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Environmental performance of organic farming

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Environmental performance of organic farming

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As a typical cradle-to-cradle approach, organic farming suits the notion of a green technology. However, a generally valid quantification of the environmental performance of organic agriculture is difficult because there is a high variability between countries, regions, farm types, and products. Furthermore, different assessment methods lead to partly contradicting conclusions on the environmental impacts of organic farming. This chapter gives an overview on the environmental impacts of organic agriculture compared with those of conventional agriculture based on state-of-the-art literature and discusses methodological implications for the comparison of environmental impacts of farming systems. According to most of the reviewed literature organic farming performs better in terms of biodiversity, soil fertility and air quality, mitigating resource depletion, climate change mitigation, and groundwater pollution as compared with conventional agriculture. However, there are single environmental indicators in some of the above-mentioned fields, against which organic agriculture performs equally or even worse (N2O emissions and CH4 emissions per unit of product produced), depending on the assumptions and methodology of the study. Finally, this paper highlights nine common methodological problems of quantifying environmental impacts of farming systems that have been identified in the reviewed literature and suggests solutions for improvement.
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183
J.I. Boye and Y. Arcand (eds.), Green Technologies in Food Production and Processing,
Food Engineering Series, DOI 10.1007/978-1-4614-1587-9_8,
© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012
8.1 Organic farming as a green technology
The environmental impacts of human activities have been increasing with growing
populations and industrialization (Meadows et al. 1972 ) . This led to the develop-
ment of green technologies, which stand out for their positive environmental impacts
or the avoided negative environmental impacts. Green technologies feature con-
cepts like sustainability, “cradle-to-cradle” design, input reduction, innovation, and
viability.
Organic farming suits this notion of a green technology. Organic farming has
emerged in the course of the twentieth century as an environmentally friendly alter-
native to conventional agriculture (Niggli 2007 ; Vogt 2007 ) . In the course of rapid
structural change, conventional agriculture became increasingly capital intensive,
input dependent, and specialized. Bound to strict rules regarding nutrient cycling
and input avoidance, organic farming did not follow this path, which led to a signifi -
cant gap between the two farming systems over time. Lampkin ( 1990 ) stresses,
however, that several misconceptions exist regarding organic farming: commonly,
organic farming is conceived as farming in the pre-1939 style or a production
method that does not use chemicals, substitutes mineral fertilizers with organic fer-
tilizers, and bans pesticides. However, the role of agro-ecosystem management and
other progressive management practices is often ignored in such conceptions.
C. Schader (*) M. Stolze A. Gattinger
Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) , Frick , Switzerland
e-mail: christian.schader@fi bl.org ; matthias.stolze@fi bl.org ; andreas.gattinger@fi bl.org
Chapter 8
Environmental performance of organic
farming
Christian Schader , Matthias Stolze , and Andreas Gattinger
184 C. Schader et al.
The international umbrella organization of organic agriculture, the International
Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), defi nes organic agricul-
ture as:
[…] a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies
on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the
use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and
science to benefi t the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality
of life for all involved (IFOAM
2009 ) .
This defi nition highlights the “largely self-sustaining” (Köpke et al. 1997 ) nature
of organic farming as a farming system. Thus, organic farming seems to meet the
requirements for being a green technology. According to the above defi nition,
organic farming is sustainable because it does not jeopardize needs of future genera-
tions, following the concepts of “cradle-to-cradle” design, input reduction, and sus-
taining soil fertility. Its worldwide rapid growth of 1.5 million hectares (ha) between
2006 and 2009 ( Willer and Kilcher 2009 ) demonstrates its economic viability and
its power to overcome self-imposed system restrictions by innovation.
Certifi cation of organic farms is an important means to both establish credibility
for consumers and guarantee a higher willingness-to-pay for organic produce com-
pared to conventional products (Krystallis and Chryssohoidis 2005 ) . Thus, certifi ca-
tion generates additional farm income in order to make organic agriculture economically
viable. Detailed standards, principles, and aims are set out by IFOAM in the periodi-
cally revised “IFOAM Norms.” These contain the “IFOAM Basic Standards” and the
“IFOAM Accreditation Criteria” as an international guideline for national standards
in organic agriculture. According to Huber et al. ( 2010 ) 73 countries have imple-
mented organic legislation, whereas 16 countries are currently in the process of draft-
ing a legislation. In the EU, for instance, Council Regulation (EC) No. 834/2007
1 was
also based on the IFOAM Basic Standards and provides a binding framework for EU
Member States (IFOAM 2009 ) . More detailed rules for the implementation of organic
farming in the member states are set out in Commission Regulation (EC) No.
889/2008.
2 In Switzerland, the federal (country-wide) standards
3 have been devel-
oped according to Council Regulation (EEC) No. 2092/91
4 and were updated in
2010 according to Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007.
1 Council Regulation (EC) No. 834/2007 of 28 June 2007 on organic production and labelling of
organic products, repealing Regulation (EEC) No. 2092/91, O.J. L 189/21 2007. This regulation was
amended by Council Regulation (EC) No. 967/2008 of 29 September 2008, O.J. L 264/1 (2008).
2 Commission Regulation (EC) No. 889/2008 of 5 September 2008 laying down detailed rules for
the implementation of Council Regulation (EC) No. 834/2007 on organic production and labelling
of organic products O.J. L 250/1, which was amended by Commission Regulation (EC) No.
