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What role should organics play in sustainable food systems?

It’s not all-or-nothing for organics, but rather a nuanced approach

Organic chard. foodreich, Unsplash
30 June 2021
30 June 2021

When it comes to nourishing ourselves and the future generations that will inhabit our planet, there’s little room to doubt that on a global scale we’re ‘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 leading causes of water pollution, biodiversity loss and land degradation – among various other environmental impacts.  

So what might turn things around? Advocating for alternative practices such as organic agriculture is an obvious piece of the puzzle, but polarizing debates that pit organics against conventional practices can miss the nuances required to facilitate large-scale shifts in direction and emphasis. Food systems are complex and take generations to change. 

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

What is organic agriculture?

First, it’s important to recognize that organic agriculture isn’t just about ‘what we don’t do’ – such as avoiding synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides and fungicides – but also about contributing positively to the environment through benefits like soil health, water retention, biodiversity and community wellbeing. IFOAM – Organics International defines organic agriculture as:

“a production system that sustains 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 agriculture combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and good quality of life for all involved.”

While food that’s labeled ‘organic’ first gained a foothold in the global market in the 1960s, organic agriculture is an ancient practice. Large number of farmers across the globe, particularly smallholders and subsistence growers in less-developed parts 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-intensive and prohibitively expensive to obtain – on the international market. 

For families and communities that have lived in the same place for generations, practices that deplete the soil and degrade ecosystem services can’t be sustained year on year, particularly if external agricultural inputs aren’t readily available or accessible, or their adverse effects are evident to farmers and their communities.

An organic vegetable farm in Vietnam. Tony Pham, Unsplash
An organic vegetable farm in Vietnam. Tony Pham, Unsplash

What are the land-use challenges for organic agriculture?

Organic agricultural practices are already being applied much more widely than the 1.5 percent of global farmland that is currently certified organic conveys: while it’s currently impossible to ascertain the true land area under organic cultivation, it’s estimated that millions of smallholder farmers across the globe are currently employing these practices – without official recognition.

But one of the biggest challenges for scaling up further is the yield-to-land ratio. At present, a number of meta-analyses have concluded that organic agricultural yields are an average of 19 to 25 percent lower than those for conventional agriculture, though there’s a wide range of estimates depending on the crop and conditions; some crops – such as rye, raspberries and snap beans in one 2014 U.S.-wide study – often have higher yields under organic management. 

“Yields do matter,” says Verena Seufert, an assistant professor at the Free University of Amsterdam. “I’ve talked to organic farmers in India who told me that they’re considering reverting back to conventional agriculture because their yields are too low, and the premium prices [that organics can carry in the market] in their context do not make up for that.”

From a wider perspective as well, that takes into account other challenges such as emissions reduction and biodiversity recovery, it can make sense to try to reduce the amount of land on which food is grown. While land that’s farmed organically, on average, does emit less greenhouse gas than conventionally-farmed land, this pales in comparison to the carbon-sequestering potential of, say, an intact tropical forest, which can absorb up to 600 kilograms (1,323 pounds) of carbon per hectare per year. “A natural ecosystem can support biodiversity and contribute to climate mitigation much better than any agricultural land can,” says Seufert. “From that point of view, it makes sense to produce high amounts of outputs from your agricultural land so that you can – ideally, in theory – leave more land to nature.”

However, Seufert notes that there are likely ways to close that gap, such as by dedicating more research funding to organic agriculture, which has received very little such investment in the past few decades. For example, when it comes to crop breeding, she says that around 95 percent of the crop varieties used in organic croplands were actually bred for conventional agriculture, despite needing different traits in order to thrive. 

Other mixed land uses, such as agroforestry – which integrates trees and shrubs with crops or pastureland, and is sometimes conducted within existing forests – also hold important potential for upping food yields whilst maintaining critical ecosystem services like carbon sequestration.

How do we make organics more affordable?

Consumer pressure has played – and continues to play – a major role in the growth of the organics movement thus far. But while the option to buy ‘conventional’ products for less money still exists, only some sectors of a population may be able to justify the costlier choice. In the U.S. in 2019, for instance, certified organic foods and beverages cost an average of 7.5 percent more than their conventional counterparts. These price differentials may well diminish in the coming years – the global organics market is projected to grow by over 16 percent by 2025, meaning better economies of scale – but are unlikely to disappear entirely under current economic conditions.

Governments could play a bigger roles in righting the balance, and often save themselves money in other areas by doing so. In the watersheds around Paris, for example, the municipal drinking water provider supports farmers to transition to organic agriculture. “They invest a lot, but of course they also do that for their own good so that they can deliver good-quality drinking water and reduce their other costs,” says IFOAM – Organics International’s executive director Louise Luttikholt.. 

In Copenhagen, meanwhile, a government-led initiative has led to organic food making up 89 percent of meals served in the city’s canteens. That’s been achieved by training staff to prepare food differently, reducing food wastage and procuring at 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

In the bigger picture, rejigging our economic systems to take impacts like pollution, environmental degradation and carbon emissions into account would likely go a long way to shifting what’s seen as the ‘affordable’ option. In other words, we need a clearer way of knowing the true cost of our food, organic and conventional alike. 

“Many of our world’s communities have accepted that the externalities from farming can be put somewhere else,” says Luttikolt. “And that’s the context in which farmers are producing – in many cases, we are even offering subsidies for them 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 benefits of organics do we need to account for more?

The fact that 17 percent of all food produced – over 900 million tons of it – is thrown away every year points to the magnitude of the inefficiencies and imbalances in our current global food system. “We already have more than enough calories being produced for everybody [on the planet] to be satisfied,” says Luttikholt. “And that’s because in the past half-century or so, the focus in agriculture has been on productivity only. So we’re producing a lot of calories, but they’re not reaching the right people in the right places.” 

It’s also important to look not only at calories, but also at whether the foods that are being produced and circulated are actually nourishing people in nutritionally-adequate and culturally-appropriate ways. With around 815 million people undernourished across the globe – and a similar number classified as obese – our food systems aren’t currently addressing that issue so well, either.

That’s one way that organic agriculture can help. Practices such as crop rotation, which organic farmers usually need to employ in order to prevent soils from becoming depleted of necessary nutrients, “almost automatically contribute to a healthier diet because there is not such a focus on just one output for human consumption,” says Luttikholt, “and we see that in communities where there is more diverse food on offer, people tend to eat more diverse diets.” 

When looking at organics’ role in big picture food system change, Seufert urges against reverting to polarizing ‘organic versus conventional’ arguments, maintaining that a more nuanced, integrated and pragmatic approach is required. “Organics is one tool in our toolbox, and we’re going to need a variety of tools to fix our food systems.” 

And organic agriculture has a wider impact on the food system than initial statistics might suggest. “It has really influenced debates about what sustainable agriculture looks like, and it’s also a type of pilot for alternative practices that then are taken up by conventional farmers,” she says. “In a way, it’s an experimental place for different ways of doing agriculture, that then has larger repercussions beyond just the organic field.”


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