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Organic Farming – addressing the challenges of global food production

Date Published: 22/05/2017

Food production

Executive Summary

At a time when food security and sustainability demand that we address the challenges faced by our global food system, the inherent benefits of organic food production systems offers real and practical solutions.

Global agriculture is facing huge challenges.  According to the UN, the global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050.  Combined with a growing demand for a meat and dairy rich diet, some predict this will require global food production to rise by 50% to 100% to meet this growth.

At the same time, emissions modelling suggests that agriculture-related emissions alone will take up almost 100% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050 – suggesting agricultural activity alone could trigger a 2% rise in temperature.  Clearly, business as usual isn’t going to work.
Some see the answer in new systems, such as Sustainable Intensification (SI) where yields are increased without adverse environmental impact or cultivation of more land.  This would be achieved through greater efficiency, new technologies and managing agriculture to use ecosystem services, such as biological pest control, to optimise food production.

The sustainable intensification (SI) model offers some promising ideas, but fails to address fundamental issues.  Primarily, a system based on increasing intensification of resources by making better use of land, water and biodiversity, suggests that agriculture remains intent on extracting cash value from natural resources rather than protecting them for future generations.
In fact, simply producing more food is not going to answer the long terms needs of mankind. The World Economic Forum points out that to sustainably feed future populations, it is vital to reduce food waste and curb per capita consumption of meat and dairy.  Currently, food availability in developed countries represents 150 to 200% of nutritional needs in calorific terms – rising to 300–400% if indirect calories fed to livestock are included.  Put simply, rich countries have more food surpluses than ever before.

Intensification also raises questions about the treatment of farmed animals – from animal welfare concerns to the climate impact of grain fed intensive farming system.

The issues surrounding intensive farming of livestock are highlighted by the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, caused partly by the reliance on antibiotics as a prophylactic method of disease control in livestock. In order to ensure their continuing effectiveness in treating human disease, use of antibiotics must be restricted to treating animals only when they are ill.  Research is increasingly showing that this can only be achieved by putting animals under less stress and by increasing the resting periods of animal housing.  In short, by reducing the intensity of animal production.

What we need is a fundamental change in food and farming policy that supports a high nutrition diet while protecting natural resources and limiting climate change.

This is where organic food production can lead the way.  While other farming systems address some aspects of the sustainability challenge, only food produced using organic principles and practices addresses these many challenges at once.

Organic producers know that food production systems must begin with soil health and management at their core.  All agricultural practices have to be considered in the context of the best soil management – avoiding inputs, such as agrochemicals, that can have a negative impact on the soil.  It is only by putting soil at the very heart of agricultural policy that long term, sustainable food production can be ensured.

The cornerstones of an organic food system are soil health and vitality; animal welfare; the need to work with, rather than against nature, and positively impact on biodiversity. These result in the production of nutritious, healthy food that avoids contamination by pesticides.

It is recognised that yields of some organic crops (but not all) can be lower than the same non-organic crops and this can be for various reasons. Often this is due to the lack of research and subsequent knowledge of the farmer but if mankind is to survive then the debate around yield has to be set within the context of diet as well as in investment in research and development. Our diet has evolved over the millennia, one of the great evolutionary advantages we possess and western diets have even changed significantly over the last 50 years. The truth is that we can eat well, remain healthy and feed a global population of nine billion sustainably but it will be on a different diet to the current diet of the western world.

Organic offers a farming ethos that focuses on local supply, that relies on the minimum of external inputs and that offers high nutritional quality.  It, also, delivers on the broader needs of society in providing a clean and flourishing environment, that helps mitigate climate change, and that doesn’t rely on antibiotics to deliver its welfare outcomes or agrochemicals and fertilisers derived from fossil fuels to ensure food is produced.

What organic systems do not allow is a ‘pick and mix’ approach where particular elements can be extracted in isolation – organic is a whole system approach.

Given this holistic systems based approach in organic production, the sector has codified the principles and practises that are deemed acceptable in organic production, and these were first set in law in the early 1990s. In a free market economy the standards provide a ‘line in the sand’ to help bring consistency, integrity and equivalence within the market and ensure the veracity of the organic food people buy.

Everyone has an innate need to understand what something is and to be able to clearly identify it. In the current environment with ‘sustainability’ now more than ever on people’s lips there is a serious danger that all things that purport to have some degree of ‘sustainability’ are seen as equal. This will undoubtedly lead to confusion and a subsequent loss of confidence by the consumer as people find out that what they believed they were buying into is not what they thought it was. It goes to the heart of the increasing demand from consumers for the need to understand how and where their food is produced and manufactured.  The need for absolute clarity on sourcing, provenance and integrity is paramount.

Organic certification is important in demonstrating that food is produced to a recognised set of legal standards because in a world of ‘facts’ and ‘alternative facts’ it is critical that we can clearly identify organic food. In so doing everyone has the confidence to make an informed decision about what they are buying and more importantly the fundamental principles they are buying into.

For the OF&G White Paper in full download here