New research shows: Organic farming can make an important contribution to world nutrition

A global conversion to organic farming can contribute to a profoundly sustainable food system, provided that it is combined with further measures, specifically with a one-third reduction of animal-based products in the human diet, less concentrated feed and less food waste. At the same time, this type of food system has extremely positive ecological effects, i.e. considerable reduction of fertilizers and pesticides, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions – and does not lead to increased land use, despite lower agricultural yields. These are the findings of a new study, which included the Vienna-based Department of Social Ecology among its contributors. Results have recently been published in “Nature Communications”.   

The available evidence indicates that the negative consequences of agriculture on the environment will continue to increase dramatically leading up to the year 2050, should the forecasts by the World Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) prove to be true and should current trends persist unbated. For this purpose, the FAO assumes a population in excess of 9 billion people and an increase in nutrition habits requiring high volumes of resources such as water, energy and land, as is the case with a high level of meat consumption.

“Organic agriculture involves the careful handling of the environment and resources and is frequently put forward as a potential solution to the challenges we are currently facing. On the other hand, critics point out that this shift to organic methods would entail a much higher level of land use and therefore cannot be considered as a viable alternative”, one of the study’s authors, Karlheinz Erb (Department of Social Ecology at the AAU) explains.

The results reveal that, combined with abstaining from the use of concentrated feed in livestock production, a corresponding reduction in the consumption of animal products and a drop in food waste, organic agriculture has the potential to play a significant role in a sustainable nutrition system. Karlheinz Erb elaborates further: “In this way, it would be possible to secure the provision of food for the global population even in the event of a population size above 9 billion in the year 2050; land use would not increase, and the negative effects of today’s intensive nutrition system such as high nitrogen surplus levels or elevated pesticide loads would be reduced considerably. Furthermore, such a system would reduce considerably the greenhouse gas emissions from land use and the livestock systems, important drivers of climate change”. However, as long as changes in consumption patterns as accompanying measures are not implemented, the critics will be right: Organic agricultural methods concomitant with unchanged consumption patterns would entail an increased demand for land. This would offset the advantages of organic farming and would thus significantly reduce or even call into question its contribution towards a sustainable development.

The study was carried out by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in cooperation with the University of Aberdeen, AAU, and ETH Zurich.

Muller, A., Schader, C., El-Hage Scialabba, N., Hecht, J., Isensee, A., Erb, K.-H., Smith, P., Klocke, K., Leiber, F., Stolze, M. and Niggli, U., 2017, Strategies for feeding the world more sustainably with organic agriculture, Nature Communications 8:1290 | DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-01410-w