Environmental Impacts of Organic Farming


Organic agriculture is a production system that aims at sustaining healthy soils, ecosystems and people by prohibiting the application of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers in crop production and by emphasising animal welfare in livestock breeding. This article shows that organic agriculture is characterised by higher soil quality and reduced nutrient or pesticide leaching compared to nonorganic agriculture, but that positive effects on biological control services or emission of greenhouse gases are less evident. Yield gaps between organic and nonorganic agriculture are on average 20%, but vary between crops and regions. Given the environmental risks that are associated with intensive, nonorganic agriculture, farming practices should be modified to decrease risks. Organic agriculture can be a more environmentally friendly alternative, but individual farming practices need improvement to meet the demands of a growing human population. Further growth of the organic farming sector will contribute to reduce the negative environmental impact of agriculture.

Key Concepts

  • Organic agriculture leads to higher soil quality and reduced nutrient and pesticide leaching compared to nonorganic agriculture.
  • Organic agriculture may lead to a higher provision of ecosystem services and reduced soil erosion compared to nonorganic agriculture, but more research is needed to address these impacts.
  • Organic agriculture leads to higher greenhouse gas emissions if considered per unit product and, on average, has 20% lower yields than intensive, nonorganic agriculture.
  • The current situation of nutrient supply to crop plants in organic agriculture is often not optimal and this is a major challenge for future research.
  • Intensive, nonorganic agriculture is based on the application of pesticides that cause risks to human health, and organic agriculture can act as an environmentally friendly alternative.

Keywords: biological control; conventionalisation; decomposition; ecosystem services; greenhouse gases; nitrogen leaching; organic agriculture; pollination; soil organic matter; yield gap

Figure 1. Pictures of nonorganic (left column) and organic (right column) cereal systems showing differences in crop physiognomy (row 1), non‐cop vegetation (row 2) and soil structure (row 3). Note that pictures in one row were taken at the same time, under identical soil and weather conditions and in adjacent fields or experimental long‐term plots.


Andersson GKS, Rundlöf M and Smith HG (2012) Organic farming improves pollination success in strawberries. PLoS One 7: e31599.

Arnhold S, Lindner S, Lee B, et al. (2014) Conventional and organic farming: soil erosion and conservation potential for row crop cultivation. Geoderma 219: 89–105.

Avery A (2007) ‘Organic abundance’ report: fatally flawed. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 22 (4): 321–323.

Barański M, Średnicka‐Tober D, Volakakis N, et al. (2014) Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta‐analyses. British Journal of Nutrition 112 (5): 794–811.

Bàrberi P (2015) Functional biodiversity in organic systems: the way forward? Sustainable Agriculture Research 4 (3): 26.

Birkhofer K, Bezemer TM, Bloem J, et al. (2008) Long‐term organic farming fosters below and aboveground biota: implications for soil quality, biological control and productivity. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 40 (9): 2297–2308.

Birkhofer K, Arvidsson F, Ehlers D, et al. (2016) Organic farming affects the biological control of hemipteran pests and yields in spring barley independent of landscape complexity. Landscape Ecology 31 (3): 567–579.

Bos JF, de Haan J, Sukkel W, et al. (2014) Energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in organic and conventional farming systems in the Netherlands. NJAS‐Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences 68: 61–70.

Brittain C, Bommarco R, Vighi M, et al. (2010) Organic farming in isolated landscapes does not benefit flower‐visiting insects and pollination. Biological Conservation 143: 1860–1867.

van Bruggen AH, Gamliel A and Finckh MR (2016) Plant disease management in organic farming systems. Pest Management Science 72 (1): 30–44.

Clark MS, Horwath WR, Shennan C and Scow KM (1998) Changes in soil chemical properties resulting from organic and low‐input farming practices. Agronomy Journal 90 (5): 662–671.

Darnhofer I, Lindenthal T, Bartel‐Kratochvil R, et al. (2010) Conventionalisation of organic farming practices: from structural criteria towards an assessment based on organic principles. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development 30 (1): 67–81.

Diekötter T, Wamser S, Wolters V, et al. (2010) Landscape and management effects on structure and function of soil arthropod communities in winter wheat. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 137 (1): 108–112.

