As various investigative reports and documentaries have made clear by now, the environmental impacts and animal welfare abuses of CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) are dreadful and should be reformed or abandoned if we wish to achieve a just and sustainable society.

However, looking at something like this:


...compared to this:

Organic pig farm

..makes me wonder: by some measures, could the CAFO be more sustainable? It is a highly efficient operation where manure can be harvested, "byproducts" are recycled*, animals are given just the right amount of feed, meat is processed at scale on site, incoming feed and outgoing products are transported in bulk, etc.

Based on a quick google search, organic pork is $22/kilo, and conventional is $13: So $1 buys 45 grams of organic pork, and 77 grams of conventional pork.

If we take a some "basket" of sustainability factors -- land use, water use, fuel use, and chemical use, for instance -- and compare the environmental impact of the dollar spent on each kind of pork, which is more sustainable?

How would this compare for other types of livestock?

*Meaning, parts of the animals that can't be sold are often ground up and put back in the animal feed.

  • Is the question about cattle, pork, or animal products in general? The trouble is that the question requires two independent balancing acts, so any answer is possible. The price ratio for organic vs inorganic cattle products varies within an animal (milk vs rump steak, for example), and the environmental impact is a complex question all by itself. Also, just so you know, you can't get pork from cattle.
    – Móż
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 23:26
  • @Móż - would livestock be a better term to incorporate all animals raised for their meat? My suspicion is that, in general, any type of organic meat is less sustainable per dollar spent, but more sustainable per pound -- I'm wondering if there's any evidence of this.
    – LShaver
    Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 0:24
  • It depends whether you're interested in the economy of the society. Very few people will voluntarily engage in a "anything you want but $5 a day" diet, so the impact per dollar measure isn't meaningful outside economics. But impact per kilogramme or per kilojoule will also vary across both species and part of the animal. I think the question "CO2 equivalent emissions per gram of animal protein" would be easier to answer, but you possibly also want to consider nitrates into waterways as another major form of pollution.
    – Móż
    Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 3:12
  • @Móż -- I clarified the question a bit. I'm less interested in the specific measures used, and more in looking at a different way of comparing organic to conventional farming. Is organic only better because it costs more, meaning consumers buy less?
    – LShaver
    Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 4:32

2 Answers 2


I have an incomplete answer, but at least this is something to get the conversation started. At the bottom of your comments, you restate the question as "is organic any better because it costs more, meaning consumers buy less?"

Throughout this sustainability Q&A forum, there is a misunderstanding that sustainability equates to the minimization of inputs/outputs rather than the restoration of cycles of nutrients and the balance found in ecosystems that allows for life to generally flourish. Taking the second definition, there are more factors to consider than the cost per kilo in terms of land or dollars. The more compact the livestock is arranged, the more artificial controls must be implemented to make that system work. As the livestock is compressed, animals are closer to one another, more stressed, and less healthy. All of these facilitate the spread of disease, increasing the need for antibiotics.

The meat produced in a high-stress, high-disease environment is less good for human consumption. Thus, a kilo of meat from a CATO is not equivalent to a kilo of meat from an organic facility nor a super-eco facility where livestock roams around and eats its more natural diet rather than industrial feed.

Organic meat regulations (in the USA) require that animals are fed organic food products (which use less pesticides and fertilizers and are therefore better for their environment), are not fed animal waste, are not given growth hormones nor antibiotics, are not irradiated nor genetically engineered, and are raised in a way that does not harm native species and natural resources, and have a minimum amount of time on pasture land. These restrictions not only increase human health and animal well-being, but also the environment because they reduce the contamination of ecosystems with excess fertilizer, hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, etc.

For example, the use of antibiotics in livestock operations contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is a growing health concern as more and more people get sick with antibiotic-resistant disease.

This question also assumes that there is no ethical factor to consider when comparing these operations, which makes no sense to me unless you are interested in a purely theoretical exercise since any decision made in real life takes into account some basic ethical guidelines.

Thus, I would answer your question, saying that yes, organic meat has benefits in terms of ethics, the quality of the meat, and the long-term health of human bodies and our ecosystems. Your original question at the top of your post is impossible to answer definitively without some clarification as to how you would like to compare two different meats - one full of bad byproducts and pumped up with chemicals, and one with less. This is all, of course, assuming that eating less meat is not an option, which of course in most cases it is.

  • I agree with most of what you've written, but I also think you are overlooking some of the disadvantages of organic livestock. For example recent research has shown that organic and free range chickens produce much more particulate matter than CAFO chickens.
    – THelper
    Commented Jan 8, 2017 at 12:38
  • THelper, can you provide a source for this? I have not seen research indicating this, and I am wondering how this is being determined. For example, CAFO chicken waste, if taken to the incinerator, will produce a huge amount of PM. Also, much of the PM production is related to feed production and whether feed is "oiled" before distribution, not the degree of confinement. The only indicator I can think of is comparing chickens in highly movement restricted conditions or who are up above the ground, to those that are only slightly less confined on the ground, allowing them to kick up dust. Commented Jan 8, 2017 at 14:04
  • You can see a general research article on PM in agriculture here that does not indicate organic/inorganic as a factor specifically. Arslan and Aybeck (2012) state "Class of animal, animal activity levels, type of bedding material, cleanliness of the buildings, temperature, relative humidity, ventilation rate, stocking density, and feeding method are among the factors affecting the dust concentrations in animal production (Jager, 2005)" intechopen.com/books/air-pollution-a-comprehensive-perspective/… Commented Jan 8, 2017 at 14:07
  • My source is this article from a Dutch news agency. It's in Dutch and sadly the Google Translation isn't great. The name of the researcher is Albert Winkel (so not Albert Shop) and where it says 'hens', you should read 'free-range chickens'
    – THelper
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 8:12
  • Well, if I could read the article I would take a critical look at their methods, and how they are drawing the boundary of the "system" of chicken-raising. Are they including feed production, for example? And all of the other scientific rigour questions. Also keep in mind that one study does not definitively answer something, but is part of the buildup of evidence. I am particularly critical of research results that reinforce the status quo and help those with the most power to influence research funding, such as big ag. Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 21:57

Since asking the question I have been thinking about this quite a bit, and I believe the fundamental difference boils down to the balance between preventing and repairing negative externalities:

cost[s] that [are] suffered by a third party as a result of an economic transaction. In a transaction, the producer and consumer are the first and second parties, and third parties include any individual, organisation, property owner, or resource that is indirectly affected. Externalities are also referred to as spill over effects, and a negative externality is also referred to as an external cost.

To simplify things, let's say organic farming produces zero externalities, and traditional farming produces only negative externalities. Then, imagine a case where the additional cost of the organic practices are exactly equal to the cost required to repair the negative externalities of conventional farming. So for the same dollar, imagine we have:

  • 1 kilo organic pork, or
  • 1 kilo organic pork, $0.10 worth of damage to a third party, and $0.10 left over to repair that damage

Of course, we are making numerous assumptions here: in reality, the amount of damage could be higher or lower, in addition to the fact that it is notoriously difficult to determine.

But again, assuming this simple scenario, we are left with the question: is it better not to cause any damage, or to cause the damage while producing the money to repair the damage at a later date?

Looking at the question in this way, it becomes clear that unless some aspect of organic farming is exponentially more expensive than traditional farming, it makes more sense to prevent damage in the first place, than to save a bit of money up front which later will be needed to repair damage.

Additionally, I think a strong argument could be made that organic farming is still better even if traditional farming saves more than enough money to pay for it's own damage. Perhaps there's an economist out there who could comment?

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