1254/2008 of 15 December 2008, amending Regulation (EC) 889/2008 laying down detailed rules
for implementation of Council Regulation (EC) No. 834/2007, O.J. L 337/80.
3 Ordinance on Organic Farming. Verordnung des EVD vom 22. September 1997 über die biolo-
gische Landwirtschaft (SR 910.181).
4 Council Regulation (EEC) No. 2092/91 of 24 June 1991 on organic production of agricultural
products and indications referring there to on agricultural products and foodstuffs.
185
8 Environmental performance of organic farming
This chapter aims at comparing the environmental impacts of organic agriculture
with those of conventional agriculture based on state-of-the-art literature. Further-
more, it aims at discussing methodological implications for the comparison of envi-
ronmental impacts of farming systems.
Subsequent to this introduction, Sect.
8.2 focuses on the comparison of the envi-
ronmental impacts of organic farming on biodiversity, climate change, resource
depletion, ground and surface water pollution, air quality, and soil fertility with
those of conventional farming. Section
8.3 discusses methodological implications
of current research on the environmental impacts of farming systems by describing
the most important problems of environmental assessments and by suggesting solu-
tions for dealing with these problems. Finally in Sect. 8.4 , conclusions are drawn
regarding the impacts of organic farming.
8.2 Environmental impacts of organic farming
It is important to assess and quantify how green organic farming actually is. This is
done by comparing organic agriculture with other farming systems, usually referred to
as “conventional” agriculture. Acknowledging the fact that conventional agricultural
practices are already diverse, it is diffi cult to determine its exact impacts. Moreover,
agriculture as it is practiced in reality diverts from laws, standards, and regulations.
Thus, there are basically two possible approaches for such a comparison:
Normative comparison , i.e., comparing (minimum) standards: farming systems
are assessed according to the environmental standards that have to be fulfi lled.
For conventional farming this is usually the environmental law or—if existing—
cross-compliance standards.
Positive comparison , i.e., comparing real farms: In reality farms divert from stan-
dards, laws, and regulations which they have to fulfi l. For example, not all farms
comply with minimum standards, such as an even nutrient balance. On the other
hand other farms voluntarily tend to meet higher standards than they are obliged to.
Either type of comparison as well as blends of both can be found in literature.
However, for drawing conclusions in this book chapter (i.e., to assess the environ-
mental performance of organic farming as a green technology in practice), we will
opt for the positive comparison.
As shown below, there are many studies identifying the positive and negative
environmental effects of organic products or organic agriculture. Environmental
impacts are grouped according to the types of natural resources concerned. In order
to analyze the environmental impacts of organic farming on biotic and abiotic
resources, fi rst, biodiversity and landscape impacts will be looked at. After that
climate change mitigation, resource depletion, ground and surface water pollution,
air quality, and soil fertility will we reviewed. Social, economic, and ethological
impacts of organic agriculture, such as provision of labor in rural regions, health
benefi ts, and an increased animal welfare are not considered in this chapter.
186 C. Schader et al.
8.2.1 Biodiversity and landscape
Biodiversity can be described according to four different levels. First, diversity
within species (genetic diversity) includes the diversity of farm animals and crops.
Genetic diversity enables species to adapt to changing environments (e.g., caused by
climate change). Second, it is expressed at species level (encompassing faunal and
oral diversity), most simply by monitoring the species in selected groups, such as
birds or plants in a certain area. Third, biodiversity can be expressed in terms of the
regional diversity of habitats and ecosystems in which species live (Christie et al.
2006 ) . Fourth, ecosystem functions describe services delivered by functioning natu-
ral systems to humans. One of the key messages of a major study on “The Economics
of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB) was the “inextricable link between pov-
erty and the loss of ecosystems and biodiversity” (TEEB. 2010 ) .
Owing to agricultural activities, a great variety of ecosystems have been created
which, overall, have enhanced biological diversity. On the other hand, agriculture
negatively affects biodiversity directly through cultivation practices. Furthermore, it
affects biodiversity indirectly through nitrogen emissions into the air and CO
2 emis-
sions into the atmosphere. On land under intensive agricultural cultivation, biodiver-
sity decreases signifi cantly because of the high nutrient infl ux, high cutting
frequencies on meadows, high stocking rates, use of pesticides, and modern methods
of processing cut grass (Knop et al. 2006 ) . In Alpine lowlands many diverse agricul-
tural ecosystems have disappeared, while in the mountain regions two parallel trends
are apparent: the intensifi cation of productive areas and the abandonment of unpro-
ductive but ecologically valuable areas (Aeschenbacher and Badertscher 2008 ) .
Biodiversity effects are among the most frequently studied environmental
impacts of organic agriculture. Recent metastudies (Bengtsson et al. 2005 ; Fuller
et al. 2005 ; Hole et al. 2005 ) show clear differences between organic and conven-
tional farming systems. In very rare cases, organic production was found to have
negative impacts, although this was outweighed by studies showing positive impacts.
The differences vary among taxonomic groups, but for each species group large dif-
ferences were found (Table 8.1 ). On average, about 50% greater species diversity
was achieved on organic farms (Niggli et al. 2008 ) .
Organic farming practices are most benefi cial for birds, predatory insects, spi-
ders, soil organisms, and the arable weed fl ora, while pests and indifferent organ-
isms do not show different levels of abundance in the farming systems. Furthermore,
differences in arable land between the farming systems are more pronounced than
on grassland (Niggli et al. 2008 ).
