Major New Scientific Research Finds That Organic Farming Can Feed the World

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A major new scientific report reveals how organic agriculture can help feed the world whilst reducing the environmental impacts, PETER MELCHETT, of the Soil Association delves into the data.

Author: Peter Melchett | Published: November 27, 2017

New scientific research has identified the important role that organic agriculture can play in feeding a global population of 9 billion sustainably by 2050.

Published in the journal Nature Communications, by scientists from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), the key question the research examines is: “whether producing a certain total amount of food, in terms of protein and calories, with organic agriculture would lead to higher, or lower, impacts than producing the same amount of food with conventional agriculture”.

The scientists’ answer is that organic agriculture can feed the world with lower environmental impacts – if we cut food waste and stop using so much cropland to feed farm animals. The authors conclude: “A 100% conversion to organic agriculture needs more land than conventional agriculture but reduces N-surplus and pesticide use.”

Unsustainable diets

However, they go on to explain that, if food waste is reduced and arable land is not used to produce animal feed, with less production and consumption of animal products, ‘land use under organic agriculture remains below’ the current area of farmland.

The authors note that organic agriculture has faced claims that far greater land use and associated deforestation would be necessary to feed the world organically due to an average yield gap of 20% on intensive production. Yet when other sensible and necessary changes are made, organic farming can provide enough food for healthy diets, and organic food is produced with far fewer unsustainable inputs.

The Soil Association welcomes this study, which 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. Other commentators have commented on the report’s findings about the role of organic farming.

Alternative food

Dr Geoff Squire, Principal Scientist, Ecological Sciences, James Hutton Institute, said: “The models suggest that certain combinations of organic production area, reduction in food waste, and transfer of feed-producing to food-producing activities on arable land, coupled with greater use of nitrogen-fixing legumes can sustain the world’s 2050 population with no more than existing farmland.”

One thing that makes this study different to others is that it has designed a new global food system model which aims comprehensively to capture organic production systems for the first time.

The SOL model takes the FAO food systems projections for 2050 of different environmental impacts, such as land use, nitrogen surplus and deforestation. It then applies alternative food system scenarios to the model, including reducing food waste, lowering animal feed production, and lower inputs, especially of nitrogen, and lower yields of organic agriculture.

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