Is organic farming really environmentally friendly?

How sustainable is organic farming really?

Organic farming has a good reputation with most people: It is considered environmentally friendly, healthy and sustainable. But is it also the solitary solution for the food supply of the future? Researchers have now for the first time comprehensively examined the advantages and disadvantages of organic farming for nature, people and the climate. Their conclusion: Organic farming can actually score points in some areas - but not in all of them. How big the advantages are also depends heavily on the region and circumstances.

Toxic pesticides in water, soil and food, species-poor monocultures, yield at all costs - the disadvantages of conventional, often industrially operated agriculture are evident in many areas. On the other hand, the growing world population is dependent on sufficient and affordable food supplies for all. It is therefore not possible without halfway effective agriculture. "As a solution to the challenge of creating sustainable food security, organic farming is often seen as the ultimate solution," says first author Verena Seufert from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. So far, organic farming has only taken up around one percent of the total agricultural area worldwide, but it is already the fastest growing sector in food production in Europe and North America. Whether or not organic farming is actually suitable as a basis for future world nutrition is highly controversial. "Some critics see it as a backward and romanticized form of agriculture that would lead to hunger and a collapse in food supplies if you relied on it," says Seufert.

In order to bring more clarity to the debate, Seufert and her colleague Navin Ramankutty have now for the first time compiled and evaluated all known data on the advantages and disadvantages of organic farming. In their study, they analyze how organic farming performs in 17 criteria - from yields and long-term supply stability to the effects on biodiversity, climate and soil quality to the health, social and economic effects on farmers and consumers. The scientists also examined how strongly regional differences and other factors influence the performance.

Many shades of gray instead of black and white

The result: "Organic farming cannot be the holy grail when it comes to the sustainable food supply for mankind," said Seufert and Ramankutty. It is true that organic farming has some clear advantages over conventional agriculture. At the same time, however, there are also some disadvantages and many unanswered questions. Organic farming scores points above all in terms of biodiversity and soil and water quality: fewer toxic pesticides and fewer synthetic fertilizers enter these habitats, and ecologically managed soils show less erosion and can store more water and carbon. The latter also benefits the climate. Organic farming also has a clearly positive effect on the health of farm workers: "Pesticide poisoning causes around one million deaths and chronic diseases worldwide every year," the researchers report.

In other aspects, however, the advantages and disadvantages are less clear and can be very different depending on the framework conditions. As the researchers report, for example, the harvest yields in organic farming lag behind those in conventional cultivation - depending on the crop and region, the gap is between five and 40 percent. But that means: "In order to get the same amount of food, organic farmers would have to enlarge their cultivation areas," explains Seufert. “But the conversion of natural land into arable land is one of the main causes of habitat destruction and climate change.” Even if the individual biofields allow a higher biodiversity than conventional fields, nature could suffer as a whole. On the other hand, this could perhaps be avoided if organic farming can increase its productivity - for example by breeding new crops. "It is estimated that 95 percent of organic cultivation is based on plant varieties that are optimized for conventional cultivation," say the researchers. "However, these often do not grow so well under ecological management."

According to Seufert and Ramankutty, there is no clear black or white when it comes to organic farming. Instead, the location is more like a multitude of shades of gray. "Costs and benefits vary greatly depending on the context," emphasizes Seufert. Organic agriculture is a way to make the food supply of mankind more environmentally friendly - but not the only one that makes it all alone. "Other changes in our food system, such as avoiding waste and eating less meat, could have even greater environmental benefits," the researchers said. In her opinion, we should also stop seeing conventional and organic agriculture as an either-or. "Instead, consumers should ask for better practices in both forms."


© - Nadja Podbregar
March 10, 2017