Apart from differences at species-group level, structural differences at farm level
are prevalent between organic and nonorganic farms (Gibson et al. 2007 ; Schader
et al. 2008b ) . In addition, Boutin et al. ( 2008 ) identifi ed higher species richness in
seminatural habitats on organic farms compared with conventional farms.
Genetic biodiversity is infl uenced both positively and negatively by organic
farming. On the one hand many organic farmers cultivate rare plant and animal spe-
cies on their farms (e.g., because they are better adapted to local conditions); on the
187
8 Environmental performance of organic farming
other hand the restriction on admission of varieties hampers genetic diversity.
Because there is insuffi cient scientifi c evidence on the impacts of organic farming
on genetic biodiversity, we assume both farming systems to perform equally well.
Concerning landscape and habitat diversity, organic farming may perform better
because of more diverse crop rotations (Norton et al. 2009 ) and higher implementa-
tion rates of structural elements such as hedges and fruit trees (Schader et al. 2009 ) .
However, landscape effects are very farm and site specifi c. Therefore, no general
trend can be determined (Steiner 2006 ) .
In a Swiss study, Schader ( 2009 ) analyzed the average habitat quality by combin-
ing an economic sector-representative farm group model (Sanders et al. 2005 ) with
a species diversity model by Jeanneret et al. ( 2006 ) for different farm types, regions,
and all of Switzerland. Figure 8.1 shows the average habitat quality in different
farming systems for fi ve species groups (that are on the red list of endangered spe-
cies) and 11 indicator species as well as for an overall habitat quality indicator.
Average habitat quality is expressed as a percentage of a hypothetical maximum
habitat quality, which is achieved in an optimal habitat quality under optimal farm
management conditions (=100%). The study showed that the average habitat quality
over all species is 25% on organic farms and 16% on conventional farms. Schader
attributed the 55% improvement of habitat quality to the on-average higher share of
grassland, the on-average lower grassland intensity (lower stocking density, lower
fertilization, fewer cuts) and the different farm type and regional distribution.
In summary, studies attribute the higher biodiversity in organic systems to the
following factors: (a) ban on herbicides and artifi cial pesticides, (b) ban on mineral
fertilizers, (c) more diverse rotations, (d) lower organic fertilization, (e) careful tillage,
(f) a higher share of seminatural habitats in total UAA (Utilized Agricultural Area)
(Bengtsson et al. 2005 ; Fuller et al. 2005 ; Hole et al. 2005 ) .
Table 8.1 Number of studies analyzing the impacts of organic farming on biodiversity with
respect to various taxa on the basis of 76 comparative studies
a
Taxa
Impacts of organic farming
Positive No difference Negative
Plants 16 2 0
Birds 11 2 0
Mammals 3 0 0
Arthropods
Beetles 15 4 5
Spiders 9 4 0
Butterfl ies 2 1 0
Bees 2 0 0
Other arthropods b 8 3 1
Bacteria, fungi and nematodes 12 8 0
Earthworms 8 4 2
Total 87 28 8
a Updated using studies from 2004 to 2008
b Mites, bugs, millipedes, fl ies, and wasps
Source: Hole et al. (
2005 ) , updated by Niggli et al. ( 2008 )
188 C. Schader et al.
8.2.2 Resource depletion
Resource depletion is a problem of similar magnitude against the background of
industrial civilizations’ growing dependency on fossil fuels (Meadows et al. 1972 ) .
The debate about peak oil (i.e., the point in time when the maximum rate of global
oil extraction has been reached) is currently increasing in intensity (Zittel and
Schindler 2007 ) . Agriculture, once a net energy producer has today become a net
energy consumer for some commodities. Given the need for effi cient resource use,
energy use has become a standard environmental indicator (Pimentel et al. 2005 ;
Frischknecht et al. 2007 ) .
Nevertheless, many studies suggest that the whole food system (agricultural pro-
duction, food processing, packaging, and distribution) makes up a large percentage of
energy consumption (Ziesemer 2007 ) . Studies comparing crop and animal products
conclude that crop products have much higher energy effi ciency per unit of digestible
energy than produce from animal production (Pimentel and Pimentel 2005 ) .
The impacts of organic agriculture on energy use can be analyzed on the basis of
different functional units (Halberg 2008 ) . While some studies use “area” as a unit
(Haas et al. 2001 ) , others take the weight of output from the farming system as a
reference (Grönroos et al. 2006 ) . Although the latter approach is in line with the
0%
10%
20%
30%
40%
50%
60%
All species
Amphibians (red list)
Grasshoppers (red list)
Beetles (red list)
Butterflies (red list)
Spiders (red list)
Arable weeds
Grassland weeds
Small mammals
Birds
Amphibians
Wild bees
Grasshoppers
Beetles
Butterflies
Spiders
Snails
Average habitat quality for inidcator species group
Conventional
Organic
Fig. 8.1 Average habitat quality by species group (average over all regions and farm types,
2006/2007)
189
8 Environmental performance of organic farming
standard procedure within life cycle assessments (Heijungs et al. 1992 ) and illus-
trates energy use per unit of food produced, it still has weaknesses when it comes to
analyzing agricultural systems. Often, research on farming systems encompasses
consideration of multiple outputs. Either these outputs need to be expressed in a
single unit, or an allocation of the energy use has to be performed, or again, byprod-
ucts need to be deducted to enable a comparison across all products (Schader et al.
