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Does certified organic farming reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production?

A Discussion Piece to this article was published on 29 June 2016


The increasing prevalence of ecologically sustainable products in consumer markets, such as organic produce, are generally assumed to curtail anthropogenic impacts on the environment. Here I intend to present an alternative perspective on sustainable production by interpreting the relationship between recent rises in organic agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production. I construct two time series fixed-effects panel regressions to estimate how increases in organic farmland impact greenhouse gas emissions derived from agricultural production. My analysis finds that the rise of certified organic production in the United States is not correlated with declines in greenhouse gas emissions derived specifically from agricultural production, and on the contrary is associated positively overall agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. To make sense of this finding, I embed my research within the conventionalization thesis. As a result I argue that the recent USDA certification of organic farming has generated a bifurcated organic market, where one form of organic farming works as a sustainable counterforce to conventional agriculture and the other works to increase the economic accessibility of organic farming through weakening practice standards most conducive to reducing agricultural greenhouse gas output. Additionally, I construct my own theoretical framework known as the displacement paradox to further interpret my findings.

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  1. Data on the number of farms and average farm size was also gathered but found to be insignificant in relation to agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

  2. The models exclude Alaska in the years of 2000 and 2001, and Louisiana due to absent data in the NASS, resulting in an N of 439.

  3. In order to be truly exempt from organic certification, NOP policy states that an organic farm cannot sell more than $5,000 worth of organic agricultural products annually. That $5,000 is total gross sales, not net sales.

  4. VIFs for independent variables in model 1: GDP per capita 0.7, Organic farmland 0.9, total agricultural land 1, population 0.9. VIFs for independent variables in model 2: GDP per capita 1, percent organic farmland 1, total agricultural land 0.9, population 0.9.


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I would like to thank my wife Kayla Clark, my colleagues at the University of Oregon (Michael Tran, Richard York, and Kathryn Norton-Smith), as well as Harvey James and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and insights.

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Correspondence to Julius Alexander McGee.

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McGee, J.A. Does certified organic farming reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production?. Agric Hum Values 32, 255–263 (2015).

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