Intensification of agriculture has greatly
increased food availability over recent decades. However, this has led to big adverse environmental
impacts, such as nitrogen surplus, greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and biodiversity loss. Feeding 9 billion people in 2050 with ever
increasing per-capita consumption of meat, milk and eggs will further exacerbate this. We thus need alternatives to achieve sustainable food systems. Many experts propose organic agriculture as a promising approach to achieving this, but
many other experts contest its feasibility because of lower yields and thus higher land use. To contribute to this discussion, we quantify
the role that organic agriculture could play in sustainable food systems. For this, we
built a new global food systems model, which for the first time allows to comprehensively
capture organic production systems. Our modelling results have recently been published
in Nature Communications. Here is an example: In this graph you see
the FAO projection of the food system for 2050. We find that a 100% conversion to organic
agriculture needs up to 30% more land than conventional agriculture but reduces nitrogen
surplus and pesticide use significantly. Here, the critics are right – organic agriculture
cannot feed the world without huge increases in land use, if we assume the consumption
patterns as forecasted by the FAO: which includes increasing consumption of animal products
and high food wastage levels. And exactly this is important. To fully analyse
food systems, we cannot focus on production only, we also have to address consumption.
Thus, we also calculated what happens when we implement further sustainability strategies.
First, this is reduced use of animal feed that competes with human food production,
such as grains and forage maize from croplands. Second, we looked at the reduction of food wastage. And here are the results how it looks like when we reduce food-competing feed and food wastage by 50%. It is clear that this means
a severe cut in production and consumption of animal products.
Land use under organic agriculture remains slightly below the FAO projection. And we
still have the benefits from reduced nitrogen surplus and pesticide use.
Thus, organic agriculture can contribute to sustainable food systems. The question on
whether organic agriculture can feed the world needs to address not only yields, but also waste strategies, livestock feed and human consumption. In our paper you can find further results on additional environmental indicators and other scenarios, including the impact of climate change. With our modelling results, we hope to contribute to an unprejudiced discussion of sustainable food systems.