Myths and Facts about Organic Farming

Media storm about organic farming

There has been a media storm lately regarding the productivity of organic farming compared to conventional farming methods in the two major Swedish daily newspapers. The debate has mostly been between different groups of scientists having a “pro” conventional farming attitude versus scientist being “pro” organic farming. It all started with a group of scientist from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) promoting a new book in which they claim that ecological farming on a massive scale would lead to starvation because of lower yields. In response a number of other scientist argued that these type of statements where unscientific, emotional and cherry picking of statistic without providing a proper context (for more on the content of the debates see DN and SVD). So I did some digging and the following post will bust some myths and present some facts about organic farming. Before I go on to some of the statements posed in the article, I will just briefly give some context to the challenges we are facing globally regarding food production.

The challenge of sustainable food production

Today there are 7.2 billion people on the planet. In a world committed to feeding a population of 9.6 billion by 2050 (UN, 2013) we face unprecedented risks and challenges. As we know, we are currently putting extreme pressure on the Earth’s climate and ecosystems. There are so many of us now that we are disrupting the whole planet’s nutrient and energy flows and degrading ecosystems worldwide (MEA, 2005; Rockström et al. 2009). Food production is central to solving our environmental dilemma. Over 35% of Earth’s land surface is devoted to agriculture which gobbles up 70% of global freshwater use and contributes with 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Foley et al., 2011). Climate change (fig1) and topsoil erosion (fig2), interacting with increasingly uneven access to declining oil, water, and phosphorus supplies (Sverdrup et al. 2013) will greatly exacerbate the unpredictability of agricultural production. Yet an estimated 33% of global food production is wasted (FAO, 2011). This is a depressing fact of how unsustainable our current food system is. Globally, we need to reduce waste and make food more accessible to vulnerable people at the same time as we raise farmers livelihoods. And farming systems need to go from carbon source to carbon sink, building organic matter in soils, raising productivity and resilience to droughts. Sweden is in a unique position to meet these challenges because we have a small population relative to land area and crop yields will increase as climate warms (not accounting for potential increase in floods etc). 

Climate change projected impacts on crop yields 2050 (3° C World). Source: WRI (2013)

The area of agricultural topsoil of the Earth peaked in 2005. Soils form very
slowly, of the order of millimetres per 100 years. Source: Sverdrup et al. 2013

Busting Myths 

Myth 1. Organic farming leads to starvation
This statement is just plain wrong. People are not starving due to lack of food production, there is enough food (enough for 12-14 billion people). People starve because of poverty, lack of access to food, infrastructure and trade policy. 1 billion people suffer from starvation and another billion is malnourished, despite the fact that 70% of these people are themselves small farmers. The conventional food system is broken. In a global agricultural assessment on behalf of the UN and the World Bank, 400 experts came to the conclusion that new food production practices based on ecological principles is the future (IAASTD, 2011). Another study from the UN with the title “Wake up before it is too late” (UNCTAD, 2013) concludes that the world needs a paradigm shift from a “green revolution” to an “ecological intensification” approach, from todays conventional, monoculture-based and high external input dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.

Myth 2. Organic farming results in half the amount of food
Incorrect. Badgley et al. (2006) compared average yield ratio (organic:non-organic) and found that organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the global population, and potentially more. They further concluded that leguminous cover crops could fix enough nitrogen to replace the amount of synthetic fertilizers in use. A study in Nature (2012) found that organic yields tend to be lower than conventional yields but that this is highly contextual. The authors state that under certain conditions (i.e. good management practices, particular crop types and growing conditions) organic systems can nearly match conventional yields. Good management practices include for example: composting, no tilling, and rainwater harvesting. In Sweden, conventional farms may give a higher yield but this is not the case in developing countries.

Myth 3. Organic farming cannot provide for a growing population
As shown above this is not true, there is the potential but a major problem is that 70% of agricultural lands are used to raise cattle (FAO, 2006) and 30% of produced food is wasted. If we really wanted to limit our impact on the environment and world hunger we should eat less meat and stop throwing away perfectly good food. 

