Organic Farming and Food Production

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According to the legislation, the aim of organic food production is to help ensure a sustainable agricultural system that respects the health of soil, water, plants, and animals, and keeps the balance between those elements. It also strives to improve biological diversity and encourage more responsible use of energy and natural resources. Organic farming supports biodiversity by choosing appropriate species and varieties of plants and animals. Organic farmers use crop rotation, the old practice of growing different types of crops over different seasons to enhance soil fertility and prevent erosion.

Waste or surplus farm materials such as slurry and animal bedding are recycled to fertilise the soil. The system encourages economic sustainability and rural development through locally organised agricultural systems and short supply chains. The regulatory framework covers diverse topics including definitions, principles, production rules, and labelling requirements for various plant and animal-based food products. Rules for the control systems and the conversion of a conventional farm to an organic one are included as well.

The regulation also contains rules regarding penalties in case of non-compliance. The logo indicates that foods have been produced in accordance with the EU rules and are subject to organic control systems. However, it is important to note there are no specific quality requirements linked to organic food, and there are no laboratory methods to determine whether a product is organic or not. Therefore, there is great potential to maintain or even increase milk yields and growth rates using forage-dominated diets that also improve cattle welfare.

However, if time spent grazing decreases as a consequence of changed feeding regimes to increase yields, this will also negatively affect ruminant welfare; significant benefits for animal health, fertility and farmer profitability have been found for grazing systems compared with year-round indoor systems Ekesbo The cross-breed calves could be raised as heifers or steers in grazing systems, providing potential synergies for yields, biodiversity conservation Section 3. It is well known that the input levels of plant nutrients affect plant development and composition Bindraban et al.

To some degree, yield and nutritional quality may be divergent breeding goals Morris and Sands , since historically, the breeding and production of high-yielding varieties has led to a decreasing content of certain minerals in some vegetable and cereal crops Marles The production system, organic or conventional, generally has no or only a small effect on the concentrations of most nutrients and secondary metabolites in crops.

Increased N fertilisation has a negative effect on the concentration of phenolic compounds in crops Treutter Phenolic compounds from plant sources are believed to carry benefits for human health, although this is not fully understood Del Rio et al. Based on current knowledge, it is not possible to derive any specific health benefit from the slightly higher concentration of phenolic compounds in organic crops. Accordingly, increasing yields in organic farming by increasing crop fertilisation is not expected to lead to nutritionally relevant effects on crop composition.

In a 2-year controlled field trial examining the composition of white cabbage using untargeted metabolomics, measuring approximately compounds, researchers were able to discriminate between cabbage from organic and conventional production, but not between cabbage from one low-input and one high-input organic system Mie et al. Therefore, intensifying organic crop production within the range of current organic fertilisation practices is not expected to lead to major changes in plant composition.

The use of chemical pesticides is strongly restricted in organic production. Limited data indicate that toxicity-weighted human dietary pesticide exposure from organic foods in Sweden is far lower than exposure from conventional foods Beckman , and the associated health risks are small. However, 10 compounds with some type of identified human toxicity are currently approved in organic crop production in the EU Mie et al. Likewise, the use of microorganisms, macroorganisms or habitat manipulation in plant protection is not associated with any known risks for humans. Lowering the crop pest and disease burden by good management could in some cases result in lower concentrations of some plant defence compounds that are expressed in response to infestation.

However, there is no convincing evidence that this effect is relevant for human nutrition. For cereal crops, deoxynivalenol DON is an important fusarium toxin and a common cause of cereal crop losses due to maximum limits for food being exceeded. Increasing yields through higher N fertilisation is likely to lead to increased DON concentration in cereal crops. On the other hand, increasing marketable yields by counteracting fusarium infestation, through management practices such as suitable crop rotation, incorporation of crop residues in soils, choice of cultivar and proper drying and storing of cereals after cropping, should lead to decreased DON concentration in the crop Kabak et al.

In a recent review Bedoussac et al. Cereal intercrops also had a higher protein content compared with sole crops Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of fatty acids that are essential to humans and, in general, increased human intake is desirable Burdge and Calder The fatty acid composition in feed largely determines the fatty acid composition of milk or meat, although this relationship is not linear for ruminants Khiaosa-Ard et al. A modest increase in concentrate feeds in organic animal production is therefore not expected to lead to a substantial decrease in omega-3 fatty acids in the human diet.