Domínguez A, Bedano JC, Becker AR, et al. (2014) Organic farming Fosters agroecosystem functioning in Argentinian temperate soils: evidence from litter decomposition and soil fauna. Applied Soil Ecology 83: 170–176.

Erhart E and Hartl W (2010) Soil protection through organic farming: a review. In: Lichtfouse E (ed) Organic Farming, Pest Control and Remediation of Soil Pollutants, pp. 203–226. Dordrecht: Springer.

Foissy D, Vian JF and David C (2013) Managing nutrient in organic farming system: reliance on livestock production for nutrient management of arable farmland. Organic Agriculture 3 (3–4): 183–199.

Gattinger A, Muller A, Haeni M, et al. (2012) Enhanced top soil carbon stocks under organic farming. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109 (44): 18226–18231.

Geiger F, Bengtsson J, Berendse F, et al. (2010) Persistent negative effects of pesticides on biodiversity and biological control potential on European farmland. Basic and Applied Ecology 11 (2): 97–105.

Illukpitiya P and Khanal P (2016) Consumer perception of organic food and product marketing. In: Nandwani D (ed) Organic Farming for Sustainable Agriculture, pp. 315–324. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Jonason D, Smith HG and Birkhofer K (2013) Landscape simplification promotes weed seed predation by carabid beetles (Coleoptera: Carabidae). Landscape Ecology 28 (3): 487–494.

Klein AM, Vaissiére BE, Cane JH, et al. (2007) Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 274 (1608): 303–313.

Leifeld J, Angers DA, Chenu C, et al. (2013) Organic farming gives no climate change benefit through soil carbon sequestration. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110 (11): E984.

Leithold G, Hülsbergen KJ and Brock C (2015) Organic matter returns to soils must be higher under organic compared to conventional farming. Journal of Plant Nutrition and Soil Science 178 (1): 4–12.

Letourneau DK and Bothwell SG (2008) Comparison of organic and conventional farms: challenging ecologists to make biodiversity functional. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6 (8): 430–438.

Marriott EE and Wander M (2006) Qualitative and quantitative differences in particulate organic matter fractions in organic and conventional farming systems. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 38 (7): 1527–1536.

McGee JA (2015) Does certified organic farming reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production? Agriculture and Human Values 32 (2): 255–263.

Mondelaers K, Aertsens J and Van Huylenbroeck G (2009) A meta‐analysis of the differences in environmental impacts between organic and conventional farming. British Food Journal 111 (10): 1098–1119.

Mulet JM (2014) Should we recommend organic crop foods on the basis of health benefits? Letter to the editor regarding the article by Barański et al. British Journal of Nutrition 112 (10): 1745–1747.

Munro TL, Cook HF and Lee HC (2002) Sustainability indicators used to compare properties of organic and conventionally managed topsoils. Biological Agriculture & Horticulture 20 (3): 201–214.

Navntoft S, Wratten SD, Kristensen K, et al. (2009) Weed seed predation in organic and conventional fields. Biological Control 49 (1): 11–16.

Niggli U (2015) Sustainability of organic food production: challenges and innovations. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 74 (1): 83–88.

Nowak B, Nesme T, David C, et al. (2013) To what extent does organic farming rely on nutrient inflows from conventional farming? Environmental Research Letters 8 (4): 044045.

Oerke EC (2006) Crop losses to pests. The Journal of Agricultural Science 144 (1): 31–43.

Ponisio LC, M'Gonigle LK, Mace KC, et al. (2015) Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 282 (1799): 20141396.

Reddy BS (2010) Organic farming: status, issues and prospects–a review. Agricultural Economics Research Review 23 (2): 343–358.

Reganold JP and Dobermann A (2012) Agriculture: comparing apples with oranges. Nature 485 (7397): 176–177.

Reganold JP and Wachter MW (2016) Organic agriculture in the twenty‐first century. Nature Plants 2: 1–8.

Rusch A, Delbac L, Muneret L, et al. (2015) Organic farming and host density affect parasitism rates of tortricid moths in vineyards. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 214: 46–53.

Scheller E and Joergensen RG (2008) Decomposition of wheat straw differing in nitrogen content in soils under conventional and organic farming management. Journal of Plant Nutrition and Soil Science 171 (6): 886–892.

