Organic farmers look to R&D to boost yields, save planet


Ensuring both food security and environmental sustainability is possible, argues a platform which is currently sketching a vision and strategic research agenda for organic food and farming.

"Massive production of food for decades has come at a tremendous environmental cost," said Alexander Beck of the Association of Organic Food Processors, speaking earlier this month (14 July). 

While not perfect, organic farming is "by far the best solution" for securing both food and environmental security, he argued, adding that the sector was enjoying strong growth despite the current economic crisis.

Heino Graf von Bassewitz, chair of the organic farming group at Copa-Cogeca, the EU farmers' organisation, predicted even stronger market growth in the future as "organics will become cheaper once oil prices increase again [oil is a key ingredient for producing pesticides, predominant in traditional farming] and thanks to the eco-intensification of organics". 

The Worldwatch Institute last week (23 July) presented figures showing that organic agriculture has more than doubled worldwide since 2000. But yields still remain far below those of traditional farming methods, which use fertilisers and pesticides.

Increasing productivity while respecting the environment

In order to address the productivity issue, research is being undertaken at European level. 

The TP Organics technology platform for organic food and farming research was launched in December 2008. It brings together industry, the research community and civil society to define organic research priorities for the period up to 2025 (EURACTIV 04/12/08). 

According to its vision, organic food production has "huge potential" to mitigate a range of major global problems, such as climate change, food security and socio-economic challenges in rural areas, but more research funding is needed for it to do so effectively. 

'Eco-functional intensification' of organic farming is one of the ideas put forward by TP Organics, the EU platform for organic food and farming. It stands for "producing more food without compromising the quality of the environment, of foods, the quality of life of farmers and welfare of farm animals".

The platform suggests carrying out more research into using natural resources more efficiently, improving nutrient recycling techniques, and developing agro-ecological methods for enhancing diversity and the health of soils, crops and livestock. 

The main aim is to tackle insufficient productivity and stability of yields, which are identified as the main weaknesses of organic agriculture. 

Climate change: Boosting agriculture's resilience 

As weather conditions become more unpredictable and extremes more predominant due to climate change, TP Organics stresses resilience as an important property of farm systems.

'Eco-intensified' organic production systems are expected to be "more resilient and highly adaptive to the unpredictability of climate change scenarios". However, resilience can only be achieved by conducting more research into drought-tolerant agri-systems, which are both self-sufficient in nutrients and resilient to pests and environmental change.

TP Organics calls for more focus on diversity of crops, fields, rotations, landscapes and a variety of farm activities as "a key to better adaptation to climate change," the platform argues. Other adaptation techniques, such as breeding or irrigation, are said to be "time-consuming or demand expensive investment".

The platform particularly stresses the role of biodiversity as an "important driving factor for system stability and a prerequisite for sustainable pest and disease management". Biodiversity and agro-ecosystems can be stabilised by improving soil fertility and habitat management, and diversifying landscape complexity and the genetic make-up of crops, it said.

In addition to the eco-functional intensification of organics, the two other key visions set out in the platform's draft Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) include empowering rural areas and producing high quality foods for health and well-being. 

EU farm policy to reward ecosystem service delivery?

Niels Halberg, director of the International Centre for Research in Organic Food Systems (ICROFS), said that while agriculture depends on ecosystem services, "60% of them are already degraded" and it is necessary to "enhance the linkage between ecosystem services and food production".

Using EU subsidies to reward farmers' contribution to protecting resources and biodiversity is currently being debated in view of the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy after 2013 (EURACTIV 03/06/09).

Organic farming is a method of production which emphasises environmental protection and animal welfare considerations. It avoids or largely reduces the use of synthetic chemical inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides, additives and medicinal products. 

In response to "the rapid increase in the number of farmers producing organically and strong demand from consumers," the European Commission adopted a European action plan for organic food and farming in June 2004. It sets out initiatives aimed at developing the market for organic food and improving standards by increasing efficacy, transparency and consumer confidence. 

According to Eurostat, only 1.6% of all EU-25 agricultural holdings were organic in 2005, but the average size of these organic holdings was "larger than for all holdings": 39 hectares per organic holding, compared with 16 hectares per holding on average. 

Italy had the largest proportion of organic farming as a proportion of total utilised agricultural area: 1.1 million hectares, which represents 17% of the EU-25's total organic area. It was followed by Germany and Spain, which each account for 0.8 million hectares, the UK with 0.6 million and France with 0.56m.

  • July 2009: First draft of the TP Organics' Strategic Research Agenda.
  • By end 2009: TP Organics' Strategic Research Agenda finalised. 
  • 2009/2010: TP Organics' action plan for research developed.

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