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Can organic farming feed the world—sustainably?

A new study explores the contentious role of organic farming in solving our agricultural woes--and finds that its benefits are greatest when we combine it with reduced food waste and limited meat consumption.
November 17, 2017

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If we dramatically expanded organic farming across the globe, we could reduce pesticide and fertilizer use, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and feed the world, says a new study published in Nature Communications. But this comes with conditions: in order to offset the much larger land requirements of organic agriculture, we’d have to combine it with reduced food waste and increasing vegetarianism, globally.

Only with this three-pronged approach will organic farming be a sustainable method for feeding nine billion people by 2050, the study states.

Organic farming has long been contested as a solution to agriculture’s environmental ills. While it champions sustainable farming methods–like the exclusion of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers–it also requires considerably more land than conventional agriculture, to account for lower yields. So the researchers wanted to explore the scenarios in which organic farming could meet global food demand, with a reduced impact.

First, they modeled how the conversion of regular agricultural land to organic farming would impact a host of environmental and food production indicators. Then, they separately factored in two more hypothetical changes to the global food system: decreased food waste, and decreased production of animal feed crops–like soybeans and corn. (The latter would reduce the amount of land required to grow animal feed, decrease livestock numbers, and therefore necessitate a less meaty diet globally.)

In the first instance, simply switching to 100% organic farming would use up between 16 and 33% more land by 2050. Deforestation would increase by up to 15% by 2050, as a result of cropland expansion, with the associated rise in greenhouse gas emissions. That scenario plays into some of the worst fears over organic agriculture.

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However, if it was paired with decreasing levels of food waste and reduced animal feed production, organic farming’s catastrophic land loss could be offset by greater food production efficiency. “For example, a food system with a combination of 60% organic production, 50% less food-competing feed and 50% reduced food wastage would need little additional land,” the researchers explain.

A full 100% conversion to organic agriculture would also reduce non-renewable energy demand by up to 27%–savings made mostly by slashing synthetic fertilizer production. That would help offset the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from higher land use. And of course, overall there would be decreased pesticide use, and reduced nitrogen runoff from fertilizers.

Critics of the study have nevertheless expressed caution over its hypothetical findings: as is often the case with models, it’s difficult to extrapolate the data to diverse, real-world scenarios. That’s especially notable in this case, where the feasibility of organic agriculture is intertwined with the huge task of substantially reducing global meat intake.

But the researchers underline the study’s main takeaway: if we take a more holistic view of our food systems–factoring in elements like food waste and meat consumption–organic farming could gain the leverage it needs to feed the world, without chewing up vast tracts of land. As the authors conclude, future food production should “take up these challenges on the consumption side, and not only focus on sustainable production.”

Source: Muller et. al. “Strategies for feeding the world more sustainably with organic agriculture.” Nature Communications. 2017.
Image: via Pixabay

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