04.10.2019 |

Organic agriculture key to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals

Organic farming can contribute to the SDGs (Photo: CC0)

Organic agriculture can play an important role in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Thus a shift to sustainable farming practices such as organic is needed if the global community wants to maintain sustainable food systems for future generations and tackle the many challenges facing our planet, including the climate crisis. This is the message of a new report which was launched on September 25 on the fourth anniversary of the SDGs. The meta-analysis, which was commissioned by Dutch organic specialist Eosta and conducted by the University of Twente, takes a look at more than 50 scientific publications, including numerous studies from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Author Simon de Schaetzen concludes that organic agriculture has a positive impact on no less than 8 of the 17 goals including Zero Hunger (SDG 2), Good Health and Wellbeing (SDG 3), Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG 6), Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8), Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12), Climate Action (SDG 13), Life Below Water (SDG 14) and Life on Land (SDG 15).

With regard to SDG 15, the report warns that global land degradation and biodiversity loss are continuing to occur at an alarming rate. Amongst the main causes is agriculture and its extensive use of pesticides and herbicides. “Due to the reduced or non-existing input of mineral fertilizers and pesticides, organic fields tend to enhance biodiversity compared to conventionally managed fields, thus positively contributing to this Sustainable Development Goal,” de Schaetzen writes. He argues that it is also essential to talk about what is happening below our feet as 25% of biodiversity is found in the soil. FAO admits that intensive crop production has depleted soils in many countries, encouraging organic farming as one example of sustainable agricultural farming practices.

When it comes to climate action (SDG 13), food and farming systems also play a key role: “Under organic regulations, synthetic inputs such as mineral and chemical pesticides, which require vast amounts of fossil fuels, are prohibited. This means significant amounts of carbon dioxide emissions are spared.” Furthermore, the report highlights that “one the biggest advantages of organic farming and other sustainable forms of agriculture is the fact that the soil on these farms can take up CO2 from the atmosphere and bind it into the soil (Carbon Sequestration), increasing levels of soil organic carbon.” In addition, organic agriculture is a more climate-adaptive farming system and as such is more resilient to extreme weather events.

With regard to SDG 14, de Schaetzen points out that marine dead zones are an increasingly severe risk for life and biodiversity below water. Amongst its main drivers is agriculture and its fertilizers and pesticides. ““The main source of nitrogen pollution is run-off from agricultural land,” he cites from a European Environment Agency report. “In agriculture, the two main nitrogen inputs to agricultural land are mineral fertilizers and manure.” When organic farmers use manure fertilization, this can also reach waterbodies and contribute to dead zones. However, organic agriculture tends to leach less nutrients per unit area. The study also mentions two significant ways in which organic farmers contribute to SDG 6. “As organic agriculture prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides, there is little to no risk of synthetic pesticide pollution of ground and surface waters,” the author writes. Furthermore, organic agriculture generally contains more soil organic matter, thus providing better water holding capabilities, meaning that the soil needs less water. “So when it comes to our protecting our freshwater supplies, organic agriculture is very much part of the solution,” he concludes.

With respect to the zero hunger goal (SDG 2), organic agriculture can play a key role in the long-term provision of food, as it provides better soil quality, resulting in less farmland loss over time and a better climate-resilience. Regarding organic farming and food security in Africa, the study draws on a UN report according to which organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and that it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term. As more than 60% of Africa’s sub-Saharan population consists of smallholder farmers, organic farming has a major role to play by providing nutritious food and at the same time offering many other environmental and social advantages. FAO research also shows that organic agriculture can produce better yields during periods of drought. “When we look at the global challenges that food production faces, it is fair to say that organic agriculture can be seen as part of the solution,” the author concludes. This view is shared by Louise Luttikholt, Executive Director of IFOAM – Organics International: “Given that organic farmers work in harmony with nature, as far as possible, for example by not applying harmful agro-chemicals, it is clear that they are a major part of the solution. (…) If the global community is serious about achieving the SDGs by 2030, it is essential that we switch to more sustainable farming practices such as organic,” she added. (ab)

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