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New study proves: Organic farming can make important contribution to world nutritionA global shift to organic farming can contribute to a fully sustainable food system if combined with other measures. For example, it is important to reduce the high consumption rates of animal products, to use less concentrate in animal husbandry and to avoid food waste. Such a system will have positive impacts on key environmental issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, over-fertilization and pesticide consumption and do not increase land use, despite organic farming methods. This is confirmed in a new study by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL, which has just been published in the renowned journal Nature Communications.
Carrots are sometimes crooked; Nevertheless, they should not be discarded.
This protects resources and is much more sustainable. (Photo: FiBL, Franziska Hämmerli)
Various scenarios show that agriculture's negative impact on the environment will continue to increase dramatically until 2050, if the FAO's forecasts are correct. This is based on a population of over 9 billion people and on the increase of those dietary habits such as high meat consumption that demand many resources, such as water, energy and land.
Change to organic farming as a solution?
The conversion to organic farming, with its more careful handling of both the environment and resources, is therefore often proposed as a solution to counteract these negative developments. On the other hand, critics emphasize that this conversion would lead to much higher land consumption and therefore is not a viable alternative.
We need several strategies to feed the world in a sustainable way
The new study shows that combined with a decrease in the use of concentrate as cattle feed, a reduction of the consumption of animal products and a reduction of food wastage, organic farming can play an important role in a sustainable food system. The world's food supply would also be guaranteed at over 9 billion inhabitants by 2050, land use would not increase, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced and the negative effects of today's intensive food system -such as high nitrogen surpluses and high levels of pesticides- would be greatly reduced. The conversion to organic farming with otherwise constant consumption patterns, however, would indeed lead to increased land use.
Sustainable food security can not avoid conflicting goals
Organic farming has great advantages in terms of many key environmental impacts, such as nitrogen and pesticides. On the other hand, however, it has a higher land consumption, since its more extensive farming methods on average have lower yields than conventional cultivation.
The benefits of concentrate-free, grass fed livestock production are that grazing areas, unsuitable for growing crops, are used for food security. However, this comes at the price of increased greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of meat and liter of milk.
The benefits of a reduction in food wastage are obvious, as the production of food stuffs could be reduced accordingly.
Optimal combination of different strategies
The new study will now show how these different strategies can best be combined to deal with the conflicting goals. Even if agriculture switched to only 60 percent organic, and just reduced the use of concentrate and wastage by 50 percent, this would already result in a food system with a significantly lower environmental impact while at the same time land use would rise only slightly. Such a food system would also be climate-friendly, since total greenhouse gas emissions in particular would be reduced.
In such a system, consumption of animal products would drop by just over a third, as less animal feed would be available.
Sustainable agriculture is therefore only possible if it is thought of in combination with consumption. But then there are some promising opportunities. Organic farming can play a central role here.
The study was carried out in collaboration with scientists from FAO, the University of Aberdeen, Alpen-Adria University Klagenfurt and ETH Zurich and was recently published in the renowned journal Nature Communications.
Publication date: 11/17/2017
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