Every year, in January is the biggest International Food fair in Berlin, Germany, with 400,000 to 500,000 visitors. This International Green Week was used to present the results of the comparison of conventional and organic farming systems in Germany regarding climate impact.
Organic farming is considered to be a resource-saving, environmentally sound and sustainable form of agriculture. The German government is aiming for an area share of organic farming of 30 % by 2030. This target can only be achieved if the demand for organic food increases strongly. However, due to high energy prices and uncertain economic development, sales in the organic trade have been falling since March 2022. As a result, in addition to the 30 % target, important environmental and climate protection goals are also at risk.
Long-term study on environmental and climate protection impacts
This study analyses the environmental and climate impacts of organic farming in comparison to conventional farming. The study is based on the results of investigations in a Germany-wide network of pilot farms, results from long-term field experiments and a literature-based meta-analysis. Due to the high environmental relevance, the nitrogen cycle and nitrogen emissions, the energy balance and energy efficiency, the humus balance and soil carbon sequestration as well as the greenhouse gas balance and climate impacts are examined. The greenhouse gas and nitrogen emissions are assessed with average environmental costs and a cost difference to conventional agriculture is calculated. Based on this data, the extent to which environmental costs can be saved through organic farming is estimated.
The system comparison of organic and conventional farms shows clear differences in farm structure and farming intensity:
Yields in organic crop production are lower than in conventional crop production, with yield differences varying according to location, crop type and management. Long-term field experiments and yield analyses in pilot farms show that, with optimal nutrient supply, high and stable energy yields can be achieved in organic crop rotations, which can reach the average yield level of conventional crop rotations. Nevertheless, further yield increases in organic farming must be achieved through the breeding of efficient and resistant varieties, improved cultivation methods, technological innovations, optimised nutrient supply and nutrient recycling, and the maintenance of crop health through new biological agents for the regulation of plant diseases. Yield increases are of strategic importance in organic agriculture, because competitiveness, organic food production and product-related environmental impacts (e.g. product-related greenhouse gas emissions) depend on them.
Further expansion of organic farming contributes to solving pressing environmental problems and reducing costs to society as follows:
Organic farming contributes to the solution of environmental problems, e.g. the reduction of environmentally and climate relevant nitrogen emissions. The independence from mineral fertiliser nitrogen makes organic farming more energy-efficient and climate-friendly in terms of area. Therefore, further agricultural and environmental policy measures should be taken to achieve the ambitious goals of a 30% share of organic farming by 2030.
The faster the conversion to organic farming takes place and the larger the area under organic cultivation, the greater the environmental relief and savings in environmental costs for society. Based on the nitrogen and greenhouse gas balances of the pilot farms and average environmental costs for nitrogen and greenhouse gas emissions (UBA 2021), the cost savings through organic farming amount to 750 to 800 € ha-1. With an area under organic farming of 1.8 million ha (2021), this corresponds to cost savings of 1.5 billion €, and with a 30% area share (target 2030) cost savings of 4 billion € in Germany.
In the current economic situation, it is first important to maintain the existing acreage of organic agriculture and to strengthen and stabilise sales of organic products. After consolidation, the cultivation area of organic agriculture should be further expanded quickly and the 30 % target implemented. This requires greater promotion of organic agriculture along the entire value chain - from the production of food and raw materials on farms, through processing and trade, to the consumer. In order to ensure global food security and reduce the environmental burden, it is important to work towards changing consumption patterns with fewer animal products.
The environmental and climate protection performance of organic agriculture can be further improved and optimised - through research and innovation, environmental and climate protection management in the value chains, consistent implementation of the principles of organic agriculture. In order to use this potential, greater investment in research and development of organic agriculture is urgently needed.