Organic farming could play a key role in sustainable food security, finds FiBL

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According to a recent study by The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), organic farming could feed a global population of nine-plus billion with far less environmental damage than conventional agriculture, provided we did less of two other things: using concentrated stockfeed and wasting food.

The findings of the FiBL study were published in the November 2017 issue of academic journal Nature Communications.

Why the need for change?

If United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projections are accurate agriculture’s negative impacts on the environment will likely increase dramatically in coming decades.

Current FAO estimates are that the global population will grow to more than 9.5 billion by 2050; and that wealthy elites and a burgeoning middle-class in populous regions of Asia, notably China, will drive changes in global dietary patterns in coming decades – notably, an increased consumption of meat, the production of which impacts heavily on key natural resources including water, energy and land.

Why should organic farming be part of the solution?

Wide-scale conversion to organic farming, which makes more environmentally-conscious use of resources, has been suggested as a way to feed the planet while helping to mitigate the environmental impacts of these trends.

As organic yields tend to be lower than those from conventional farms of comparable acreage, wholesale conversion to organic farming would mean higher land use and is thus not a feasible solution, say some.

The new FiBL study shows that, lower per-hectare yield notwithstanding, wide-scale conversion to organic farming could play a key role in developing sustainable global food security over the next three decades, provided it is implemented at an optimal level along with three other changes:

  • reduced consumption of animal products;
  • reduced use of concentrated livestock feed; and
  • reduced food waste – estimated to be around one third of all the food produced for human consumption.

Feeding 9.5+ billion sustainably by 2050: the winning mix

The FiBL researchers concluded that an optimal mix of strategies for achieving a sustainable global food supply that meets the anticipated food needs of a human population likely to exceed 9.5 billion by 2050 – just 32 years away was as follows:

  • 60 percent of the world’s agriculture converts to organic farming methods;
  • the use of concentrated livestock feed is halved; and
  • food waste is reduced by 50 percent.

If all three of these strategic goals were met by 2050, contends FiBL, “it would result in a food system with significantly decreased environmental impacts, including lower overall greenhouse gas emissions, and only a marginal increase in agricultural land area”.

Danish farm, complete with free-range pigs and chickens: The goal of Denmark’s Organic Action Plan is to double the amount of Danish agricultural land cultivated using organic methods by 2020, compared to a baseline set at 2007.
Danish farm, complete with free-range pigs and chickens: The goal of Denmark’s Organic Action Plan is to double the amount of Danish agricultural land cultivated using organic methods by 2020, compared to a baseline set at 2007.
Jan Ingemansen, Flickr CC
Wide-scale conversion to organic farming

Creating a secure and sustainable food supply for 9.5+ billion people in just over three decades will be a huge challenge – and when it comes to producing more with less, organic farming, like any agricultural system, has pros and cons.

On the downside, organic farm management is typically more extensive than that of conventional farms, resulting in lower yields per hectare for organically-run farms.

On the upside, organic farming methods minimise or eliminate many of the negative environmental impacts of conventional farming. They boost soil nutrients, reducing the need for chemical fertilisers dramatically; eliminate the use of environmentally harmful pesticides and herbicides; reduce soil erosion and runoff through revegetation; and create far fewer harmful nitrogen emissions than conventional farming methods.

Convincing 60 percent of the world’s ag producers to farm organically won’t be easy, but as the benefits of organic production to sustainable long-term productivity become more apparent; climate change forces change; and technology helps farmers produce more with less (water, harmful chemicals, fossil fuels et cetera), more agribusinesses may be induced to make the shift to organic farming methods.

Figure 6: Cattle feedlot and solar PV array in Ontario, Canada. Photo by Mary Goode (ABC, 2011)
Cattle feedlot and solar PV array in Ontario, Canada. Photo by Mary Goode (ABC, 2011)
NSW Farmers

Halving the use of concentrated livestock feed

Much of the world’s meat and dairy products come from animals raised on concentrated feed made from grain, soy, corn and other produce that could otherwise be eaten by humans.

Halving the use of concentrated stockfeed in livestock production would free up land and resources that could then be used to produce crops for human consumption.

Free-ranging, grass-fed beef and dairy cattle, sheep and goats require little or nothing in the way of concentrated feed (and often, land that’s unsuitable for arable crops can be used for livestock production).

A major environmental drawback is that, whatever farming method is deployed, far more greenhouse gases – in the potent form of methane – are emitted per kilogram of (red) meat and milk produced than are created in the production of other foods.

The challenge will be persuading consumers to cut their consumption of animal produce in favour of more environmentally sustainable sources of nutrition.

If global production of red meat and dairy products is to remain within sustainable limits, consumers will have to play their part by demanding substantially less of them.

If they do choose to eat these foods, consumers can help by purchasing organically raised, free-range/grass-fed lamb, mutton and beef rather than their conventionally farmed, feedstock-raised counterparts; and by spending a little more for organic dairy produce from grass-fed herds.

Once consumer demand for ‘sustainably farmed’ meat and dairy produce is there, conventional meat and dairy producers will be incentivised to adopt organic, free-range and grass-fed farming systems.

Food waste: Australia wastes an estimated 4m tonnes of food each year, equating to 523 kg per household, the same weight as just over five average-sized refrigerators.
Food waste: Australia wastes an estimated 4m tonnes of food each year, equating to 523 kg per household, the same weight as just over five average-sized refrigerators.
Starr_Flickr CC

Halving food waste

Currently, around a third of all the food produced for human consumption globally is wasted, with losses occurring all along the supply chain, from farm to household rubbish bin.

Halving food waste would have clear benefits to global food security, the cost of food production, and the future of the planet. It would lead to:

  • a dramatic drop in the need to ramp up food production by 2050, greatly reducing pressure on valuable resources;
  • far fewer GG emissions; and
  • around a 50 percent reduction in the environmental harm resulting from food production, processing and distribution.

Everyone from primary producers and processors to retailers and end consumers has a role to play in accounting for food waste and doing their bit to minimise it.

When the food concerned has required more resources to produce and/or transport, it’s even more important to ensure it’s not wasted.

The potential: a “promising” outlook for global food security – and the planet

A truly sustainable system of agriculture will be possible, argue the FiBL researchers, only if our consumption and disposal patterns change.

It will take a massive, concerted effort, but if the three strategic objectives outlined in the FiBL study could be achieved between now and 2050, the outlook – for global food security and the planet – will be “promising”, the researchers conclude.

Which is good news indeed.

Now we just have to do our respective bits to make it happen.

Further information

The FiBL study was conducted in collaboration with researchers from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); University of AberdeenAlpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt; and ETH Zurich. Its findings were published in late 2017 in renowned scientific journal Nature Communications

Read the FiBL researchers’ paper in Nature Communications.

For more information about the study or about FiBL’s ongoing research programs, contact:

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