Measures to improve animal health in general to avoid yield losses due to animal diseases could lead to lowered pathogen levels in e. The profitability in organic production varies considerably between products, regions and farms. For the farmer, the economic effect of increased yields in organic agriculture will depend on how the revenues of the farming business are affected, including how consumers respond to such changes and the costs associated with achieving increased yields.

The profitability of organic farming hence strongly depends on consumers being willing to pay a price premium. Reasons for buying organic food include health and nutritional concerns, perceived superior taste, environmental and animal welfare concerns and distrust in conventional food production Hoffmann and Wivstad Although higher yields per se do not necessarily affect demand, a change towards more intense practices in organic farming, making it more similar to conventional farming in some respects e.

Furthermore, increased yields would presumably lead to a larger supply of organic products, which if not matched with a corresponding increase in consumer demand would result in a reduction in prices. In countries where organic production receives government support, another potential risk to farm revenues of increasing yields is that it may be used as an argument for removing subsidies. Improving productivity generally requires investment in additional capital e. Hence, increased yields may not be preferred by all farmers, although some studies have found organic farmers to be less risk-averse than conventional farmers Gardebroek and intensification may reduce the yield variation.

Variations in yield, and hence in economic returns, between organic farms have been partly explained by differences in management and marketing skills. Experience and knowledge influence farmer behaviour. For example, a flexible approach to crop rotations on organic farms in Sweden has been found to be positively correlated to the experience of the farmer Chongtham et al. Knowledge transfer between farmers is important in improving management skills and the ability of farmers to apply best available management practices.

Yield increases which depend on investments in costly specialist machinery e. Adoption of new technologies is becoming easier and less costly as the technology becomes more widespread. This stresses the importance of effective communication channels for knowledge sharing and transfer in improving yields and productivity in organic farming. Risks and opportunities in different areas associated with different strategies to increase yields in organic production. Risk of reduced biological control caused by reduced floral abundance negatively affecting generalist predators.

Risk of increased use of substances, with negative effects on non-target organisms. Opportunity for biological control and new control products. Risk of lowered genetic diversity in high-yielding varieties. Opportunity for dual breeds and breeding for high pasture utilisation.

Risk of reduced utilisation of semi-natural pastures and associated species loss. Opportunity for lower methane from ruminant products due to faster growth rates and higher milk yield. Risk of increased soil C loss or less soil C sequestration due to less ley cultivation.

Risk of increased N leaching. Opportunity for more vigorous crop growth with reduced leaching. Opportunity for reduced N losses by more efficient crop N uptake, for livestock breeds by more efficient feed N utilisation. Increased N leaching risk due to more annual crops and less ley in rotations, risk of farm P surpluses due to import of concentrates. Opportunity for increased SOC levels and soil nutrient stocks through more crop residues and organic fertilisers.

Risk of contamina-tion by toxic substances in urban wastes. Opportunity for yield increases, giving more crop residues promoting SOC levels. Risk or opportunity depending on amounts of crop residues of new varieties, opportunity with perennial cereals.

Risk of metabolic disease in cattle, risk of reduced welfare due to less grazing. Opportunity for increased animal welfare, that will make therapeutic medication redundant. Possible risk of slightly lower content of secondary plant metabolites; importance for human health is minor. Risk of pesticide exposure; increased use of compounds with identified human toxicity per se undesirable although exposure is minor. Risk of lower content of omega-3 fatty acids in milk, eggs and meat; importance for human health is minor.

Opportunity for decreased fungal toxins DON in cereals, opportunity for lower pathogen levels in poultry meat. This review shows that in most areas, there are both risks and opportunities associated with strategies to increase yields in organic production. However, increased N inputs have many risks and few opportunities for synergies, whereas for reduced losses only opportunities, and no risks, were identified Table 3.

The final outcome depends largely on management, i. Knowledge, skills and system thinking are crucial in this endeavour, as we demonstrate with numerous examples. The ambition of organic farming to design high-yielding farming systems that also care for the environment, people and animals entails a difficult value-based balancing act.

Although not discussed here, farming systems also need to be resilient and, inherently, resilient systems include redundancy, which might counteract resource efficiency Bennett et al. In some aspects, current organic agriculture delivers benefits compared with conventional agriculture Seufert and Ramankutty We note in this review that to safeguard advantages of organic farming, such as biodiversity conservation and lower nutrient losses per unit area, if strategies to increase yields are implemented, it cannot be assumed that just following current EU regulations on organic agriculture will be sufficient.

Strategies to counteract possible negative consequences of yield increases will be needed at farm level and these are not currently mandatory or regulated and seldom attractive to farmers. For example, when in-field diversity decreases due to improved weed management and crops become denser due to increased fertilisation, then it will be important to implement strategies that promote biodiversity outside fields or adjacent to fields, in order to maintain biodiversity at landscape level.

