SLU news

New study on food production and climate gets attention

Published: 18 December 2018

Based on a scientific article in Nature, Swedish news media has reported that organic food is significantly worse for the climate than conventional. EPOK's director Maria Wivstad comments.

The conclusions regarding organic production are based on the fact that organic systems often produce less per unit area. The researchers behind the article in Nature mean that there is a lot to gain on intensifying food production per hectare because it would allow for more carbon sequestration in the soil, if taken out from food production. This can be done, for example, by tree planting or letting the natural vegetation return.

"It is reputable researchers behind the study and a renowned journal", says Maria Wivstad, and continues:

"It is also an interesting perspective to include the potential for storing carbon, both in the fields where food is grown and in other kinds of land areas. On the other hand, the study does not provide a basis for evaluating the contributions and shortcomings of organic agriculture in its entirety. Organic production is actually very little mentioned in the article."

The article does not either answer the question of the political and economic instruments that would be required for the land being "saved" to be used for increased carbon storage and the cost of this.

More aspects than climate for sustainable food production
In the western world, where we use large amounts of fertilizers, fossil fuels and pesticides, there are clear data that the yield levels usually are lower in organic production. However, according to Maria Wivstad, there are indications that a transition to more agroecological methods in many parts of the world, such as in developing countries, can lead to more intensive production and higher productivity. However, there is not much data about this and thus it becomes difficult to count on.

The scientific article deals only with climate impact and does not include other aspects. Negative consequences for biodiversity, also seen as a survival issue, or negative effects of pesticide use such as health risks to farm workers and adverse effects in the environment are not mentioned. Organic production systems and methods have positive effects on biodiversity, long-term soil fertility, and reduce the spread of pesticide residues to the environment.

Maria Wivstad believes that we must discuss how far we are prepared to go to increase the intensity of food production in relation to other environmental and health costs.

"My perspective is that organic farming has an important role to play in pushing for the development towards a more sustainable food production, but that there are more initiatives that can contribute and that in many cases the productivity and yields in future organic production both could and need to grow bigger", she concludes.

Karin Ullvén


The article in Nature: Searchinger, T., Wirsenius, S., Beringer, T. & Dumas, P. 2018. Assessing the Efficiency of Land Use Changes for Mitigating Climate Change. Nature.


Diet and food is also of great importance
In a scientific study that partially relates to the referred article and published last year, the authors conclude that it would be possible to achieve sustainable food production, even in terms of reducing climate impact, by having a slightly more extensive production with lower crop levels than what we have in the western world today, if we at the same time change our diet towards smaller animalies and that we reduce the big waste of food

(Muller et al., 2017. Strategies for feeding the world more sustainably with organic agriculture. Nature Communications)

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