2008a ) . A product-related assessment additionally involves the determination of the
functional unit. However, the scorings related to weight, volume, calories or protein
might produce highly varied results.
Stolze et al. ( 2000 ) also concluded that organic farming systems perform better
than conventional ones in terms of energy use. The energy use of growing perma-
nent crops (olive, citrus, vineyards) and arable crops (grains, pulses, etc.) is, related
to product output and area cultivated, lower in organic than in conventional farming
systems. However, growing potatoes organically can require equal or more energy
per product output than doing so conventionally. Also Lampkin’s review ( 2007 )
identifi ed that most product- and area-related energy use assessments of organic
farming to date show a lower energy use per-ha. Due to the generally lower productiv-
ity of organic farming, per-ha comparisons reveal higher differences than product-
based comparisons. Thus the choice of the appropriate functional unit is crucial
when comparing organic and conventional agriculture (see Sect. 8.3.2.1 in the dis-
cussion section of this chapter). Haas et al. ( 2001 ) compared organic and conven-
tional grassland farms in southern Germany. They found a 44–46% lower energy use
per ha and per ton of milk. Thomassen et al. ( 2008b ) also analyzed milk production
and found that the energy effi ciency of organic production was signifi cantly higher
compared to conventional production. They concluded that the use of concentrate
feed in particular is a major driver and has potential for reducing energy use.
Grönroos et al. ( 2006 ) calculated that fossil energy use for organic rye bread and
milk was lower by 13% for rye bread and 31% for milk—compared with conven-
tional products. In a cradle-to-(farm-) gate perspective, the difference is even higher,
with organic products consuming only 50% of the energy use of conventional prod-
ucts. Similar results were generated by Hoeppner et al. ( 2005 ) who compared the
energy use throughout a rotation. Energy use and energy output were 50% and 30%
lower, respectively, over organic rotations in a long-term fi eld experiment, which
results in higher energy effi ciency (energy use per product) of organic farming com-
pared with conventional farming.
Nemecek et al. ( 2005 ) demonstrated a lower energy use per ha and per product
unit overall in organic systems for all major crops in Switzerland. This was done by
analyzing data from long-term fi eld experiments and generating subsequent calcu-
lations aimed at generalizing the results for Switzerland. An exception to this is
potatoes, where a slightly higher energy use was calculated per ton of organic
potatoes.
Figure 8.2 shows the differences in energy use per ha between organic and con-
ventional farm types in Switzerland, based on a representative farm sample (Schader
2009 ) . Pig and poultry farms have been excluded from the graph in order to main-
tain its readability for the other farm groups; because of the high stocking rates and
190 C. Schader et al.
the high share of cereal-fed livestock, these farms have a calculative energy demand
of 195 GJ/ha (not shown in Fig. 8.2 ). Beside pig and poultry farms, conventional
mixed farms have the highest total energy use (60 GJ/ha). The average energy use
(as a sum of all energy use components) of dairy, suckler cow, other grassland,
arable and fi nally speciality crop farms ranges from 20 to 30 GJ/ha. Organic coun-
terparts have an energy use which is about a third lower (10–20 GJ/ha), except for
mixed farms where the average reduction in energy use amounts to 50%. Schader
( 2009 ) attributes the lower energy use of organic farms to lower quantities of pur-
chased feedstuffs, particularly concentrates, lower stocking densities, the ban of
mineral nitrogen fertilizers, and the absence of highly intensifi ed specialized pig
and poultry farms.
In summary, organic farming has a lower energy use per ha, and in most cases
also per mass of product, than conventional farming. There are only a few excep-
tions on the crop-production side, notably potatoes, with organic systems displaying
lower energy effi ciency owing to low relative productivity levels. While milk pro-
duction is more effi cient on organic farms, poultry production has shown slightly
lower energy effi ciency. Thus, the quantitative advantage of organic farming depends
crucially on the product, the geographic region, and the assumptions of the study.
Besides depletion of energy resources, in particular phosphorus (P) resources are
exploited as phosphorus is applied on agriculture fi elds in large quantities. Because
of the ban of easily soluble phosphate and potassium fertilizers and the widely
closed nutrient cycles, organic farming leads to a lower depletion of nutrient
resources. Positive impacts on P resource depletion are backed by life-cycle assess-
ments (Nemecek et al. 2005 ) .
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
Conven-
tional
Organic
Arable
farms
Speciality
crop farms
Dairy farms Suckler cow
farms Other grassland
farms
Mixed farms
Other
Harvesting
Fertilisation
Plant protection
Seeding
Purchasedfodder
Animal husbandry
Buildings
Energy use (GJ/ha)
Conven-
tional
Organic
Conven-
tional
Organic
Conven-
tional
Organic
Conven-
tional
Organic
Conven-
tional
Fig. 8.2 Fossil energy use per ha on conventional and organic farms by farm type (2006/2007)
191
8 Environmental performance of organic farming
There is little evidence on the impact of organic farming on water use effi ciency
(Stolze et al. 2000 ) ; however, because of lower yields organic farms might tend to
use more water per unit of output. On the other hand, lower biomass production per
area tends to make organic agriculture particularly attractive for areas with water
scarcity. Furthermore, as animal production is most water intensive, the lower stock-
ing rates of organic farms might lead to lower water use per ha.
8.2.3 Climate change
Climate change has been perceived for decades as a signifi cant global environmen-
tal problem. Over the last years in particular environmental awareness has increased
markedly within the general population, partly because of reporting on the interna-
tional negotiations in relation to the Kyoto Protocol, and partly because of more
visible impacts of climate change on ecosystems such as glaciers or Polar Regions.
