The participants of the Hohenheim event concluded, that organic agriculture was not the only solution for globally sustainable land management. Conventional agriculture had to move towards a more organic concept.
Photo: Eisenmann

Sustainable agriculture – what does the future hold?

At a specialist event jointly organised by the University of Hohenheim, in Stuttgart, Germany, Baden-Württemberg’s Ministry of Rural Affairs and Consumer Protection and the Young DLG/Team Hohenheim, experts from politics, science and the private sector discussed the impacts that sustainable agriculture could have on world food security in comparison to conventional agricultural production.

The impacts of organic vis-à-vis conventional land management were focused on by Professor Matin Qaim of the University of Göttingen/Germany at the beginning of a specialist event held at the University of Hohenheim in Southern Germany. In his introduction on the situation of world food security, Qaim pointed out that, world-wide, around 820 million people were still suffering from a lack of energy and micronutrient deficiency. Malnutrition was particularly severe in Latin America, Asia and the African continent.

Globally however, the food situation had significantly improved since 1945, Qaim stressed. Agricultural yields had played a crucial role in this development, having grown almost threefold in most regions.
The question now arose what impacts agriculture was having on the environment, Qaim put forward. Regarding the quality of groundwater and biodiversity, the intensive form of agriculture was indeed particularly harmful. However, it had to be noted in this context that higher per area unit yields could prevent a further expansion of the global area under cultivation.

Qaim refers to three scenarios to provide sufficient food for the growing world population, which is to reach a total of 9.8 billion people by 2050 according to estimates.

First, it was possible not to raise production but to restrict the consumption of animal products and food waste. However, Qaim himself regards this notion as unrealistic.

Second, productivity could be enhanced by raising yields. If available area for cultivation was used more intensively, less area would be required. However, within this agricultural landscape, damage to environmental goods would be greater.

Third, there was the option to expand areas under cultivation to feed the growing world population. Ultimately, the solution to the problem of world hunger would probably be a combination of these three perspectives, Qaim explained.

Organic farming not the solution

In the second part of his presentation, Qaim looked at the yield gaps in organic farming. Across various cultures, yields were around 20 to 25 per cent lower than in conventional crop farming. These lower yields resulted in higher prices, which had to be taken notice of if organic agriculture was to extend from its niche of a current approximately one per cent of world-wide areas under cultivation to a larger market.

As a conclusion, Qaim remarked, organic farming was not the solution to globally sustainable land management. Nevertheless, conventional agriculture had to move towards a more organic form.

On the role of consumers

In the following presentation, Professor Regina Birner of the University of Hohenheim addressed the role of the consumer in sustainable land management. Birner asked whether consumers could recognise the production system and make a sustainable choice.

First, Birner presented various options to assess sustainability, such as the criteria of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) or those of the German Agricultural Society (DLG) for agricultural production. Birner regards the multitude of labels and certificates that advertise the sustainability of products in many countries as a problem when it comes to consumers taking decisions.

In Germany, however, disposable income in particular had a considerable influence on the freedom of consumers to make decisions, Birner stressed. Even among consumers with sufficient income, it was not always clear whether they really were opting for sustainably produced goods, she noted.

Commenting on the pros and cons of special support for organic farming, Birner expressed her concern that conflicts in aims could above all arise with regard to increased land consumption. Neither could all regulations that applied in organic farming be scientifically backed, which in turn raised doubts among consumers.

According to Birner, what speaks in favour of organic farming is that it completely does without pesticides, a feature that is easy to demonstrate in produce from this sector. She also believes that transaction costs could be reduced by integrating environmental and animal welfare concerns. Regarding land consumption, links with dietary patterns had to be borne in mind, and higher prices for animal source foods had to be established in the system.

Combining conventional farming with organic farming

“An optimum of organic as a contribution to world food supply” was the topic addressed by Professor Urs Niggli of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL, Switzerland). 

His presentation first of all focused on the strengths of organic agriculture. Advantages regarding environmental protection, e.g. in terms of water and soil quality as well as biodiversity conservation, played an important role.

Neither should the growing acceptance of organic farming in Germany and Europe as a whole be forgotten.

According to Niggli, the strength of conventional agriculture lies in its higher yields per unit area. Organic can boast better soil fertility and environmental protection services. He demands that further trials be conducted to determine what combination of the two approaches is optimal.

Niggli notes a considerable research backlog as a weakness of organic farming, referring to the example of the necessary demand for research on plant protection.

Magdalena Eisenmann, Young DLG, Stuttgart-Hohenheim, Germany