What are the advantages of inorganic farming

Organic isn't always better : Organic farming does little for the climate

Organic farming is better than conventional - this is what is often heard. This is justified with the more economical use of pesticides and the positive effect on the landscape and biodiversity. And the climate protection effect of organic farming is being cited as an argument with increasing frequency.

However, this is only partly true. Although the greenhouse gas emissions actually decrease in most cases when switching to organic farming, so do the yields. To compensate for this, additional areas have to be cultivated so that the bottom line is that there are similarly high or even higher emissions of greenhouse gases. This is shown again - like other studies before - the current study by a team led by Laurence Smith from Cranfield University in Great Britain.

Tagesspiegel Background Energy & Climate

Coal phase-out, climate change, sector coupling: the briefing for the energy and climate sector. For decision-makers and experts from business, politics, associations, science and NGOs.

Free test now!

The researchers have calculated how the emissions of greenhouse gases would change if agriculture in England and Wales were completely converted to "organic". This is about carbon dioxide that comes from fossil fuels, for example for heating or for refueling tractors. Methane, which is released mainly by ruminants, and nitrous oxide, which is especially released when fertilizers are used, were also analyzed.

With 100 percent organic, the yields collapse: 40 percent of the food is missing

According to the study published in the specialist magazine "Nature Communications", the 100 percent organic scenario does reduce greenhouse gas emissions: up to 20 percent for grain and vegetables and up to four percent for livestock farming. But the yields also collapse. If the population's diet remained unchanged, up to 40 percent of the food would be missing, the researchers write. This is mainly due to the low yields, a consequence of the reduced nitrogen supply, as this is only supplied by certain plants - such as legumes - and cow dung.

Imports would have to be increased to make up for the missing income. According to the team's calculations, almost five times as much space abroad would have to be used to supply the missing food for England and Wales. This turns the climate advantage of the eco-approach into its opposite, since emissions abroad also have to be taken into account. Just in the event that only a quarter of the additional area is gained by plowing up grassland, the total greenhouse gas emissions would be about as high as with current conventional cultivation.

But as soon as more grassland is plowed, which is very likely, the emissions rise above the current level, depending on the scenario by more than one and a half times. A decrease in emissions in the all-organic scenario is only possible if the yields are increased significantly or the diet is far-reaching changes, is the conclusion of the authors.

More organic food only helps the climate if the diet changes too

"The main statement that organic farming offers little or no possibility of climate protection is also confirmed by other publications," says Felix Creutzig from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons (MCC) in Berlin, who is not involved in the study. "However, organic farming and regionalization of food production combined with reduced meat consumption can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally." Organic farming should therefore be combined with a change in eating habits.

This is what Smith and colleagues argue. Fewer livestock means that less land is needed for fodder and more crops can be grown for human consumption. How realistic the frequently proclaimed food turnaround is remains to be seen. "Organic consumers today made a conscious choice and are not typical of the nation as a whole," says co-author Adrian Williams of Cranfield University. "Whether a different diet is possible on the same area of ​​land and solely through organic production would have to be investigated in further studies."

Ultimately, this question applies to all countries, including Germany. In 2017, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture amounted to 66.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (all greenhouse gases converted to the effect of carbon dioxide), which makes up a good seven percent of all emissions in the country. The largest proportions are methane emissions from the stomachs of ruminants, nitrous oxide emissions from nitrogen fertilization and emissions from drained peat soils, according to the Thünen Institute in Braunschweig. They mainly affect conventional agriculture, which, with an area share of 91 percent, is still way ahead of organic farming.

The experts see great savings potential in fertilization: through more precise use, which is more oriented towards the needs of the plants, over-fertilization could be avoided and the yield could still be kept high. There is little potential for savings in ruminants. High-performance dairy cows have an increased metabolism, so that the greenhouse gas emissions per animal increase. In relation to one liter of milk, the emissions from the top cows are lower than from the mediocre milk suppliers.

Organic farming shifts environmental problems and "probably negative" on a global scale

According to the Thünen Institute, a similar picture emerges for the performance-related greenhouse gas emissions from fattening pigs. Smith's team also reports that organic production of eggs and poultry has a worse carbon footprint due to poorer feed conversion, longer rearing times and higher mortality rates.

These examples show that the question “organic” or “conventional” is not that easy to answer. Organic scores, for example, with a more favorable pollutant balance and locally improved biodiversity. “Regional, labor-intensive organic farming can also strengthen the local economy and social cohesion,” says MCC researcher Creutzig. Conventional agriculture tends to be ahead in terms of climate protection and uses the land more effectively. In view of the increasing global demand for food and, at the same time, massive competition for land with settlements or the cultivation of biofuels, this is a major advantage.

“An assessment of sustainability has to include more than just‘ land use and greenhouse gases, ”says Adrian Müller from the Institute for Environmental Decisions at ETH Zurich. It is also about nitrogen and other nutrient surpluses, about toxicity, about soil depletion and so on. "If you add the other indicators, then organic farming provides a more comprehensive, sustainable system than the conventional one."

The environmental researcher Klaus Butterbach-Bahl from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology is more cautious: Areas with organic farming would benefit, but environmental problems are shifting so that this type of economy is "probably negative" on a global scale. In his opinion, a number of potentials have not yet been used. “Many concepts such as the circular economy for nutrients or the interlinking of grain and livestock farming should also be given greater consideration in conventional agriculture,” he says.

Less animal products, less throw away

Some researchers advocate combining the advantages of organic farming with those of modern breeding methods, i.e. genetic engineering. For example, to make the plants less susceptible to diseases and climatic stress and thus to increase the yield in a limited space. Adrian Müller does not belong to this group, but he says: "As a scientist, I advocate that one should also look at these methods with an open mind when it comes to the goal of sustainable agriculture." But just as organic is used as a label today Genetic engineering has no place in it. And a link is "difficult to communicate".

Müller emphasizes that not only farmers but also consumers can play a decisive role in climate protection: buy fewer animal products and throw them away less. If Germany were to achieve its target for 2030 of halving food waste at retail and consumer level, the greenhouse gas emissions attributable to food consumption would be reduced by 9.5 percent compared to 2015, according to the Thünen Institute.

According to the study, this can be achieved if consumers plan their shopping more consciously and, for example, take existing stocks into account. The trade is also required and can avoid incentives to buy more, such as large packs and special offers. (with smc)

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page