Myth 4. Organic farming is worse for the environment

Wrong! I cannot believe these people are scientists. Organic farming when applied with sound agro-ecological principles (such as crop rotation, keeping livestock and crops on one farm to supply for fertilizers, keeping patches of vegetation and trees for animals to migrate e.g. pollination bees) is good for the environment, animal welfare and humans.  According to Livsmedelsverket, ecological farming replaces chemical fertilizers and pesticides with other agricultural methods (e.g. livestock manure). Feed for livestock is mainly produced on the farm and the use of drugs e.g. antibiotics are limited. Animals also get more time to pasture and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not allowed. Jordbruksverket (2012) estimate large benefits with lower use of chemicals and increased living space for wild plants and animals etc.  

Illustration from Granstedt (2013)

A look at Swedish Agriculture and Food Consumption

In 2010, Sweden had 81 ha/holding of organic farming, above 10% of utilized agricultural area (European Commission, 2013). Of current total cropland about 75% is considered to have high yields, resulting in 800 000 hectares with potential for improvements (LRF, 2012). Most greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture comes Nitrus Oxide (N2O) emitted through the use of synthetic fertilizers. Nitrous oxide is also emitted during the breakdown of nitrogen in livestock manure. Methane (CH4) is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted from agriculture. Domestic livestock such as cattle and sheep produce large amounts of CH4 as part of their normal digestive process. Also, when animals' manure is stored or managed CH4 is produced. The third most common greenhouse gas emitted from agriculture is carbon dioxide (CO2) from cultivated fertile soils (see chart below). Conventional heavy soil tillage influence CO2 emissions because it accelerates the loss of soil organic matter. See chart below for overview of emissions from agriculture. In Swedish agriculture, crops only use 40% of the supplied Nitrogen and 65% of the supplied Phosphorus and only a small fraction are recycled into croplands. Here we could make improvements.

But what we eat also matters. Sweden imports 50% of all food consumed, compared to the 30% in 1950 (LRF, 2012). Food consumption and waste amounts to 25% of Swedish household greenhouse gas emissions (Naturvårdsverket, 2008). What we eat has to change if we want to meet our climate goals according to one report (SLU, 2012). Below is a chart showing greenhouse gas emissions from various protein sources.
Data from SLU (2012)
We can do more but today it often comes down to producers and consumers. Farming is not a lucrative business and many farmers, especially small and medium sized, rely on government subsidies to make a living. But Sweden is in a unique position geographically with increases in yields as climate becomes warmer, compared to decreases in yields close to the equator and the south. At the same time loss in yields in many of the large grain areas of the world will likely make food overall more expensive, so relying on imports to such a large extent is perhaps not a sound food security strategy. We need to bare this in mind when we make future plans for our agricultural sector.


By giving a oversimplified and many times incorrect picture of organic farming the SLU authors seems to have a vested interest in conventional farming or simply provoking debate to gain attention for their new book. But organic farming has become a topic of scientific controversy it seems. It need not be, we need all the improvements we can get. For example, agriculture and food production is still largely dependent on oil for machinery and transportation. It will be difficult to replace that input. Organic food production is no panacea for more sustainable food production everywhere. Context matters. But I am glad that we are having a debate about what type of farming we want to promote. I also think we have an obligation towards farmers here and around the globe to provide them with support and sufficient funds for sustainable practices since our very future depend on them growing our food. According to the UN there is a farmer suicide crisis worldwide. The impact of an industrial approach to boosting crop yields has stripped many small farmers of their self-sufficiency and thrown them into despair. Financial pressures, livestock disease, poor harvest, climate change, government policies and legislation can devastate farmers. We may run the risk of losing valuable knowledge skills, at a time when we need them the most. 


Out of the ashes into the fire

0 kommentarer: