Written by: Jonathan Segeren
Is it feasible to switch to organic agriculture and promote sustainable food systems?
The agricultural industry is a leading cause of environmental degradation and ecosystem change in today’s world1. Is organic agriculture a possible solution to sustainability and food security?
The term “Organic” has become a buzzword over the past few years. Because of this, many people have developed varied perceptions of this agricultural practice. What is it exactly? Is it the food? The farm? The regulations? While many people view organic agriculture as simply ‘avoiding pesticides, and charging more’, there are many guiding principles, values and regulations that influence farmers in their decision to go organic.
IFOAM International, the guiding organization of the organic movement and sector, has identified four cornerstone principles of organic agriculture: ecology, fairness, care and health. How do these principles influence farmer’s choices to be or not to be organic? Many farmers choose to convert due to the benefits of soil health, water quality and reducing emissions among others, but there are also many social benefits such as job creation, economic resilience from diverse crops and an economic buffer from price volatility1.
While the world is looking for a healthier and more sustainable diet and is shifting away from conventional agricultural practices that degrade soil and emit greenhouse gases, organic yields are consistently lower than conventional yields2. Should this form of romanticized agriculture be implemented large-scale if it could potentially threaten global food security?
Nitrogen is essential for all crops. Nitrogen supplied in organic systems is from composts, manures or nitrogen fixers. Nitrogen supplied by legume crops would not be sufficient for field crops if the entire sector converts to organic4. Thinking globally, there are regions of sub-Saharan Africa with poor soils. Nitrogen from legumes alone will not be sufficient to feed the plants and build soil fertility in this situation. Many farmers and new farmers in this region are being pushed towards organic agriculture by Western based community development organizations4. While this could potentially build soil fertility and create a sustainable farming system long-term, perhaps it isn’t the best solution to generate sufficient yields in the short term.
While there is a yield gap, what is the potential for organic agriculture to feed a global population? Estimates from proponents and opponents range widely, between a population of 4 billion and 9 billion people. The discrepancy comes when considering lifestyle choices. While organic food production of 9 billion people is possible, it would require food waste reduction at both the consumer and value chain levels, allocating more crops to humans rather than livestock, and changing diets4. While this will place the agricultural sector within planetary bounds for land use, water use and nitrogen use (these are constantly being exceeded in today’s agricultural sector)3, it will also damage food sovereignty as some would be unable to access culturally appropriate foods. With this in mind, the yield stability that organic agriculture offers is going to be beneficial heading into a period where climate change presents a wide array of challenges.
While organic agriculture may not be the be-all-end-all sustainable solution to the demands of the global population, it does effectively combat the agricultural sector’s emissions, environmental degradation and yield volatility and thus should be seen as a key tool in the toolbox of sustainable food systems.
 Seufert, V., & Ramankutty, N. (2017). Many shades of gray—The context-dependent performance of organic agriculture. Science Advances, 3(3), e1602638. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1602638
 Connor, D. J. (2022). Relative yield of food and efficiency of land-use in organic agriculture—A regional study. Agricultural Systems, 199, 103404. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agsy.2022.103404
 Muller, A., Schader, C., El-Hage Scialabba, N., Brüggemann, J., Isensee, A., Erb, K.-H., Smith, P., Klocke, P., Leiber, F., Stolze, M., & Niggli, U. (2017). Strategies for feeding the world more sustainably with organic agriculture. Nature Communications, 8(1), Article 1. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-017-01410-w
 Connor, D. J. (2018). Organic agriculture and food security: A decade of unreason finally implodes. Field Crops Research, 225, 128–129. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fcr.2018.06.008