As for counteracting potential increases in nutrient losses from increased fertiliser use, management strategies such as precision application of fertilisers, the use of catch crops, timely tillage and optimal design of crop rotations and nutrient filters in the landscape will be needed. The implementation of such measures, and application of nutrients at doses not exceeding optimal levels, have to be guaranteed in some way. One of the most important yield-limiting factors in current organic crop production, if not the most important, is the availability of plant-available nutrients.

At the same time, a crucial characteristic of sustainable food systems is safe recycling of nutrients from society. According to its principles, organic agriculture should rely on local resources and recycling, so ideally organic agriculture should be the driving force for the implementation of circular food systems.

Unfortunately, EU regulations hinder such development through a ban on returning human wastes to land, due to contamination risks by e. However, in Sweden, it is possible to use certified digestate from biogas production based on food waste and slaughter waste in organic farming. This is attractive for biogas enterprises, as it is a way to increase the value of the digestate. The return of different kinds of urban wastes, e.

We believe that organic agriculture could play an important role here; there are numerous technologies that can be applied to separate nutrients in human excreta from unwanted substances, enabling safe and trusted recycling of nutrients from food consumers back to agriculture Bloem et al. However, we would encourage the organic movement to also consider after careful evaluation the use of mineral nitrogen fertilisers made from renewable sources Tallaksen et al.

Organic principles stipulate good care of animals and EU regulations reflect this with requirements for e. However, current organic livestock production systems in Northern Europe commonly use high-yielding breeds, with their associated welfare problems, in systems managed according to organic regulations. The animals are not always adapted to these systems, hence introducing additional health problems although allowing for more natural behaviours.

An alternative for the organic sector could be to implement truly alternative livestock systems, by introducing other breeds adapted to organic production conditions, e. Yields per animal in such systems would naturally be lower, and probably also total output on herd level, despite healthier animals. However, this could be balanced on the consumption side by dietary change through decreased livestock consumption and an increase in plant-based food, as has been identified as necessary to reach e. Comparison of farming systems in terms of the trade-offs between food production and environmental impact requires the use of relevant metrics and it is worth considering whether the yield of human-edible energy or protein per hectare of land might be more relevant than yield per animal van Zanten et al.

How organic livestock production systems develop depends strongly on what consumers are willing to pay for and what policymakers are willing to support. Interestingly, research has shown that European consumers who buy organic foods consume more fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes and less red and processed meat than other consumers Kesse-Guyot et al.

Another means to reduce the need for more food is reduction of food waste during production and processing, and by consumers Priefer et al. This review took its starting point in the need to raise yields in organic production. Naturally, much can be gained from better management on farms that substantially underperform in comparison with top-performing farms under the same conditions. On the other hand, if dietary and waste patterns are considered difficult to change, as research and practice on the promotion of healthier diets for e.

In any case, if organic farming systems are to deliver substantial amounts of food to future food systems and at the same time deliver multiple other benefits, as is the ambition according to the organic principles and as increasingly expected by consumers, the organic sector and its producers, breeding companies, advisory services, farmer associations and public policy all need to focus on a broad set of goals that complement those of crop yield per hectare and yield per animal. With this review, we show that strategies to increase yields in organic agriculture can bring several synergies, but there are also apparent risks that need to be recognised and managed.

Basic substances are a group of compounds of low concern that are not primarily designed as plant protection products, but may nonetheless be useful in plant protection. Basic substances have generally been used for a long time in other areas, with exposures to humans and environment. Skip to main content Skip to sections. Advertisement Hide. Download PDF. Agronomy for Sustainable Development April , Cite as. Risks and opportunities of increasing yields in organic farming. A review. Open Access. First Online: 27 February Part of the following topical collections: Organic farming. Contents 1 Introduction 2 Yields in organic production 2.

The review is structured as follows. Chapter 2 provides the background and includes an overview of organic yields compared with conventional yields, including an outline of factors that limit yields, and strategies to increase yields in organic agriculture. Chapter 3 summarises how striving for increased yields in organic production could affect the following areas: biodiversity, emissions of greenhouse gases GHG , nutrient losses, soil fertility, animal welfare and health, human nutrition and health, and farm profitability Fig.

For each topic, we start with a brief introduction to the area to cater for the wide audience of this paper due to its broad coverage and to justify inclusion of the area in the review. Based on published research, we then discuss and critically reflect upon how increasing yields through increased inputs, genetic improvement and applying best available management practices will affect this area. The overarching conclusions from the review are summarised and discussed in Chapter 4. Open image in new window. To overcome these limiting factors, a number of strategies are available.

