New study shows that organic farming can feed the world

New study shows that organic farming can feed the world

Converting to organic farming could contribute to a more comprehensive and sustainable food system, say leading climate change academics.

Professor Pete Smith from the University of Aberdeen is part of a group of scientists who have published a new study in the renowned scientific journal Nature Communications. The new study, led by  the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Switzerland, shows that organic farming can play an important role in a sustainable global food system, but would need to be combined with reduced consumption of animal products, avoiding concentrated livestock feed and reduced food waste.

The results of this would have a positive effect on important environmental aspects such as reduced water pollution from excess nitrogen and pesticides.

Professor Smith from the University’s School of Biological Sciences, commented: “I have always questioned whether organic farming could be a viable large scale option, since organic yields tend to be lower, and I thought is questionable whether organic farming could feed the world. The purpose of this study was to examine that question – are there circumstances under which organic farming could feed 9-10 billion people in 2050? We find that if consumption of animal products is reduced, if concentrate feeds are reduced for feeding the remaining livestock and if waste is reduced, organic farming could indeed feed the world.

“The world’s food security would be ensured even with 10 billion people in 2050, agricultural land area would not increase and the negative effects of today’s intensive food systems, such as nitrogen surplus and high pesticide exposure, would be greatly reduced. However, the conversion to organic farming - should consumption patterns remain unchanged - would lead to increased land use change to agriculture.

“This study is important as it shows we are not committed to remain on the express train to ever greater intensification of agriculture. If we are willing to reduce our consumption of animal products, reduce food waste, and to feed the remaining animals in the food system according to their biology - ruminants fed on grass and pigs and poultry fed on food leftovers - we can not only feed everyone in 2050, we choose the food production systems we want. We can step off of that express train and feed people more sustainably, be that through organic farming or other more-sustainable farming systems, of which there are many. The key to this brighter future for farming is enabled by reduced consumption of meat and other livestock products and reducing waste – if we, as a society, can manage to do this, we can feed everyone on the planet with reduced environmental impact. That has to be a good thing."

This study was carried out as a collaboration between FiBL, the FAO, the University of Aberdeen, the Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt and ETH Zurich, and was funded by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO, Rome, Italy.