Which type of agriculture will be needed to achieve sustainable agriculture? Rice cultivation in Indonesia.
Photo: © Stefan Schwarze

The impacts of organic farming on the climate, the environment and health

A survey by Germany’s University of Göttingen demonstrates that only a combination of organic and conventional cultivation methods can guarantee a globally sustainable agriculture.

Agricultural economists at Germany’s University of Göttingen examining the influence of organic farming on the environment, the climate and health in various parts of the world have discovered that growing organic food requires too much land to have a globally beneficial impact on biodiversity. In addition, it is unsuitable for food security in poorer countries. The results of their research have been published in the specialist journal Annual Review of Resource Economics.

In comparison to industrial agriculture, growing organic food is commonly perceived as more friendly to humans, animals, the environment and the climate. Many studies attest organic farming greater biodiversity and lower levels of pollution in the field.

In order to find out whether organic farming can generally be classified as sustainable against the background of global challenges, Eva-Marie Meemken and Matin Qaim of the University of Göttingen evaluated  around 150 individual studies and meta-analyses on the effects of organic farming in various parts of the world. It was revealed that organic food has no different impacts on health in comparison to products coming from conventional agriculture.

The scientists also found that the advantages of organic farming regarding the environment and the climate did not apply if the effects were compared per product unit instead of per hectare of cropland. Owing to the lower yields, organic food requires more acreage than the same amount of conventional products does. Thus the environmental and climate benefits of organic farming are relativised and even reversed for some parameters.

“The yield differences have to be taken into consideration because global food demand is continuing to rise,” Qaim stresses. “So far, just one per cent of acreage world-wide is being cultivated according to organic farming rules. If one wanted to feed the whole world with organic products in the future, one would need significantly more area under cultivation, which in turn would only be possible at the expense of forests and other natural habitats.”

Organic products are too expensive for food security

Furthermore, organic food is unsuitable for maintaining food security in developing countries because on average, products are considerably more expensive than conventional products,” Meemken says. “As yet, as far as domestic staple food supply is concerned, there are hardly any markets for the dearer organic products.”

The authors of the study arrive at the conclusion that while organic farming does bear advantages in certain situations, it cannot act as a guiding concept for globally sustainable agriculture and food security. Neither can industrial agriculture, with its high input of chemicals, serve as a model for sustainability. “What we need is productive and simultaneously environmentally friendly systems. Developing such systems that are adapted to local conditions requires an intelligent combination of organic farming methods and conventional agriculture – also taking state-of-the-art technologies into account,” authors Meemken und Qaim maintain.


More information:
Original publication: Meemken, E.-M., Qaim, M. (2018). Organic agriculture, food security, and the environment. Annual Review of Resource Economics

Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development

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