Major new scientific research finds that organic farming can feed the world

| 27th November 2017
A person holding a bunch of grapes

The Soil Association has been encouraging healthy eating alongside environmentally sustainable production for many years with their Food for Life programme.

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.

High levels of meat and animal product in Western diets have a major impact on the environment and are causing a public health disaster.

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.

Less meat

The researchers are clear that organic agriculture does not have all the answers, however, as environmental campaigners and food policy experts argue, no farming system can operate sustainably, and achieve the large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions needed to save the planet, without reduced and altered food consumption.

As the authors say: "Reducing global average demand for animal products and their share in human diets is a strategy for more sustainable food systems on the basis of natural resource use, environmental impact and also human health arguments."

High levels of meat and animal product in Western diets have a major impact on the environment and are causing a public health disaster.

Systems thinking

Specifically this research looks at the issue of feed for livestock (animal feed grown on land that could produce food for people) and finds that the potential for arable land used for animal feed to be freed up for human consumption is enormous.

The research states that: ‘Organic agriculture can only contribute to providing sufficient food for the 2050 population and simultaneously reducing environmental impacts from agriculture, if it is implemented in a well-designed food system in which animal feeding rations, and as a consequence reduced animal numbers and animal product consumption, and food wastage are addressed.’

Previous research has shown huge environmental potential in these areas. In a plea for more connected food systems thinking, the report states: ‘The development of organic agriculture in the future should take up these challenges on the consumption side, and not only focus on sustainable production.’

Wildlife campaigners

The Soil Association strongly agrees. We have been encouraging healthy consumption alongside environmentally sustainable production for many years with our Food for Life programme.

Food for Life Served Here covers 1.7million healthier meals in the UK every day, of which over 50% include between 5-15% organic ingredients. Also on the consumption side, we must reduce the global food waste burden of one-third of all food produced, a part of which will involve valuing food more highly. Western diets need to consist of less but better quality meat, especially grass fed, more fruit and vegetables and less processed food.

The importance of a transition to a well-designed food system is precisely what many organisations and individuals are campaigning to achieve - from farmers and food experts, to wildlife campaigners and health professionals.

This study provides further evidence that organic farming has an important role to play, as part of that. Nobody’s suggesting that we should switch to 100% organic agriculture overnight – indeed, one of the authors suggests a more modest target of 50% organic as a first step, which would mean an enormous and hugely beneficial increase in organic farming and growing.

Nevertheless, in the longer term, this research is a timely reminder that, alongside other vital changes to the food system: ‘organic agriculture can contribute to feeding more than 9 billion people in 2050, and do so sustainably.’

This Author

Peter Melchett has been Policy Director of the Soil Association, the UK's main organic food and farming organisation, working on campaigns, standards and policy, since 2001. He runs an 890-acre organic farm in Norfolk, with beef cattle and arable seed crops.  Find out more about Soil Association Certification.