With food sustainability, a major issue and cause for concern globally, a new study published in the Nature Communications journal last November, 'Strategies for feeding the world more sustainably with organic agriculture' is one proposal for improving the sustainability of global food systems.
Intensification of agriculture has greatly increased food availability over recent decades. However, this has led to considerable adverse environmental impacts, such as increases in reactive nitrogen over-supply, eutrophication of land and water bodies, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and biodiversity losses. It is commonly assumed that by 2050, agricultural output will have to further increase by 50 per cent to feed the projected global population of over 9 billion.
This challenge is further exacerbated by changing dietary patterns. It is, therefore, crucial to curb the negative environmental impacts of agriculture, while ensuring that the same quantity of food can be delivered. There are many proposals for achieving this goal, such as further increasing efficiency in production and resource use, or adopting holistic approaches such as agroecology and organic production, or reducing consumption of animal products and food wastage.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) November report said that the cost of importing food in 2017 would rise to USD1.413 trillion, a six percent increase over 2016, the second highest figure on record, at a time of generally stable commodity prices.
The FAO said this increase is being driven by international demand for most foodstuffs as well as higher transport and freight rates with the trend having implications for least developed and low-income food deficit countries.
The Nature Communications study was conducted by The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) Switzerland; Institute of Environmental Decisions, Department of Environmental Systems Science, Zürich; the FAO; the University Klagenfurt-Vienna-Graz; the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences and the University of Aberdeen, UK.
The researchers said that organic agriculture is proposed as a promising approach to achieving sustainable food systems, but its feasibility is also contested.
"We use a food systems model that addresses agronomic characteristics of organic agriculture to analyze the role that organic agriculture could play in sustainable food systems. Here we show that a 100 percent conversion to organic agriculture needs more land than conventional agriculture but reduces N-surplus and pesticide use, the researchers said, led by Adrian Muller from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Switzerland.
"However, in combination with reductions of food wastage and food-competing feed from arable land, with correspondingly reduced production and consumption of animal products, land use under organic agriculture remains below the reference scenario.
The positive performance of organic agriculture when measured against a range of environmental indicators has been widely reported. However, organic systems produce lower yields and thus require larger land areas to produce the same output as conventional production systems. In consequence, environmental benefits of organic agriculture are less pronounced or even absent if measured per unit of product than per unit of area.
Despite the availability of a number of global models to assess various aspects of food production and consumption, few are able to consider organic production and so far, none have captured the main agronomic characteristics of organic agriculture in a systematic way. We apply the SOL-model, which can simulate important aspects of organic agriculture, such as increased legume shares, absence of synthetic fertilizers, lower yields (the ‘yield gap’) and lower use of food-competing feed components, such as grain legumes or cereals.
"But when combined with complementary changes in the global food system, namely changed feeding rations, and correspondingly reduced animal numbers, and changed wastage patterns, organic agriculture can contribute to feeding more than 9 billion people in 2050, and do so sustainably. Such a combination of strategies can deliver adequate global food availability, with positive outcomes across all assessed environmental indicators, including cropland area demand.
"Our analysis shows the necessary food system changes at the global level, but we emphasize that structural change in the food system and the pathways that lead to increasing the proportion of organically produced food will differ regionally, so local and regional characteristics need to be accounted for."
The Soil Association welcomed this study, which it said rightly looks at organic farming as part of an interconnected global food system, and which highlights the need to address the impacts of unsustainable diets, animal feed production, and food waste.