The higher incidence of natural disasters such as hurricanes, droughts, and fl oods
has also contributed to the growing awareness of climate-change over the last few
years (IPCC 2007 ) . Recent studies estimate that the cost of current and projected
levels of greenhouse gas emissions and the climate change caused by them exceeds
their abatement costs (Stern 2007 ) . Because agricultural production has an impact
on all the three major greenhouse gases (CO
2 , CH 4 , and N
2 O), it is perceived as a
crucial and potentially cost-effective lever for mitigating climate change (Smith
et al. 2007 ) .
About 12–14% of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from the agricultural
sector (Smith et al. 2007 ) . However, while CH 4 and N
2 O emissions are predomi-
nantly attributable to agriculture, the share of the agricultural sector in terms of CO
2
emissions caused mainly by burning fossil fuel is disproportionately small.
The literature review of Stolze et al. ( 2000 ) found that organic agriculture bears
a lower CO
2 and NH
3 gas emission potential than conventional farming systems.
However, because of lack of scientifi c literature, they concluded that there were no
differences between these farming systems with respect to N
2 O and CH
4 .
As is the case for energy use, the impacts of organic agriculture on CO
2 emis-
sions can be analyzed on the basis of different functional units (Halberg 2008 ) .
While some studies use “area” as a unit (Haas et al. 2001 ) , most studies take the
weight of output from the farming system as a reference. Since the performance of
organic agriculture regarding CO
2 emissions is highly correlated to energy use, the
same arguments apply as for the discussion of energy use in the above section.
Unlike that of energy use though, net emissions of CO
2 (i.e., gross emissions
subtracted by the sequestration rate) need to be taken into account. There are indica-
tions of better performance regarding carbon sequestration (Olesen et al. 2006 ;
Niggli et al. 2009 ) . Several long-term trials from the United States, Germany, and
Switzerland (Mäder et al. 2002 ) show that organic farming systems are able to
sequester on average 590 kg/ha per year more carbon from the atmosphere than the
best performing conventional counterparts.
192 C. Schader et al.
In summary, organic farming has lower CO
2 emissions per ha and, in most cases,
also per ton of product than conventional farming. There are only a few exceptions
on the crop-production side, notably potatoes, with organic systems displaying
lower energy effi ciency due to low relative productivity levels. Although milk pro-
duction is more effi cient on organic farms, poultry production has shown slightly
lower energy effi ciency. Thus, the quantitative advantage of organic farming depends
crucially on the product, the geographic region, and the assumptions of the study.
Furthermore, organic farming has a potential to mitigate climate change by reduc-
ing greenhouse gas emissions through their sequestration in soil.
About 75% of CH
4 emissions stem from enteric fermentation of ruminants. There
are two different perspectives on the impact of organic farming on CH
4 emissions
per unit of output. On the one hand, CH
4 emissions could be higher owing to less
output (milk or meat) per livestock unit and time. On the other hand, many organic
farms tend to keep dairy cows for more lactation periods than conventional farms,
which lower the CH
4 emissions per unit of output during the growing up phase.
When looking at the emissions per hectare (e.g., from an agri-environmental policy
evaluator’s perspective), organic farming has lower CH
4 emissions because of lower
stocking densities.
So far, there are only a few studies available that compare N
2 O-emissions from
organic and conventional farming systems (Table 8.2 ). Chirinda et al. ( 2010 ) found
no differences in N
2 O-emissions between farming systems, while all other authors
found lower N2O-emissions per ha. Calculated per output quantity, N2O-emissions
in organic systems where equal to non-organic farming systems according to
Flessa et al. ( 2002 ) and Sehy ( 2004 ) while Nemecek et al. ( 2005 ) modelled 18%
lower N2O-emissions in organic farming systems than in conventional ones.
Table 8.2 Comparison of N 2 O emissions per unit of area under conventional and organic
management
References Country Method
Emissions in organic
systems
Lower Equal Higher
Petersen et al. (
2006 ) Austria, Denmark,
Finland, Italy, UK
Field measurement x
Chirinda et al. (
2010 ) Denmark Field measurement x
Küstermann et al. (
2008 ) Germany Modelling x
Flessa et al. (
2002 ) Germany Field measurement x a
Sehy ( 2004 ) Germany Field measurement x a
Lynch ( 2008 ) Canada Field measurement x
Nemecek et al. (
2005 ) Switzerland Modelling x b
Hansen et al. (
2008 ) Norway Field measurement x
‘X’ indicates scientifi c evidence on higher, equal, or lower N
2 O emissions under organic
management
a No difference in output-related emissions
b Output related emissions are lower in organic systems
Source: Gattinger et al. (
2010 ), Adapted
193
8 Environmental performance of organic farming
Because in general, there is a linear relationship between N-Input und N
2 O-
release and in organic farming systems N-supply is up to 50% lower than in conven-
tional farming systems, Gattinger et al. ( 2010 ) conclude that organic farming
systems have a lower N
2 O-emission potential than conventional farming systems.
In summary, data uncertainty concerning N
2 O emissions from different fertiliz-
ers and from the soil does not allow general conclusions to be drawn on the impact
of organic farming. N
2 O is emitted from agricultural soils at specifi c periods of
time, depending on nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen in the soil. Infl uencing factors on
N
2 O emissions are type and amount of nitrogen fertilization and water logging. In
general, however, N
2 O emissions could be lower owing to lower nitrogen fertiliza-
tion rates and the applications of fertilizers with lower nitrogen concentration. On
the other hand, N
2 O emissions could be higher in organic systems per unit of output
due to the higher land use.
