A worldwide conversion to organic farming can contribute to a comprehensive and sustainable food system. [Photo: Bigstock]

Switch to organic to feed the world, fight climate change

16 November, 2017

Natural Health News A worldwide conversion to organic farming can contribute to a comprehensive and sustainable food system, if combined with other sustainable measures.

The conversion to organic farming, which practises a more environmentally-friendly use of resources, is often suggested as a solution to counteract the negative environmental impact of conventional farming. However, critics often counter that such a conversion would lead to higher land use and thus would not be a feasible alternative.

A new international study, however, shows that organic farming can play an important role in a sustainable food system, in combination with reduced consumption of animal products, avoiding concentrated livestock feed and reduced food waste.

Even if 60% of agriculture were to convert to organic farming, concentrated animal feeding was reduced by 50% and food waste by 50%, it would result in a food system with significantly decreased environmental impacts, including lower overall greenhouse gas emissions, and only a marginal increase in agricultural land area.

The consumption of animal products would also need to decrease by about a third because less feed would be available.

Consumption must change

What you need to know

» Organic farming can play an important role in a sustainable food system and can help tackle climate change and hunger.

» In addition, large amounts of conventionally farmed land can be converted to organic without catastrophic harm to crop yields and without needing huge amounts of new land.

» Organic benefits, however must be accompanied by other changes such as reduced consumption of animal products, avoiding concentrated livestock feed and reduced food waste, to make a significant impact.

The report argues that sustainable agriculture is only possible when consumption patterns are changed – then, it says, the possibilities are promising. Organic farming can play a key role in it.

The world’s food security would be ensured even with over 9 billion people in 2050, agricultural land area would not increase, greenhouse gas emissions would be lowered and the negative effects of today’s intensive food systems, such as nitrogen surplus and high pesticide exposure, would be greatly reduced.

In contrast, if consumption patterns remain unchanged, the conversion to organic farming would lead to increased land use change to agriculture.

Conflicts and trade-offs

The researchers rightly acknowledge these grey areas and suggest that sustainable food security cannot avoid some traded offs and conflicts of goals.

Organic farming, for instance, has major advantages with regard to many central environmental impacts, such as the issues of nitrogen and pesticides. On the other hand, it requires higher land use because the generally more extensive management results in lower yields compared to conventional farming.

An advantage of grassland-based animal production without concentrated feed, is that pastures, which cannot be used for arable crops, are used for food production.

The disadvantages are increased greenhouse gas emissions per kilogramme of meat and milk.

The advantages of reduced food waste, say the scientists, are obvious, since such a reduction would directly lead to lower production.

A way forward

Overall this is a good news study for those who support organic agriculture and a way forward for those who understand that farming needs to change, showing that it is feasible to convert large amounts of currently conventionally farmed land without catastrophic harm to crop yields and without needing huge amounts of new land.

The study, which was led by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL, in collaboration with the collaboration with researchers from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations FAO, the University of Aberdeen, the Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt and the ETH Zurich, was published in the renowned scientific journal Nature Communications.