12.04.2019 |

Organic farming can drive transition to sustainable food systems

Organic will produce change (Photo: CC0)

Organic farming can play an important role in triggering a shift towards more sustainable food systems, according to an article published in the scientific journal “Nature Sustainability”. A team of international experts argues that there is broad consensus that we urgently need to change the way we produce and consume food. Only then will we be able to address global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and water scarcity and make progress on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, progress is currently far too slow. The authors say that a major obstacle is the deep divide between two competing schools of thought on how the change needs to happen: through step-wise improvements of the predominant agricultural systems, or through a radical system redesign based on agroecological principles. “For too long, we have been trapped in heated debates on which technology can feed the world. Transcending ideological barriers and vested interests now need to be at the top of the agenda to accelerate the necessary shift,” said lead author Frank Eyhorn.

According to the experts, both approaches – improving efficiency in conventional agriculture as well as transforming farming systems based on agroecology – can go hand in hand and mutually reinforce each other. They argue that policies aligned with the SDGs are needed to promote a transition. “Agriculture and food-related policies play a crucial role both in perpetuating unsustainable systems and in triggering more sustainable ones, since they greatly influence farming and business practices, costs, prices and consumer choice.” The authors identify four important groups of policy interventions to make food systems more sustainable. First, they recommend supporting transformative systems while improving their performance. “Given that the conversion costs of alternative farming systems can be quite high – including higher labour requirements and the need for increased knowledge and training – economic incentives and technical advice are crucial to enhance adoption by farmers”, they write in the journal. “At the same time, the performance of these systems should be improved further, particularly in terms of yields, water management and consumer accessibility.” Some governments are already implementing policies and action plans that set targets for reaching specific organic land area shares and Bhutan and some Indian states are even targeting a 100% conversion. Strategies include push measures, for example support to research and advisory services to facilitate the uptake of organic farming practices, as well as pull measures such as consumer information campaigns.

The second measure is increasing market demand for sustainable products. This can be done through two main mechanisms: raising consumer awareness on the linkages between agriculture, environment, health and social wellbeing, as well as enhancing the commitment of retailers and caterers to offer such products, for example by setting targets in public procurement. Organic farming is the most prominent alternative farming system. However, because conventional agriculture is heavily subsidized and market prices do not yet reflect externalities, organic products are usually more expensive for consumers. “As a society we spend enormous amounts on subsidies for agricultural systems that negatively impact people and planet, and still keep farmers poor”, said co-author Adrian Müller from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture. “We can no longer afford seemingly cheap food resulting in high environmental costs.” Third, incentives are needed to make improvements in agriculture. Practices that contribute to the SDGs, both of conventional and organic producers, should be incentivized, and unsustainable practices should be discouraged. The authors suggest that payments to agricultural production units could be linked to their ability to provide public goods, and taxation could be linked to their negative external costs. One example of the former are payments for ecosystem services, such as increasing soil organic matter or implementing biological pest control. Taxes on harmful pesticides or excessive nitrogen inputs are examples of disincentives. Fourth, the authors recommend raising legal requirements and industry norms in order to rule out highly unsustainable practices, such as using highly hazardous pesticides or clearing primary forests.

The experts highlight that a paradigm shift is already under way. UN institutions are recognizing the role of agroecology as a science, a practice and a social movement that contributes to making agriculture and food systems more sustainable. “It is time to recognize that transformative systems such as organic agriculture are not an irrelevant niche but can play an important role in this transition. They can be utilized as important drivers for developing more sustainable options, changing consumer demand, inspiring mainstream systems to improve their sustainability performance and altogether lifting the bar of what is acceptable in farming in the 21st century”, the authors write. (ab)

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