8.2.4 Ground and surface water pollution
Eutrophication is defi ned as nutrient enrichment in sensitive ecosystems (UNECE
1999 ) . Eutrophication entails various environmental impacts that cause both the
loss of biodiversity and negative impacts on human health. Eutrophication leads to
excessive growth of algae and excessive oxygen demand, with anaerobic conditions
leading to foul smelling surface waters and fi sh death. These effects of eutrophica-
tion can be understood as societal costs, either in terms of abatement, purifi cation,
or restoration costs, or as damage costs if the negative impacts of eutrophication are
not abated or fi xed. Besides eutrophication, infl uxes of toxic substances particularly
into surface water can pose a signifi cant environmental threat because it can lead to
severe harm to aquatic life.
The main environmental risks entailed by agricultural production in relation to
ground and surface water pollution involve eutrophication with nitrogen and phos-
phorus and pesticide emissions. The leaching of mobile nitrates into ground and
surface water and gaseous emissions such as ammonia (NH
3 ) from organic fertiliz-
ers are the major contributors to nitrogen eutrophication. Ammonia emissions affect
ecosystems like forests, swamps and diverse meadows, which require low nitrogen
levels. Furthermore, ammonia emissions into ecosystems cause acidifi cation and
the release of toxic substances including heavy metals.
Nitrate pollution in the lowlands has been the most severe environmental prob-
lem resulting from post-war policies (Gruber 1992 ) . These policies provided incen-
tives to run intensive, highly-yielding agricultural production involving heavy
nutrient surpluses.
Phosphorus is relatively immobile in soils but can be emitted from agricultural
systems to surface waters by erosion and run-off processes. While phosphorus rarely
represents an environmental problem in rivers, it causes algae growth in lakes
and seas, because normally phosphorus is the limiting nutrient for algae growth.
194 C. Schader et al.
The decomposition of this additional plant material reduces the amount of oxygen.
Finally, fauna die because of anaerobic conditions. Phosphorus emissions from
agriculture give rise to high societal costs because of bad odors, costs of treatment,
and the hindrance of recreational activities.
The reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus eutrophication demands effi cient use
of these nutrients (Herzog and Richner
2005 ) . Evaluations have identifi ed that the
problem of nitrate leaching occurs predominantly in arable farming systems,
although leaching can also occur from grassland receiving high fertilizer inputs.
Therefore, Herzog and Richner ( 2005 ) suggest that farms should no longer be per-
mitted to have a 10% nutrient surplus. Apart from systems that rely heavily on
imported manures (e.g., horticultural systems), there is no nutrient surplus in organic
systems, because nutrient import onto the farm is restricted for both feedstuffs and
mineral fertilizer.
Several studies show that nitrogen leaching can be reduced by 40–64% through
organic farming (e.g., Edwards et al. 1990 ; Younie and Watson 1992 ; Eltun 1995 ;
Condron et al. 2000 ; Goulding 2000 ; Haas et al. 2001 ; Kirchmann and Bergström
2001 ; Mäder et al. 2002 ; Stopes et al. 2002 ; Auerswald et al. 2003 ; Pacini et al.
2003 ; Shepherd et al. 2003 ; Osterburg and Runge 2007 ) .
In contrast, Nemecek et al. ( 2005 ) found higher eutrophication impacts for
some organic crops compared to their conventional counterparts per kg output. In
some places, these higher nutrient loads on arable land are attributed to the greater
use of organic fertilizers in the organic system, because the life cycle assessments
used by Nemecek et al. ( 2005 ) assume relatively high fertilization rates for organic
farms.
Taking the data by Nemecek et al. ( 2005 ) and projecting them at sector level
using statistical data and an economic model, Schader ( 2009 ) found on average
35% lower eutrophication rates. Figure 8.3 shows the average eutrophication with
nitrogen for average conventional and organic farm types in Switzerland. As can
be seen, nitrate eutrophication rates on different farm types vary drastically.
Whereas farms specialized in animal production usually have nitrate leaching rates
below 20 kg N-eq/ha, organic counterparts show a more than 50% reduction.
Mixed farms have a higher nitrate leaching rate because of a higher share of arable
land, whereas organic farms have a 20% lower eutrophication rate than their con-
ventional counterparts. According to Schader ( 2009 ) , there are only a very few
organic specialized plant production farms, which makes it diffi cult to model
nitrate leaching at sector level.
In the same study phosphorus eutrophication was also modelled, which showed
a 10–20% decrease of phosphorus eutrophication on organic farm types, compared
with their conventional counterparts (Fig. 8.4 ). Other studies on impacts of organic
farming on eutrophication with phosphorus are scarce. However, acknowledging
the fact that literature indicates signifi cant efforts of organic farming to improve
soil quality and to reduce erosion risk (see section on soil fertility below), phospho-
rus runoff can be assumed to be lower in organic systems (Shepherd et al. 2003 ;
Schader 2009 ) .
195
8 Environmental performance of organic farming
-
20
40
60
80
100
120
Conventional
Conventional
Organic
Conventional
Organic
Conventional
Organic
Conventional
Organic
Conventional
Conventional
Organic
Arable
farms
Speciality crop
farms
Dairy farms Suckler cow farms Other grassland
farms
Pig and
poultry
farms
Mixed farms
Other N-compounds
Ammonia
Nitrate
Average eutrophication with nitrogen(kgN-eq/ha)
Fig. 8.3 Nitrogen eutrophication per ha on conventional and organic farms by farm type
(2006/2007)
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
Arable
farms
Speciality
crop farms
Dairy
farms
Suckler
cow
farms
Grassland
farms
Pig and
poultry
farms
Mixed
farms
Average eutrophication with phosporus(kg P-eq/ha)
Conventional
Organic
Fig. 8.4 Phosphorus eutrophication on conventional and organic farms by farm type (2006/2007)
196 C. Schader et al.
Summing up, there are three facts underlining a lower eutrophication potential of
organic farming:
Organic farming systems have lower nutrient levels, which reduces the absolute
quantity of nutrient loads that can be emitted from the system due to lower stock-
ing rates and the ban of mineral nitrogen fertilizers.
The quantity of directly available nitrogen is much lower in organically managed
soils.
Because nutrients cannot be imported easily into the systems, the opportunity
cost (shadow price) of nitrogen losses is higher for organic farms than for con-
ventional farms (Stolze et al.
2000 ) . This implies a need for more effi cient nutri-
ent management in organic systems, although this does not eliminate losses. In
addition, nitrate leaching can be high at the point of transition from the fertility
building phase of the rotation to the cropping phase.
8.2.5 Air quality
The main environmental risks in terms of air pollution are entailed by agricultural
production gaseous emissions such as ammonia (NH
3 ) from organic fertilizers and
gaseous emissions from pesticides. Furthermore, ammonia emissions affect ecosys-
tems like forests, swamps, and diverse meadows, which require low nitrogen
levels.
There are only few comparisons between ammonia emissions from organic sys-
tems compared with conventional systems. In a study on representative life cycle
assessment (LCA) approach by Schader ( 2009 ) , ammonia emissions were found to
be almost equal in both systems for each farm type. The fact, however, that special-
ized pig and poultry farms are hardly feasible according to organic standards, leads
to a substantial reduction of stocking densities and thus to a reduction of ammonia
emissions for the whole sector. Nevertheless the study assumed that fertilization
rates were equal to the nutrient needs of the crops. In reality however, in organic
systems nitrogen is applied in lower amounts, which also leads to reductions in
ammonia emissions. Finally, opportunity cost of each kg of ammonia lost from the
system is much higher on organic farms, because nitrogen cannot be fed into the
system easily (Stolze et al. 2000 ) . Therefore, organic farms should have a higher
incentive to implement strategies for reducing the loss of nitrogen via ammonia
emissions from the system.
Thus, per unit area, ammonia emissions are lower in organic systems because of
lower stocking densities, whereas per livestock unit or milk/meat produced, emis-
sions may be equal if productivity is in a similar range. Because most pesticides are
banned in organic systems, there are substantially lower pesticide emissions from
organic systems both per unit area and production unit.
197
8 Environmental performance of organic farming
8.2.6 Soil fertility
Soil is one of the major production factors of agriculture and therefore an essential
natural resource for ensuring food security. Yet agricultural production at the same
time poses a threat to this resource. According to Lal (
2004 ) agricultural soils have
lost a great share of their organic matter to wind and water erosion because of inten-
sive agriculture, which is responsible for the loss of one third of fertile lands from
1955 to 1995 (Pimentel et al. 1995 ) .
Organic agriculture encompasses a number of different activities within its sys-
tem approach, which aim at increasing organic matter content in the soil. Most
important is the ban of mineral fertilizers, which necessitates meeting the nutrient
needs of the crops by organic fertilizers (Mäder et al. 2002 ) . Furthermore, the fun-
damental importance of a crop rotation including short-term ley (i.e., nonpermanent
meadows) supports the development of fertile soils (Pimentel et al. 2005 ) .
These activities also favor biological activity in the soil. As has been reported
above in the section on biodiversity, there is clear scientifi c evidence that soils under
organic management have higher biological activity both in terms of species and
general biomass (Mäder et al. 2002 ; Pfi ffner and Luka 2007 ) . Furthermore, organic
farmers need to pay attention to soil fertility in the long term, because the ability of
the soil to capture nutrients is crucial in organic systems (Köpke 2003 ) .
Soil erosion has already been discussed in the context of phosphorus runoff,
because erosion processes are the dominant driver for phosphorus losses. There are
some studies reporting a benefi cial effect of organic farming on soil erosion and soil
structure (Siegrist et al. 1998 ; Stockdale et al. 2001 ; Shepherd et al. 2002 ) . Organic
farming performs much better in terms of soil biological activity than nonorganic
farming. Soil erosion and organic matter content are also affected positively by
organic practices.
8.3 Methodological implications for a comparison
of farming systems
In this section we fi rst present a methodological classifi cation of studies reported
according to nine characteristics. Second, we discuss implications for methodologi-
cal choices when comparing organic and conventional production systems.
8.3.1 Classifi cation of methodological characteristics
When comparing the environmental performance of organic farming with that of con-
ventional farming, there are nine different methodological characteristics by which
studies can be classifi ed following the four main phases of life cycle assessment
(Table
8.3 ). Five of these refer primarily to the phases “goal and scope defi nition” and
198 C. Schader et al.
“life cycle inventory,” whereas the remaining four focus more on the phases “life
cycle impact assessment” and “interpretation” of results.
