Agroecology, 6 systems compared. The benefits of organic for farmers. Analysis

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Agroecology is the only way forward. Not only to reduce the impact of cultivation on the environment and public health, but also to safeguard farmers’ incomes. Of the 6 systems compared, organic is the most cost-effective.

Stratégie France, a transalpine government agency, has published an analysis where it considers the need for a rapid transition to truly sustainable agriculture, for several reasons:

– decrease the contribution of agriculture and animal husbandry to atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions, estimated in France at 20 percent of the total,

– Reduce resource consumption and protect biodiversity,

– ensure the income of farmers, one-third of whom live below the poverty level in France,

– Improve food and nutrition security, broadly understood as meeting the food needs of the population. (1)

Agroecology, 6 systems compared

Agroecology is a rather broad concept. Includes all agricultural practices based on the optimal use of natural resources to minimize the use of chemical inputs (fertilizers and agrotoxics, antibiotics in animal husbandry) and increase the resilience of agricultural enterprises.

To measure its performance, French researchers selected 23 parameters characteristic of agroecology, variously captured in the 6 standards most in vogue in French agriculture. Very different systems, grouped into two broad categories based on the gradualness of adherence to environmental requirements, the presence of official labeling recognizable by consumers, and CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) funding.

First group, biological system and HVE(High Environmental Value)

Organic is the cutting edge of agroecology. Crop productions are remodeled to fertilize plants and protect them from pests without relying on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (as well as herbicides, e.g., glyphosate, and fungicides). On farms, special attention is paid to animal welfare, with larger spaces and outdoor permanence, exclusively organic diet and strict ban on preventive use of antibiotics. Protection of biodiversity, soil and water is imperative. Organic is recognizable by European certification and is supported by CAP from the transition phase (from conventional to organic). In 2018, land under organic cultivation was 7.5 percent of the UAA (Utilized Agricultural Area) in the EU(Eurostat). Some private standards (such as Demeter, Nature et Progrès and Bio Cohérence in France)-require adherence to European organic system rules to which they add additional requirements.

HVE(High Environmental Value) is an environmental certification scheme devised in France in 2011 and applied only within its borders, with 5,399 farms certified. Depending on the commitments made on biodiversity, pesticides, fertilizer and water, HVE gives a score (A, B, C). Certification postulates complete transformation of the production process and is granted only for C level. It does not enjoy specific funding.

Second group, the least virtuous systems

The second group of farming systems evaluated in the study includes initiatives based on conventional (or integrated) agriculture, with the addition of some environmental damage mitigation measures.

This includes all farms that adopt CAP-funded ‘Agri-environmental and Climate Measures’ (MAECs), but also the various voluntary initiatives organized by business networks or retail brands. (2) In France there are essentially three:

DEPHY network, 3,000 member farms. The goal is to share practices for pesticide reduction. The voluntary standard has two levels, depending on the reduction in treatment frequency (IFT) from the regional average (-50% or -70%),

Lu’Harmony, a private LU brand initiative, certifies 1,700 farmers who comply with a specification that addresses land choice, biodiversity, landscape, nutrition, and health,

AgriCO2, an initiative launched by the Terrena cooperative and shared by 2,800 farmers. It provides for seven improvement measures, including feed care to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, crop rotation, and environmentally friendly tractor use.

Efficiency according to two evaluations

The comparison of the economic performance of the above agricultural systems was carried out in two ways:

a first examination, based on national economic data (e.g., data from Inra, Insee, homologous to our Inps and Istat) related to the agricultural sector ,compared turnover, income and other values indicative of business economic performance,

a second assessment was formulated according to a theoretical model, which assumes the agroecological conversion of a 100-hectare conventional grain farm according to the criteria of five different systems: organic, two grades of the DEPHY standard, HVE level B, and Lu’Harmony.

Organic, the most profitable system

Both evaluations also elected the organic system as the most cost-effective for farmers. Although its requirements are more stringent, the profit margins of organic farms are on average double (+103%) those of conventional farms. At the end of the conversion phase, moreover, organic is the only system (among the six tested) that can ensure a 25 percent gain (net of CAP aid).

Underlying the primacy are objective elements. Organic farms save on the cost of the
inputs
(fertilizers, pesticides), the prices of organic products are higher and less vulnerable to list price fluctuations. The greater variety in production in turn ensures more stable yields in the long run. These benefits offset very well the higher costs associated with sometimes lower yields, mechanical weeding and more extensive use of labor.

How to support conversion

French policy, already focused on supporting domestic agricultural production, is looking for useful solutions to encourage the ecological transition of its supply chains.

The tools that could accelerate this process are identified as the reshaping of public aid to agriculture (CAP first and foremost) and an incentive to improve the environmental standards of production.

Unsustainable CAP

Funding provided under CAP currently ends up more generously to the least sustainable farms. Although organic is well assisted, including with conversion aid, a comparison of European funding with the agroecological parameters of the beneficiaries shows that ‘in field crops, for example, total aid amounts per hectare are higher for MAEC system benchmarks than for AB (organic farming, ed.) benchmarks. In other words: it is the least environmentally demanding production that receives the most‘, explain the authors of the report.

The public aid mechanism should therefore be remodeled according to the financial efforts made by farmers to reduce their impact on the environment. Coupling it with a bonus-malus mechanism on pesticide use. Essentially, the introduction of a tax on agrotoxics and the use of the revenue in supporting conversions to agroecology.

The role of consumAtors

All the measures suggested will not be sufficient without the participation of other actors. The catering and distribution channel, but mostly consumers. The transition of the food system toward sustainability requires an evolution in consumption practices as well, conclude the authors of the French study.

Reducing food waste and rebalancing the household consumption basket could make it possible to offset the generally higher price of certified organic or HVE foods compared to products from conventional agriculture. Consume less and better, in short. Centering reliance on productions presented as sustainable but resting on self-declarations that all need to be verified. Exemplary is the French case of foods labeled as ‘pesticide residue-free’ found to be contaminated instead.

Marta Strinati

Notes

1) Alice Grémillet, Julien Fosse,
Les performances économiques et environnementales de l’agroécologie.
, France Stratégie. August 2020

2) See Regulation (EU) 1305/2013, Article 28 – Agro-climatic-environmental payments.

Marta Strinati

Professional journalist since January 1995, he has worked for newspapers (Il Messaggero, Paese Sera, La Stampa) and periodicals (NumeroUno, Il Salvagente). She is the author of journalistic surveys on food, she has published the book "Reading labels to know what we eat".