The advantages of organic agriculture, scientific review by FiBL

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The German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), as part of the Federal Program for Organic Agriculture (BÖL), funded the scientific review of the Research Institute on Organic Agriculture (FiBL) which explores the benefits of this system in the various areas of ‘energy’, ‘climate protection’, ‘water protection’, ‘biodiversity’, ‘health’ and ‘convenience’.

The analysis of scientific literature demonstrates that organic agriculture – in addition to being subject to specific European regulations and additional official controls, since 1991 (1) – is the most sustainable production system, (2) also from an economic point of view. Energy saving (-50%), reduction of nitrates in aquifers (-50%), increase in biodiversity (+30%) and much more.

1) Organic farming, introduction

Organic farming promotes natural interrelationships in ecosystems, through nutrient cycles that are as integrated as possible since they are based on the use of internal resources and the minimization of nutrient losses. (3) The production strategy is based on the cultivation of varieties less susceptible to diseases and parasites, as well as crop rotations that include legumes and enhance microbiological biodiversity, to promote healthy soils. (4)

This logic system includes the use of beneficial insects, biostimulants and biopreparations based on microorganisms (5) – to control parasites, nourish plants and strengthen the plant microbiota – as well as mechanical weeding, which agriculture 4.0 could automate. Instead of resorting to external factors that are resource and energy intensive, as well as toxic, such as chemically synthesized pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers. The only permitted pesticides have a natural basis. (6)

2) Economic sustainability, energy saving and ‘food security’

Sustainability of agricultural practices in the European Union takes on a new dimension, including an economic one, in the face of dizzying increases in the costs of energy and inputs in agriculture. Although organic agriculture requires more frequent physical treatments in some cases, its overall energy consumption per hectare is almost halved compared to that of conventional agriculture. This saving is mainly due to the high energy consumption required for the production of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides (Müller, FiBL, 2023). (7)

Global food demand is estimated to increase between 35 and 55% in the period 2010-2050, due to population growth. This need can be better met in organic agriculture, compared to conventional agriculture, thanks to its favorable impact on soil productivity and resource savings. Also through the reduction of waste and meat consumption, which will be able to compensate for the lower organic yields thanks to the greater availability of land now used to produce feed (Sanders et al., FiBL, 2023). (8)

3) Biodiversity and agrobiodiversity

Biodiversity and agrobiodiversity – in constant decline, in the Old Continent, due to policies already censured by the European Court of Auditors (9) – can increase significantly, up to and over 30%, thanks to organic agriculture. Which in fact supports the growth of a variety of species, including soil organisms, insects, birds and mammals (Pfiffner, FiBL, 2023). (10)

Agroecology – thanks to the rediscovery, use and rotation of a greater variety of crops, in addition to the ban on the use of herbicides, pesticides and other toxic chemicals – was indeed recommended by FAO (2019) precisely because of its positive effects on diversity and abundance of flora and fauna, in fields and ecosystems. (11) With further benefits for essential ecosystem services (i.e. natural pollination).

Effects of organic farming on biodiversity
Fig. 1. Effects of organic agriculture on biodiversity (Lukas Pfiffner, 2023). (10)

5) Water protection

The protection of groundwater and surface water is one of the objectives of organic agriculture. The FiBL study reports the successful examples of the municipalities of Munich, Leipzig (Canitz) and the district of Lower Franconia, where the systemic application of organic agriculture in the areas of protection and collection of drinking water has allowed a drastic reduction in the levels of nitrates (Hess, 2023). (12)

The first two causes of chemical contamination of water intended for human consumption in Europe, nitrates and pesticides, it is underlined:

– are directly caused by conventional farming practices, and vice versa excluded from organic farming;

– widely exceed the safety limits defined by the European legislator; (13)

– are always associated with cancer risks and often also with genotoxicity, i.e. damage to DNA that is passed on to future generations.

AMR (Anti-Microbial Resistance), of which antibiotic resistance is part, (14) in turn also derives from the contamination of water with veterinary medicines, the use of which in organic livestock farming is strictly limited.

6) Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, accumulation of carbon in soils

Climate change often sees animal husbandry in the dock. FAO (2019) has in fact recommended five interventions in this area, with the precise aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. (15) The ‘mainstream media’, however, neglects the emissions of ‘greenhouse gases’ (GHGs) associated with the production and use of easily soluble nitrogen fertilizers. In addition to deforestation linked to monocultures of oil palm and GMO soy. (16)

A systematic review – ‘Advantages of organic farming for climate protection‘ (Adrian Müller, Jürn Sanders, FiBL, 2023) – demonstrates how organic agriculture, in comparison with conventional agriculture, can:

– reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% per hectare of cultivated area, thanks to the non-use of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides;

– absorb 10% more CO2 in the soil, thanks to the accumulation of humus which absorbs carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to retain it in the soil. With an overall average saving of 1 t CO2-eq/ha. (17)

7) Organic foods, nutritional and health benefits

The FiBL scientific review on the nutritional and health benefits associated with the consumption of organic foods (Anita Frehner, FiBL, 2023) reports the results of various research which show their different composition compared to conventional foods:

– Vitamins. Organic fruit and vegetables have higher levels of vitamin C, fruit has higher levels of vitamins A and E, organic dairy products have higher contents of a-tocopherol (a form of vitamin E);

– minerals. Higher levels of minerals have been found in organic fruits, vegetables and grains;

– unsaturated fatty acids. Organic products of animal origin have higher levels of Omega-3 in dairy products and meat, linoleic acid in dairy products, thanks to the administration of greater quantities of green fodder;

– bioactive compounds. The total levels of bioactive compounds are higher in organic fruit and vegetables, as well as in extra virgin olive oil. (18) Higher levels of antioxidants and phenolic compounds have also been found in organic cereals. ‘This is due to the fact that plants in organic farming protect themselves from diseases and parasites with secondary plant substances, not using chemically synthetic pesticides‘. (19)

7.1) Organic foods, intestinal microbiota and health

The intestinal microbiota and so the immune system – in addition to overall health – benefits from the consumption of organic foods, as we have seen, thanks to their much greater richness in microorganisms beneficial to health. (20)

Pesticide residues contained in conventional foods, on the other hand, accumulate in the body. As demonstrated by tests conducted on the urine of almost 7.000 residents in various regions of France, where glyphosate was identified in 99,8% of the samples (Grau et al., 2022). (21)

Food additives allowed in processed organic foods, it is worth adding, are six times lower than those allowed in conventional food products. (19) With much more restrictive limits in the case of nitrites and nitrates.

8) Organic foods, consumer prices

Organic productions can guarantee fair remuneration for farmers and workers in agriculture – as seen (Röös et al., 2021. See note 22) – compared to conventional ones. The study ‘Organic doesn’t have to be more expensive’ by Ulrich Hamm (2023) delves into the issue of consumer prices of organic food products compared to conventional ones, highlighting the following:

– both the generality of consumers and those who usually purchase organic foods, in Germany and neighboring countries, consider these products more expensive than conventional ones;

– statistics on the retail market in Germany show that the prices of organic foods are higher than those of non-organic foods, on average, by 20%;

– the inclusion of organic products in supermarkets and discount stores has contributed to the greater accessibility of their prices. Just as it should happen in direct sales markets, due to the absence of intermediaries;

– significant variations, exceeding 100%, are also recorded within both categories of products, organic and non-organic. The prices of conventional ‘premium’ products often exceed organic equivalents. (23)

9) Share organic values

The generality of consumers continues not to understand the value of the organic supply chain which, from a ‘One Health’ perspective, expresses the best – for human and environmental health, as well as for animal welfare – compared to ‘conventional’ supply chains. Consumer trust towards organic certifications is still low or very low (35% of the sample, in a survey conducted by PwC in Germany in 2021) or even zero (10% of participants in the aforementioned study). (23)

Share values of the organic system is essential to stimulate demand for its products and thus the conversion of farms towards the only agri-food production model today capable of offering important benefits not only for individuals and their families but also for communities and future generations.

