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Environmental performance of organic farming: Evidence from Korean small-holder soybean production

2019-06-14l Hit 2826

Environmental performance of organic farming: Evidence from Korean small-holder soybean production

Student Press of College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Jisoo Lim (Department of Plant Science)


Is environmentally friendly agriculture really all that environmentally friendly? Professor Choe’s research team at Seoul National University (SNU) answered this paradoxical question with their unprecedented research results suggesting that organic farming, which is a type of environmentally friendly agriculture, may be more harmful than conventional farming practices.


What is organic farming?

Organic farming is a method of producing agricultural products without the use of chemical materials such as agricultural pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and feed additives to conserve the environment and supply safer agricultural products to customers. The need for organic products has consistently increased as the public’s interest in well-being and environmental conservation has grown. The organic food market has increased fivefold in the last two decades, reaching 897 billion dollars in 2016, and is still consistently growing.


Research motivation

Since the 2000’s, at which time interest in environmental conservation heightened, a number of research results have been published comparing organic farming and conventional farming. These studies appear to provide objective evidence supporting the benefits of organic farming. However, according to a study by Professor Choe’s research team (“Measuring the environmental effects of organic farming: A meta-analysis of structural variables in empirical research”), which compares approximately 200 studies comparing organic and conventional farming practices through a meta-analysis, these studies report conflicting results regarding environmental trends relating to organic farming depending on the crop type, farm size, and farming conditions. In their previous study, Professor Choe’s research team found that farm size affects the results of comparative analyses between organic farming and conventional farming. However, few of the studies were conducted in Asia, where the majority of small farms are located. As a result, the research team published another study called “Environmental performance of organic farming: Evidence from Korean small-holder soybean production” in which they analyzed organic farms in South Korea.


Study subjects

Professor Choe’s research team recruited 76 organic and conventional farms. Of these, they selected 60 farms (30 organic and 30 conventional) that had verifiable records of fertilizer and energy usage. Farms were located in each of the following regions: North Gyeonggi Province, South Gyeonggi Province, Chungcheong Province, and Gangwon Province. These provinces were selected in accordance with research criteria requiring the selected farms to be close to one another, use similar farming techniques, and farm during the same period of time for proper comparison. As for the organic farms, only those that received organic farming approval from the government were included. All selected farms grew soybeans, which are commonly grown worldwide.



This study conducted a multi-level regression analysis and a non-parametric comparison test to analyze the differences in energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions between conventional farming and organic farming practices.

 Greenhouse gas emissions during the farming process

Energy usage analysis
Organic farming has a significantly higher energy input than conventional farming.

Over 85% of the total energy used in soybean farming was used for manure, fertilizer (per ton), fuel, and mulch film (per hectare). Organic farming used a significantly higher amount of energy, 22,421 MJ/ton, than conventional farming, which used 13,416 MJ/ton. These results, which differ from those of previous studies, show that organic farming uses more energy than conventional farming. The lower soybean yields and higher use of fuel and mulch films in organic farming compared with conventional farming was found to be the cause of the low energy efficiency of organic farming.


Greenhouse effect analysis

There was no significant difference in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions between organic and conventional farming.

Organic farming emits more greenhouse gases per ton of yield than conventional farming, but the differences are not significant statistically. Organic farming produces less greenhouse gas from biological and chemical pesticides compared to conventional farming, but it produces a large amount of greenhouse gas from mulch films.

Organic farming had lower energy efficiency than conventional farming due to excessive use of mulch films.

To summarize, although many existing studies claim that organic farming shows a better environmental performance than conventional farming, these results do not necessarily apply to Asia since research on farming in this region, where farms tend to be small and labor-intensive, is lacking. In this study, Professor Choe’s research team compared energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions between organic and conventional farms and found that conventional farming has better energy efficiency than organic farming. This may be attributed to the excessive use of fuels and mulch films on organic farms and the typical size of farms in Korea compared to farms in other heavily studied regions.


Research significance

This study by Professor Choe’s research team considered current farming situations in Korea to provide objective results to support existing research results and the insufficiently researched belief that organic farming must be more environmentally friendly than conventional farming. Professor Choe hopes that his study will contribute to policy changes that will help resolve issues related to organic farming and provide new information for policy makers and those in related industries. Professor Choe’s meaningful study lays the cornerstone for future studies on topics such as the environmental impact and effects on the human body of organic farming, and measures to remedy associated problems.


Future research directions

Professor Choe’s research team is planning to continue their research on how to manage the effects of organic farming on the environment. Further research is required on crops other than soybean. In addition, more data is required to compare the sustainability of organic farming with that of conventional farming. Professor Choe hopes to cooperate with medical professionals, dietetics, and experts from the farming industry to conduct research on the safety, health issues, and sustainability of organic farming in the future.


《Professor Young Chan Choe》