Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Megan Hall: These days, it seems like there’s an organic option for every type of food out there, including meat. But organic usually means more expensive. That made us wonder, is it worth it to pay more for organic meat? And does it create fewer greenhouse gas emissions? 

Megan Hall: We had Luci Jones and Fatima Husain from our Possibly Team look into this question. Welcome, Luci and Fatima! 

Luci Jones: Hi, Megan! 

Fatima Husain: Hello! 

Megan Hall: Luci, let’s say I’m walking through my local grocery store and I see a piece of meat with the organic label on it. What exactly does that label mean?

Luci Jones: That’s a great question! To learn more, we talked to Amelie Michalke, a PhD student at the University of Greifswald in Germany. She’s done a lot of work on the environmental impacts of different kinds of food. She says organic meat is raised with... 

Amelie Michalke: No synthetic fertilizers are allowed, no pesticides are allowed or no antibiotics.

Fatima Husain: It also means that animals have to eat organic feed too.

Megan Hall: Got it. So are organic meats better for the environment?

Luci Jones: Amelie and her colleagues actually did some research related to that question. 

Fatima Husain: Their work focused on how organic and conventional foods are produced and how that affects their greenhouse gas emissions. 

Megan Hall: What did they find out? 

Luci Jones: Well, if you compared the process for growing plants versus producing meat there’s a big difference in emissions. But….

Amelie Michalke: These results showed us that the difference between conventional and organic meat isn't as big as we anticipated before.

Megan Hall: So, there’s really not a significant difference? Why?

Fatima Husain: Well, there are a couple of reasons. First, is feed. Conventional farms tend to be more efficient because they can use pesticides and antibiotics to protect their crops.

Luci Jones: Because organic farms have to source organic feed for their animals, the emissions associated with producing that feed tend to be higher because it takes more land to grow the same amount of food. 

Fatima Husain: And more land being used means more forests getting cleared for agriculture, which means fewer plants and trees taking in and burying carbon dioxide.

Megan Hall: What’s the second reason?

Luci Jones: Cow burps and poop. 

Megan Hall: What? 

Fatima Husain: Let me explain- The process is a little complicated, but here’s the short version— because of the way animals like cows break down their food, they actually create methane when they burp and poop. 

Luci Jones: Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. And organic animals tend to live longer than conventional ones, so they generate more methane over the course of their lifetimes.

Megan Hall: So does this mean buying organic meat doesn’t make a difference?

Fatima Husain: Not necessarily. Amelie says that this study just looked into the difference between greenhouse emissions for organic and conventional agriculture. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Luci Jones: She says conventional farming has other negative impacts- pesticide and antibiotic use can lead to other environmental harms that the study didn’t measure. 

Fatima Husain: So, even though the difference for greenhouse gas emissions isn’t that big, Amelie says,

Amelie Michalke: In the grand scheme of things. It's still better to use organic products, because it's just better for the environment, generally. 

Fatima Husain: However, if you want to reduce the emissions that come from your food, Amelie says the best thing you can do is just decrease the amount of meat you eat in the first place. 

Luci Jones: She says, her research has taught her that raising livestock of any kind creates a huge strain on the environment.

Amelie Michalke: So I decided to go vegan about three and a half years ago now. And yeah, I've never looked back. And it feels really good to actually reciprocate what I'm doing at work also at home and on my plate.

Luci Jones: But, if that’s intimidating, you can start small. Skipping meat just a few days a week still makes a big difference. 

Megan Hall: Got it! Thanks, Luci and Fatima! 

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way you recycle, use energy, or make any other choice that affects the planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and the Public’s Radio.