Bottom-up communication and the activism of each of us is all the more essential since unfortunately, as we have seen, the large agricultural confederations and the global monopolists of pesticides and seeds are instead dragging the institutions towards an antithetical production model, anchored to the unregulated abuse of agrotoxics and GMO monocultures (now behind the mocking acronym NGTs) designed to resist them, only to then poison the planet and all of us. As HB4 wheat ultimately demonstrates. (24)

Dario Dongo

Footnotes

(1) Donato Ferrucci, Dario Dongo. Organic controls in Italy, the ABC and the data. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(2) Dario Dongo, Donato Ferrucci. Sustainable agriculture, the ABC. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(3) Donato Ferrucci, Dario Dongo. Nutrition of soils and crops, the integrated action plan in the EU. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(4) Gabriele Sapienza, Dario Dongo. Microbial biodiversity of soils in Europe, analyzes and perspectives. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(5) Gabriele Sapienza. Biopreparations based on microorganisms, regulation and benefits. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(6) Marta Strinati. Pesticides used in conventional and bio. Comparison of toxicity. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(7) Adrian Müller (2023). Organic farming saves energy. FIBL https://www.fibl.org/fileadmin/documents/en/germany/chapter-7-sanders-etal-2023-UGOE-Final-Report.pdf

(8) Jürn Sanders, Robert Hermanowski (2023). Organic farming stands for sustainable yields. FIBL https://www.fibl.org/fileadmin/documents/en/germany/chapter-3-sanders-etal-2023-UGOE-Final-Report.pdf

(9) Dario Dongo, Marina De Nobili. CAP, pesticides and biodiversity. Report of the EU Court of Auditors. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(10) Lukas Pfiffner (2023). More biodiversity through organic farming. FIBL
https://www.fibl.org/fileadmin/documents/en/germany/chapter-6-sanders-etal-2023-UGOE-Final-Report.pdf

(11) Dario Dongo, Camilla Fincardi. Agroecology, SDGs, salvation. The FAO Decalogue. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(12) Jürgen Hess (2023). Water management wants organic farming. FIBL
https://www.fibl.org/fileadmin/documents/en/germany/chapter-5-sanders-etal-2023-UGOE-Final-Report.pdf

(13) Gabriele Sapienza. ISPRA, 2022 report on pesticides in Italian waters. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(14) Dario Dongo, Sabrina Bergamini. Antibiotic resistance, the silent pandemic. Egalité. 15.12.23

(15) Dario Dongo, Marina De Nobili. Animal husbandry, FAO proposes 5 intervention areas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(16) Dario Dongo. Land robbery and deforestation, palm oil and GMO soybeans. #Buycott! GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 4.8.19

(17) Adrian Müller, Jürn Sanders (2023). Advantages of organic farming for climate protection. FIBL
https://www.fibl.org/fileadmin/documents/en/germany/chapter-4-sanders-etal-2023-UGOE-Final-Report.pdf

(18) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Organic extra virgin olive oil, organic olives and health. The polyphenols that matter. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(19) Anita Frehner (2023). Organic food has numerous nutritional benefits. FIBL https://www.fibl.org/fileadmin/documents/en/germany/chapter-8-sanders-etal-2023-UGOE-Final-Report.pdf

(20) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Organic food and the immune system, scientific evidence. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(21) Marta Strinati. Glyphosate in the urine of 99,8% of French people. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(22) Dario Dongo, Giulia Orsi. Organic farming. Resilience and food security, fair remuneration. The Swedish study. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(23) Ulrich Hamm (2023). Organic doesn’t have to be more expensive. FIBL
https://www.fibl.org/fileadmin/documents/en/germany/chapter-9-sanders-etal-2023-UGOE-Final-Report.pdf

(24) Dario Dongo. GMO HB4 wheat conquers the world. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.