Executive summary

Food systems need to become more sustainable, and farming has a key role to play. Organic farming is often touted as the way forward, as it is aiming for more sustainable farming practices. However, organic farming also presents dilemmas. The most significant drawback is the low productivity level, and consequently that it requires more land. This poses a risk to the food system and the planet. Organic farming alone cannot feed the world population. Crop-land expansion leads to more greenhouse gas emissions per ton of food produced and is harmful to biodiversity.

Yara will support organic farmers in addressing these issues and in implementing best nutrient management practices. The company’s core competence is managing nutrients in the most sustainable and efficient way. Yara is open-minded to any crop production system and believes that a science-based, transparent and comprehensive approach to sustainability is required. Sustainable farming should be the focus in policy development, rather than upholding one particular farming system as the goal.

Download our position paper on Organic Farming

Feeding the world
Feeding the world

Organic farming

Objectives and current situation

Organic farming aims to produce food using natural substances and processes. Governments or associations define the rules and regulations governing the production, distribution and marketing of organic products. There are variations in different geographies. In Europe, the European Union sets out the principles. Organic farming prohibits the use of agrochemicals, encourage high standards of animal welfare and places a strong focus on biodiversity. Although mineral fertilisers only consist of naturally occurring nutrients, organic farming restricts the use of most mineral fertilisers, because they are processed industrially. Mineral fertilisers such as micronutrients are allowed if the farmer can prove nutrient deficiency. A lack of plant nutrients is the main explanation for why organic farming systems experience lower yields per hectare.

1.5 billion hectares of land is used for crop production globally. Organic farming accounts for around 71.5 million hectares, i.e. 4.8 percent of the total arable land. Agriculture covers roughly 40 percent of the land in Europe. In the EU, the organic area increased by 70 percent from 2007 to 2017, from 7.3 to 12.6 million hectares. Because the productivity level is typically lower, the price of organic products is generally higher, and it serves a relatively small market segment.

Developments in Europe

In 2019, the European Commission launched the European Green Deal, which sets out policy initiatives to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. It includes a strategy that addresses the challenges of sustainable food systems, called the Farm to Fork Strategy.5 One objective is to have at least 25 percent of the European Union’s agricultural land under organic farming by 2030. The Commission will develop an action plan on organic farming to help member states stimulate both supply and demand for organic products.

Feeding the world

Today, there are almost eight billion people on the planet, and the world population is expected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050. About half of all food globally is produced using mineral fertilisers.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that around one-third of the food produced each year is lost or wasted.8 A part of the increase in food demand can be met by eliminating or reducing food loss and improving infrastructure. Research shows that a healthy crop that has received the right nutrients has a longer shelf-life, and mineral fertilisers can thereby contribute to the reduction of food waste.

Sustainable intensification of primary food production is paramount to meet future demand even with additional efforts to mitigate losses. Without the implementation of measures that reduce the demand, organic farming alone cannot sustain the present global population, nor the population projected to live on this planet in the decades to come. The primary concern is the lower yield levels for the major cereal crops. Productive agriculture is needed to ensure affordable food. A fast shift to low-yield production can have a shock-effect on food prices.

Productivity levels and their climate effects

Annual crop yields on organic farms are on average significantly lower, ranging between 40 percent and 85 percent of conventional farming yield.11 The correct way to compare the productivity of farming systems is to assess the averages from many farms over large areas and several years. The productivity measure needs to also consider the unproductive years, e.g. if legumes crops are grown to fix nitrogen.

The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture (as much as 47 percent) comes from the conversion of natural land into farmland. We should measure greenhouse gas emissions as emissions per tonne of food produced, rather than emissions per hectare.
Organic farming faces two major challenges. First, organic farming will always require more land to produce the same amount of crop, and research indicates that an additional 65 percent to 200 percent extra land is required.  A large-scale transition to organic farming would lead to cropland expansion, with the consequence of a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Secondly, larger cropland areas would reduce areas of untouched nature which would pose a challenge to biodiversity.

Optimising agricultural productivity is needed in all farming systems, for economic, environmental and social reasons.

Environment and resource efficiency

There are other environmental impacts of agriculture than greenhouse gas emissions and consumption of land area. Adding more nutrients than the crops require, either from mineral fertilisers or organic fertilisers, can cause leaching. If excessive nutrients reach water bodies, overgrowth of algae (eutrophication) can occur. Good farm management practices and a strict focus on nutrient use efficiency is key regardless of farming system.

Resource efficiency is necessary to contribute to a zero-waste society. In farming, this means to both use the nutrients already available on the farm as fertilisers, such as manure and crop residues, and to innovate with the aim of safely bringing recycled nutrients from other sources (e.g. wastewater sludge) back into the loop as fertilisers.

Nutritious and healthy food

There is no evidence of a difference in nutritional quality between organically and conventionally produced food, as shown in a systematic review of studies. Both for nutritional content, food safety and taste it is suggested that the variance between farms, seasons, soils and the lengths of the supply chains accounts for most of the differences observed in food quality.

Improve your farm's nitrogen fertiliser efficiency

Improve your farm's nitrogen fertiliser efficiency

Improving nitrogen fertiliser efficiency is one way your farm can become more productive, profitable and sustainable. Try our quiz to find out how you can improve your farm's nitrogen fertiliser efficiency.

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