16.11.2017 |

Organic farming can feed a growing world population, new research

Organic farming can feed the world (Photo: CC0)

Organic farming can feed the world’s growing population, according to new research published in the renowned scientific journal “Nature Communications”. The study shows that organic farming could produce enough food without needing more land if we eat less meat and dairy products, use less concentrated feed in livestock farming and reduce food waste. The study was carried out by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Switzerland together with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the University of Aberdeen, the Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt and ETH Zurich. The scientists used a food systems model which is able to simulate important aspects of organic agriculture, such as increased legume shares, absence of synthetic fertilizers, lower yields and lower use of food-competing animal feed components, such as grain legumes or cereals. “Our results show that adoption of organic agriculture by itself increases land demand with respect to conventional production, but it has advantages in terms of other indicators, such as reduced nitrogen surplus, and pesticide use. But when combined with complementary changes in the global food system, namely changed feeding rations, and correspondingly reduced animal numbers, and changed wastage patterns, organic agriculture can contribute to feeding more than 9 billion people in 2050, and do so sustainably,” the authors write.

“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,” said one of the authors, Karlheinz Erb from the University of Klagenfurt. “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,” he added. The reason is that organic yields are in general lower than in conventional farming. The scientists considered different studies concerning this yield gap. They found that switching to 100% organic production would lead to an increase in land use of at least 16% if low yield gaps are assumed (8% lower organic yields on average) and up to 33% if high yield gaps (on average 25% lower) are assumed. However, dedicating a larger share of land to the cultivation of food would be feasible if we reduce, at the same time the amount of land used for growing animal feed or food that is later on lost or wasted. According to FAO estimates, one third of global food production is lost or wasted each year. If food waste was reduced (the scientists assume a 25% or 50% food waste reduction in their scenarios), large areas of crop land would become available and could compensate for the yield gap. More land for food production could be gained by switching from concentrated feed in livestock farming to grassland-based fodder from pastures, which cannot be used for food production.

The results show that even a 60% conversion to organic farming would result in a food system with significantly decreased environmental impacts, including lower overall greenhouse gas emissions, and little need for additional land. However, this would require 50% less food-competing feed and 50% reduced food wastage and the consumption of animal products would need to decrease by about a third. Co-author Professor Pete Smith from the University of Aberdeen is optimistic that change is possible. “This study is important as it shows we are not committed to remain on the express train to ever greater intensification of agriculture. If we are willing to reduce our consumption of animal products, reduce food waste, and to feed the remaining animals in the food system according to their biology - ruminants fed on grass and pigs and poultry fed on food leftovers - we can not only feed everyone in 2050, we choose the food production systems we want,” he said. “We can step off of that express train and feed people more sustainably.” (ab)

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