Nature Communications volume 8, Article number: 1290 (2017 ) Cite this article
Organic agriculture is proposed as a promising approach to achieving sustainable food systems, but its feasibility is also contested. We use a food systems model that addresses agronomic characteristics of organic agriculture to analyze the role that organic agriculture could play in sustainable food systems. Here we show that a 100% conversion to organic agriculture needs more land than conventional agriculture but reduces N-surplus and pesticide use. However, in combination with reductions of food wastage and food-competing feed from arable land, with correspondingly reduced production and consumption of animal products, land use under organic agriculture remains below the reference scenario. Other indicators such as greenhouse gas emissions also improve, but adequate nitrogen supply is challenging. Besides focusing on production, sustainable food systems need to address waste, crop–grass–livestock interdependencies and human consumption. None of the corresponding strategies needs full implementation and their combined partial implementation delivers a more sustainable food future.
Intensification of agriculture has greatly increased food availability over recent decades. However, this has led to considerable adverse environmental impacts, such as increases in reactive nitrogen over-supply, eutrophication of land and water bodies, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and biodiversity losses1,2,3,4,5,6. It is commonly assumed that by 2050, agricultural output will have to further increase by 50% to feed the projected global population of over 9 billion7. This challenge is further exacerbated by changing dietary patterns. It is, therefore, crucial to curb the negative environmental impacts of agriculture, while ensuring that the same quantity of food can be delivered. There are many proposals for achieving this goal, such as further increasing efficiency in production and resource use, or adopting holistic approaches such as agroecology and organic production, or reducing consumption of animal products and food wastage8,9,10,11.