Niggli et al. Some of the strategies involve implementation of well-known best practices, e. Others require more research and development, e. Furthermore, changes in the EU organic regulations are needed to implement some of the proposed strategies. Table 1 Strategies to increase yields in organic arable crops that are applicable to Northern Europe. Strategies to increase yield in organic livestock production that are common to all species include improved management, especially the use of optimal livestock diets, decreased mortality rates due to injury and disease and improved breeding that matches the requirements of organic production and the production environments for the animals in organic herds.

Table 2 summarises species-specific strategies based on van Wagenberg et al.

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Table 2 Strategies to increase yields in organic livestock production that are applicable to Northern Europe. Some practices for increasing yields in organic crop production carry a risk of attenuating the current positive effects on biodiversity. For example, higher frequency of mechanical weeding affects floral abundance in fields Fig. However, restoration or conservation of refuge areas in field margins and habitats adjacent to arable fields may counteract negative effects on diversity at farm level and increase yields through provisioning of habitats for a number of organisms important for biological control Benton et al.

Evidence is mounting that habitat manipulation approaches, e. However, more research is needed on the design of diversity-promoting elements on farms and in the agricultural landscape. Ideally, these should not reduce productive areas, which will be particularly challenging in landscapes dominated by arable fields. More precise guidelines and specific standards for biodiversity conservation would be beneficial in organic regulations, but they must allow flexibility in relation to site-specific conditions. Increased inputs of nutrients, especially N, have great potential to increase yields in organic farming Doltra et al.

However, there is an increased risk of nutrient losses with higher N inputs that needs careful consideration. Above the optimum, the yield response ceases and N leaching losses increase exponentially Fig. Currently, N inputs in organic crop production are often well below the optimum level SS Simulations show potential to increase yields through additional use of manure or other organic fertiliser inputs, without negative effects on N leaching Doltra et al.

Careful management of animal manure to minimise NH 3 losses is also crucial, including the use of covers on manure storage facilities and precision spreading. Bandspreading in growing crops and direct incorporation of manure in soils minimises NH 3 emissions, increases N use efficiency and raises yield levels Webb et al. Table 3 summarises the most likely areas of conflict and synergies associated with different ways of increasing yields in organic agriculture identified in this review.

Table 3 Risks and opportunities in different areas associated with different strategies to increase yields in organic production. Strategies to increase yields Affected issue Increased N input in cropping More intense weed control Increased disease and pest control Breeding for higher yields animals and crops More concentrates in ruminant diets Reduced losses animals and crops Biodiversity Risk of reduced floral and faunal diversity Risk of reduced biological control caused by reduced floral abundance negatively affecting generalist predators Risk of increased use of substances, with negative effects on non-target organisms.

Opportunity for biological control and new control products Risk of lowered genetic diversity in high-yielding varieties. Opportunity for dual breeds and breeding for high pasture utilisation Risk of reduced utilisation of semi-natural pastures and associated species loss Opportunity for land sparing giving room for elements improving diversity Emissions of GHG Risk of increased nitrous oxide emissions Risk of increased emissions from fossil fuels Opportunity for lower climate impact due to more efficient production Opportunity for lower climate impact due to more efficient production Opportunity for lower methane from ruminant products due to faster growth rates and higher milk yield.


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Risk of increased soil C loss or less soil C sequestration due to less ley cultivation Opportunity for lower climate impact due to more efficient resource use Nutrient losses Risk of increased N leaching Risk of increased N leaching. Opportunity for more vigorous crop growth with reduced leaching Opportunity for reduced losses due to higher production stability over time Opportunity for reduced N losses by more efficient crop N uptake, for livestock breeds by more efficient feed N utilisation Increased N leaching risk due to more annual crops and less ley in rotations, risk of farm P surpluses due to import of concentrates Opportunity for reduced losses due to more efficient resource use Soil fertility Opportunity for increased SOC levels and soil nutrient stocks through more crop residues and organic fertilisers.

Risk of contamina-tion by toxic substances in urban wastes Opportunity for more crop residues which promote SOC levels. Renew Agric Food Syst 25 4 — Ahlman T Organic dairy production—herd characteristics and genotype by environment interactions.

Organic Farming as an Essential Tool of the Multifunctional Agriculture

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Is organic really better for the environment than conventional agriculture? - Our World in Data

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1. Introduction

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