Setälä H, Bardgett RD, Birkhofer K, et al. (2014) Urban and agricultural soils: conflicts and trade‐offs in the optimization of ecosystem services. Urban Ecosystems 17 (1): 239–253.

Shepherd M, Pearce B, Cormack B, et al. (2003) An assessment of the environmental impacts of organic farming. A review for DEFRA‐funded Project OF0405.

Skinner C, Gattinger A, Muller A, et al. (2014) Greenhouse gas fluxes from agricultural soils under organic and non‐organic management–a global meta‐analysis. Science of the Total Environment 468: 553–563.

Stolze M, Piorr A, Häring AM, et al. (2000) The Environmental Impacts of Organic Farming in Europe. Organic Farming in Europe: Economics and Policy, vol. 6. Stuttgart, Hohenheim: University of Hohenheim.

Stewart BA, Hou X and Yalla SR (2013) Facts and myths of feeding the world with organic farming methods. In: Lal R and Stewart BA (eds) Principles of Sustainable Soil Management in Agroecosystems, pp. 87–108. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Sundrum A (2001) Organic livestock farming: a critical review. Livestock Production Science 67 (3): 207–215.

Sudarsan Biswas M, Ali N, Goswami R, et al. (2014) Soil health sustainability and organic farming: a review. Journal of Food, Agriculture & Environment 12 (3&4): 237–243.

Tuck SL, Winqvist C, Mota F et al., (2014) Land‐use intensity and the effects of organic farming on biodiversity: a hierarchical meta analysis. Journal of Applied Ecology 51 (3): 746–755.

Tuomisto HL, Hodge ID, Riordan P, et al. (2012) Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts?–a meta‐analysis of European research. Journal of Environmental Management 112: 309–320.

Wang S, Li Z and Fan G (2012) Soil quality and microbes in organic and conventional farming systems. African Journal of Microbiology Research 6 (24): 5077–5085.

Willer H and Lernoud J (2015) The world of organic agriculture: Statistics and emerging trends 2015. FiBL‐IFOAM Report. Frick, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) and Bonn, IFOAM‐Organics International.

Winqvist C, Bengtsson J, Aavik T, et al. (2011) Mixed effects of organic farming and landscape complexity on farmland biodiversity and biological control potential across Europe. Journal of Applied Ecology 48 (3): 570–579.

Further Reading

Abbot LK and Manning DA (2015) Soil health and related ecosystem services in organic agriculture. Sustainable Agriculture Research 4 (3): 116.

Anderson RL (2015) Integrating a complex rotation with no‐till improves weed management in organic farming. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development 35: 1–8.

Crowder DW and Reganold JP (2015) Financial competitiveness of organic agriculture on a global scale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112 (24): 7611–7616.

Finckh MR, van Bruggen AHC and Tamm L (2015) Plant diseases and their management in organic agriculture. St. Paul: The American Phytopathological Society.

Gomiero T, Paoletti MG and Pimentel D (2008) Energy and environmental issues in organic and conventional agriculture. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 27 (4): 239–254.

Kremen C and Miles A (2012) Ecosystem services in biologically diversified versus conventional farming systems: benefits, externalities, and trade‐offs. Ecology and Society 17 (4): 40.

Mäder P, Fliessbach A, Dubois D, et al. (2002) Soil fertility and biodiversity in organic farming. Science 296 (5573): 1694–1697.

Reeve JR, Hoagland LA, Vilalba JJ, et al (2016) Organic farming, soil health, and food quality: considering possible links. Advances in Agronomy. 137: 319–367

Sandhu HS, Wratten SD and Cullen R (2010) Organic agriculture and ecosystem services. Environmental Science & Policy 13 (1): 1–7.

Smith LG, Williams AG and Pearce BD (2015) The energy efficiency of organic agriculture: a review. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 30 (3): 280–301.

Tittonell P (2014) Ecological intensification of agriculture–sustainable by nature. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 8: 53–61.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Birkhofer, Klaus, Smith, Henrik G, and Rundlöf, Maj(Jul 2016) Environmental Impacts of Organic Farming. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0026341]