, emissions or water or carbon footprint. It simply regulates the type of inputs that can be used in the crop, admitting only those that are of natural origin. This in itself no longer has scientific support, since the properties of any compound depend on its composition, not its origin. It also includes other more controversial elements such as the use of homeopathy or biodynamic agriculture.

The use of fruits or vegetables in season is not regulated either. nor the transport of foodThus, several of the aspects that have the greatest impact on the impact of a food are excluded. This allows apples from Chile and kiwis from New Zealand to be considered organic.

Unsplash/Alex Ghizila, CC BY

Despite having no scientific basis, can these practices provide any environmental benefit? The first problem we find is the drop in production. Anyone who has eaten organic food will have noticed its high price, mainly due to the need to compensate for product losses.

This implies that if all production were to become organic, we would need more land than is available to continue feeding the population. In addition, we would increase greenhouse gas emissions, as several studies and meta-analyzes have pointed out.

Another aspect that affects the high environmental impact of organic production is that the regulation itself explicitly prohibits the use of genetic improvement techniques such as transgenics and CRISPR, or the use of hydroponics.

Both technologies can provide environmental benefits such as avoiding the use of pesticides and increasing production without increasing land use. In fact, incorporating them into organic production would avoid many of the problems it presents today.

Some studies have seen that impact of conventional production it is apparently higher when the energy cost of input production, mainly nitrogen fertilizer, is incorporated into the calculation, since this is high.

However, they obviate that this depends on the “energy mix” (the combination of primary energy sources used in a geographical area): in countries where it does not depend on fossil fuels, but on sources with low carbon emissions such as energy renewable energy sources or nuclear energy, the calculation is once again very favorable to conventional production in this specific aspect.

Therefore, to date, no scientific evidence allows us to say that the consumption of products with the ecological seal is better for the planet. If you want to save the planet, eat more fruits and vegetables in season and forget about stamps.

* José Miguel Mulet, tenured professor of the Department of Biotechnology, Polytechnic University of Valencia

This article was originally published on The Conversation.