May 19. 2024. 12:57

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Study: Organic farming saves billions but yields not up to par

Organic farming could save countries billions in environmental and climate costs, a German long-term study has found. However, the picture is soured by organic yields still trailing significantly behind those of conventional agriculture.

For Germany and the EU, boosting organic farming is a political priority and both have set targets for 2030: The EU aims for 25% of arable land farmed organically by then, according to its food flagship policy, the Farm to Fork Strategy, while Germany went beyond this and set a 30% goal.

If this target is reached, as much as €4 million of environmental and climate costs caused by nitrogen and greenhouse gas emissions could be saved, according to a long-term study supported by the German agriculture ministry and published recently by researchers from Munich Technical University.

By comparing the respective negative impacts of organic and conventional farming on the climate and environment and putting a price to them, the researchers concluded that these implicit costs of arable farming are €750 to €800 higher per hectare for conventional agriculture.

Over a period of ten years, the researchers closely followed 40 organic and 40 conventional farms to collect and compare data, lead author Kurt-Jürgen Hülsbergen explained during the presentation of the study in Berlin.

Less nitrogen, healthier soils

According to the researcher, several key factors help organic farms be less environmentally harmful than the average conventional one.

“For one, organic farming uses much less nitrogen: 20 kilograms per hectare, compared to an overall average of 80 to 100 kilograms in Germany” he explained. “This is a remarkable achievement.”

Organic farming does not use nitrogen-based mineral fertilisers, relying instead on organic fertilisers such as manure or compost as well as enhancing soil fertility through certain farming methods.

Apart from minimising harmful nitrous oxide emissions, Hülsbergen explained, this also means that organic farming consumes much less energy, as the production of synthetic fertilisers is highly energy intensive.

Finally, the researcher also pointed to organic farming’s better performance when it comes to agricultural soils and their capacity to store carbon, thereby working as carbon sinks.

Techniques often used in organic farming, such as diverse crop rotation systems adapted to the characteristics of the land, can bring “enormous carbon storage benefits,” Hülsbergen stressed.

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Better climate footprint – but less food

However, this rosy picture comes with an important caveat: Organic agriculture still produces significantly less food per area – that is, lower yields – than its conventional counterpart.

“Organic farming offers many advantages: from stable prices to reduced nutrient and active ingredient inputs into the environment. But the study clearly shows that organic farming requires almost twice as much land per unit of grain as conventional farming,” explained Peter Breunig, a professor at Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences.

For Breunig, this fact is consequential in the face of limited available land.

“In Germany and the EU, we already need more land for agriculture than is available,” he stressed. “Every increase in land demand, whether on the supply or demand side, increases the global pressure on natural areas with consequences for the climate and biodiversity.”

As an example: If a farm switches from conventional to organic farming, it will need more land to produce the same amount of food as before. This extra land is then no longer available to be used in ways more beneficial to the climate and environment, for example by planting or protecting forests.

“The fact that the expansion of organic agriculture always leads to biodiversity and climate benefits is therefore increasingly being questioned in the scientific community,” Breunig concluded.

Hülsbergen also admitted that there is “a yield gap compared to conventional farming”.

However, he showed optimism and stressed that measures must be taken to help organic agriculture catch up. “In my view, this could be possible – for this, we need research, development, and system optimisation,” he said.

MEPs massively back organic farming but snub Farm to Fork target

The European Parliament has green-lighted a new report on the EU’s organic action plan, which stresses a market-based approach but makes no mention of the bloc’s ambitious target to see 25% of agricultural land farmed organically by 2030.

Organic = more crisis resilient?

Meanwhile, organic farmers and food producers also argue that, beyond the amount produced, the resilience of food production is also key – and this is where, in their view, organic agriculture has the upper hand.

For Tina Andres, chairwoman of the German organic food association BÖLW, this is illustrated by the trends in food prices since the start of the war in Ukraine.

While prices for both organically and conventionally produced food products in German supermarkets rose in the face of inflation and increased production costs, the spikes have been significantly smaller for organic products.

The price for butter in German supermarkets, for instance, rose by an average of 59% for conventional products between November 2021 and November 2022, compared to 29% for organic butter, according to data collected by the association.

“The data proves: Organic food is stable in price and works as an inflation brake,” Andres stressed during a recent press conference.

For the BÖLW, this is mainly because organic farms do not rely on synthetic fertilisers and were therefore not affected by the price spikes caused by high energy prices and interrupted mineral fertiliser imports from Russia and Belarus.

“This potential must be used for consumers, agriculture and the environment,” Andres concluded.

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