What role should organic agriculture play in sustainable food systems?

When it comes to feeding ourselves and the future generations that will inhabit our planet, there is little room to doubt that on a global scale we are “biting the hand that feeds us”. Eighty percent of global deforestation and 11 percent of anthropogenic carbon emissions come from agriculture, and conventional farming practices are the main causes of water pollution, biodiversity loss and land degradation, among various other environmental impacts.

So what could make a difference? Advocating for alternative practices such as organic farming is an obvious piece of the puzzle, but the polarizing debates that pit organic versus conventional practices may lack the nuances needed to facilitate large-scale shifts in focus and emphasis. . Food systems are complex and take generations to change.

In this article, we’ll start to look at some of the questions that should be asked about the role that organic farming could play in the long-term transition to a more sustainable way of feeding the planet.

What is organic farming?

First of all, it is important to recognize that organic farming is not only about ‘what we don’t do’ – like avoiding synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides and fungicides – but also about making a positive contribution. environment through benefits such as soil health, water conservation, biodiversity and community well-being. IFOAM – Organics International defines organic agriculture as:

“A production system that preserves the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic farming combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.

While foods labeled “organic” gained a foothold in the world market in the 1960s, organic farming is an old practice. Large numbers of farmers around the world, especially smallholders and subsistence farmers in less developed regions of the world, have been using organic methods for generations. Often, such an approach is employed out of necessity, even if it goes without organic certification – which can be time consuming and prohibitively expensive to obtain – in the international market.

For families and communities who have lived in the same place for generations, practices that deplete the soil and degrade ecosystem services cannot be sustained from year to year, especially if external agricultural inputs are not readily available or accessible, or if their adverse effects are evident to farmers and their communities.

An organic vegetable farm in Vietnam. Tony Pham, Unsplash

What are the challenges of using land for organic farming?

Organic farming practices are already applied much more widely than the 1.5 percent of global farmland currently certified organic: while it is currently impossible to determine the actual area cultivated organically, it is estimated that millions of small farmers around the world are currently employing these practices – without official recognition.

But one of the biggest challenges for further expansion is the yield-to-land ratio. Currently, a number of meta-analyzes have concluded that yields from organic farming are on average 19 to 25 percent lower than those from conventional farming, although there is a wide range of ‘estimates based on crop and conditions; certain crops – such as rye, raspberries, and snap beans in a 2014 US-wide study – often have higher yields when managed organically.

“Yields matter,” says Verena Seufert, assistant professor at the Free University of Amsterdam. “I spoke to organic farmers in India who told me they were considering switching back to conventional farming because their yields are too low and prices high. [that organics can carry in the market] in their context do not compensate for this.

Also from a broader perspective, which takes into account other challenges such as reducing emissions and reclaiming biodiversity, it may make sense to try and reduce the amount of land on which food is grown. Although organically cultivated land, on average, emits less greenhouse gases than conventionally cultivated land, this is paltry compared to the carbon sequestration potential of an intact rainforest, for example, which can absorb up to 600 kilograms (1,323 pounds) of carbon per hectare per year. “A natural ecosystem can support biodiversity and help mitigate climate change much better than any farmland,” says Seufert. “From that point of view, it makes sense to produce large amounts of produce from your farmland so that you can – ideally, in theory – leave more land to nature. “

However, Seufert notes that there are likely ways to close this gap, for example by devoting more research funding to organic farming, which has received very little such investment in recent decades. For example, when it comes to plant breeding, she says that about 95 percent of the crop varieties used in organic cropland have in fact been bred for conventional farming, although they need different traits for them. prosper.

Other mixed land uses, such as agroforestry – which integrates trees and shrubs into crops or pastures, and is sometimes carried out in existing forests – also have significant potential to increase food yields while maintaining essential ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration.

How to make organic more affordable?

Consumer pressure has played – and continues to play – a major role in the growth of the organic movement so far. But while the option of buying “conventional” products for less still exists, only certain sectors of a population may be able to justify the more expensive choice. In the United States in 2019, for example, certified organic food and drink cost on average 7.5% more than their conventional counterparts. These price differentials may well narrow in the years to come – the global organic market is expected to grow more than 16% by 2025, which means better economies of scale – but they are unlikely to disappear. completely under current economic conditions.

Governments could play a bigger role in redressing the balance, and often save money in other areas by doing so. In the Parisian watersheds, for example, the municipal drinking water distributor supports farmers in their transition to organic farming. “They invest a lot, but of course they also do it for their own good so that they can provide good quality drinking water and reduce their other costs,” explains Louise Luttikholt, executive director of IFOAM – Organics International.

In Copenhagen, meanwhile, a government-led initiative led to organic food making up 89 percent of meals served in city canteens. This was achieved by training staff to prepare food differently, reducing food waste and purchasing on a large scale, rather than increasing food budgets.

There is enough food to feed everyone in the world, but a significant amount is wasted.  Marco Verch Professional photographer, Flickr
There is enough food to feed everyone in the world, but a significant amount is wasted. Marco Verch Professional photographer, Flickr

Overall, reorganizing our economic systems to take into account impacts such as pollution, environmental degradation and carbon emissions would likely go a long way in changing what is considered the “affordable” option. In other words, we need a clearer way of knowing the true cost of our food, whether organic or conventional.

“Many communities in our world have accepted that the externalities of agriculture can be put elsewhere,” says Luttikolt. “And that’s the context in which farmers produce – in many cases we even offer them subsidies to help pollute our environment. So we need to start doing some serious full cost accounting to look at the context in which we, as a society, currently allow farmers to produce. “

What other advantages of organic products do we need to take into account more?

The fact that 17 percent of all food produced – over 900 million tonnes – is thrown away each year shows the extent of inefficiencies and imbalances in our current global food system. “We already have more than enough calories produced for everyone [on the planet] be satisfied, ”says Luttikholt. “And that’s because for the last half century or so agriculture has focused only on productivity. So we’re making a lot of calories, but they’re not getting to the right people in the right places.

It is also important to look not only at calories, but also to determine whether the foods produced and distributed are actually nourishing people in a nutritionally adequate and culturally appropriate manner. With an estimated 815 million undernourished people worldwide – and a similar number classified as obese – our food systems don’t address this problem as well today.

This is one way organic farming can help. Practices such as crop rotation, which organic farmers typically need to use to prevent soils from being depleted of needed nutrients, “almost automatically contribute to a healthier diet because the focus is not on a single product for human consumption, “explains Luttikholt,” and we see that in communities where the food supply is more diverse, people tend to eat more varied diets. ”

In examining the role of organics in global food system change, Seufert recommends not reverting to polarizing “organic versus conventional” arguments, arguing that a more nuanced, integrated and pragmatic approach is needed. “Organic is one tool in our toolbox, and we’ll need a variety of tools to fix our food systems. ”

And organic farming has a bigger impact on the food system than initial statistics suggest. “It’s really influenced the debates about what sustainable agriculture looks like, and it’s also kind of a pilot for alternative practices that are then adopted by conventional farmers,” she says. “In a way, it is a place of experimentation for different ways of doing agriculture, which then has more important repercussions beyond the only organic domain. “

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