Organic farming can help feed the world, but only if we eat less meat and stop wasting food

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Agriculture could go organic worldwide if we cut down on food waste and stop using so much cropland to feed livestock, a new study has found.

The analysis, published in the journal Nature Communicationshows that it will take multiple strategies operating simultaneously to feed the growing human population more sustainably – and some of these strategies may also force people to change their eating habits.

The world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, which means around 2 billion more mouths to feed. This will require an increase in agricultural production by another 50%, the study authors wrote – which is an even greater challenge as eating habits have changed and the demand for meat has increased. (Raising livestock leaves a large carbon and water footprint compared to growing plant-based foods.) All of this puts additional pressure on an already taxed environment.

“It is therefore crucial to limit the negative environmental impacts of agriculture, while ensuring that the same amount of food can be delivered,” write the authors of the study.

Experts floated several strategies to deal with the looming food security problem, without reaching a clear agreement on which would be the best. Among the options: improving the efficiency of crop production and resource use; reduce food waste; reduce the animal products we consume; or resort to more organic farming.

Organic farming is a concrete, but controversial, suggestion for improving the sustainability of food systems,” the study authors wrote. “It refrains from using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, promotes crop rotation, and focuses on soil fertility and closed nutrient cycles.”

Whether organic fruits, vegetables and other crops are better for you, there is evidence to show that they can be better for the environment. Since organic crops cannot use synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, this means that less excess nitrogen acidifies the soil and ends up in waterways or escapes into the air as a gas. greenhouse effect. It also means no artificial pesticides, which means fewer chemicals in the local environment and less risk to insect biodiversity – which is important because many insects are crucial players in their local ecosystems.

But these benefits are somewhat offset by what’s known as the yield gap: the idea that organic crops require more land because their yields are lower than conventional crops fed with fertilizers and protected with pesticides. , which could lead to further deforestation. Yet, could organic crops make it possible to meet future food needs with less impact on the environment?

“Because of the yield gap, there are opposing voices saying it’s not possible… (and) there are proponents saying this yield gap isn’t really that big and that we could overcome it,” said lead author Adrian Muller, an environmental systems specialist. researcher at the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Switzerland. “We just wanted to look at it from a food systems perspective, because we think it’s not enough to just look at the yield gap. It’s important to really look at production and consumption together and see what organic farming can contribute in such a context”. food system level.

To find out, Muller and his colleagues developed models based on data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, looking at the effects that switching to organic would have under different scenarios, modulating the severity climate change, the amount of food waste and the share of crops used to feed livestock instead of people, for example.

The researchers found that the needs of the human population could be fully met by all-organic farming – but only if food waste was cut in half and competing feed sources for livestock were completely eliminated. Since this would seriously reduce the amount of livestock, it could be a tough sell on today’s meat-rich diets.

Muller said a more feasible solution might be one where organic crops make up about 50% of crops, food waste is halved, and competing food sources are halved (allowing more acreage to grow organic food). human food).

“We must use all the potential strategies we have, without supporting one extreme and excluding other approaches,” he said.

Getting to this point can still be a challenge. Organic crops represent a tiny part of agriculture as a whole, far from this target of 50%. But there are some things that can be done now, Muller pointed out, like imposing an additional “nitrogen tax” on growers so that the environmental cost of excess fertilizer becomes economic.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Muller said, “and as an optimist, I think somehow it will work out.”

Shedding Light on the Organic vs. Conventional Farming Debate: Study Calls for Combining the Best of Both Approaches

More information:
Adrian Muller et al. Strategies to feed the world more sustainably with organic farming, Nature Communication (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-01410-w

©2017 Los Angeles Times
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