First, the scope of the study can range from single fi elds, products, rotations, and
farms to representative studies for whole sectors or even studies at the global level,
although most studies are conducted at fi eld or product level.
Second, the functional unit may either be related to area or production. Production
can be measured by several units such as mass, energy content, protein content, or
net value added.
Third, both raw products and processed products or entire supply chains can be
assessed. Although standards for organic farming increasingly cover standards on
processing (e.g., choice of additives), only raw agricultural products were assessed
in the survey and in the bulk of studies found.
Fourth, studies can take on either a life cycle perspective or an economic per-
spective. Whereas the economic perspective usually covers only the resources used
directly in the sector, a life cycle perspective covers also environmental impacts of
inputs that occurred in earlier stages, e.g., fossil energy use for producing mineral
nitrogen fertilizers (cradle-to-gate perspective). Even use and disposal phase can be
covered, e.g., for specifi c inputs, buildings, or packaging materials (cradle-to-gate
perspective). Commonly the impact categories climate change, resource depletion
water and air pollution are assessed by agricultural life cycle assessments, usually
based on the ISO Norms 14040 and 14044. Because of methodological diffi culties,
biodiversity and soil quality are only rarely assessed using LCAs.
Fifth, as already described in Sect. 8.2 , the degree of normativeness of assump-
tions is different across studies. For example, a normative approach to assessing
fertilization would be to assume that nutrient needs of plants are covered, whereas a
positive approach is to calculate impacts based on the fertilizer amounts actually
used. Most studies have a signifi cant degree of normative assumptions in the mod-
els they use, due to a lack of empirical data.
Table 8.3 Classifi cation of methodological choices for comparing the environmental impacts of
organic and conventional farming
LCA phase Characteristic Possible methodological choices
Goal and scope
defi nition and life
cycle inventory
Scope Field, farm, region, sector-wide, global
Functional unit Area, mass, energy, protein, net value added
Stage of processing Raw product, processed and packed products
and supply chains
Life cycle perspective Life-cycle perspective (cradle-to-grave,
cradle-to-gate), economic perspective
Normativeness Based on statistics (positive view), based on
normative models
Life cycle impact
assessment and
interpretation
phase
Time perspective Static view, dynamic view
Scope of impacts Single impact category, several impacts, only
environmental impacts, all impacts relevant
for sustainability of farming system
View on sustainability Weak sustainability, strong sustainability
Units of impacts Physical/biological units, relative effects,
monetary units
199
8 Environmental performance of organic farming
Sixth, studies cover a static or dynamic perspective. All of the LCA studies
followed a static approach, as the development of dynamic LCA models is still in its
infancy.
Seventh, studies either analyze only a single environmental category, several, or
they try to cover all relevant categories. Furthermore, social and economic impact
categories are taken into consideration if aimng at a full coverage of sustainability.
Eighth, environmental impacts can either be aggregated to a single score or
remain as several individual indicators. Whereas the fi rst approach is in accordance
with the notion of weak sustainability (i.e., full substitution of natural resources),
the latter would be a strong sustainability approach.
Ninth, impacts can be expressed either in physical or monetary terms. Physical
terms are used most frequently, whereas monetary terms are mostly used in eco-
nomic comparisons. The latter approach is particularly useful if societal or farm-
level costs and the environmental performance need to be compared with each other
(e.g., using cost-benefi t analysis).
8.3.2 Discussion of methodological implications
The large number of different methodological characteristics illustrates that fi nding
appropriate methods for comparing farming systems is more diffi cult than for many
other goods and services. Depending on the goal of the study and the geographic
context, methodological choices can be very different (Hospido et al. 2010 ) .
Life cycle assessments are a generally useful approach for assessing farming
systems. Signifi cant methodological advances in the assessment of environmental
impacts of agriculture and food products were realized, owing to: (a) the introduc-
tion of life cycle thinking, which explicitly includes off-farm environmental impacts
(e.g., owing to the production of fertilizers imported by the farm); and (b) the con-
sideration of several environmental impact categories at once, instead of concentrat-
ing on a single impact category.
Yet, we see nine methodological problems with some of the current environmen-
tal impact assessments, particularly with LCAs, of farming systems. Building on the
work by Reap et al. ( 2008a, b ) , we describe them and propose ways to address them
in practical LCA work.
8.3.2.1 Consideration of the multifunctional character of agriculture
During the last decades the role of agriculture shifted from its mere production
function to a multifunctional role. Multifunctionality acknowledges the fact that
agriculture fulfi ls multiple roles in society. Apart from producing food and fi bers,
agriculture is carried out for landscape maintenance, conservation of natural
resources, and cultural purposes (OECD 2001 ) .
The functional unit needs to be chosen according to the function of agriculture
which is addressed. Within a multifunctional setting several functions should be
200 C. Schader et al.
assessed. For addressing the function of generation of rural incomes, it makes sense
to use “net value added” as a functional unit. Furthermore, in the case of agri-
environmental policy evaluations (e.g., for direct payments), particularly agricul-
ture’s role to cultivate land is addressed. In such a case “area” is the most appropriate
functional unit to consider.
If agriculture or farming systems as such are evaluated, it is necessary to consider
all relevant functional units. Thus, the functional unit “area” can be seen as address-
ing the role of agriculture to maintain landscape, “digestible energy” addresses the
function of providing food to the population, and fi nally “farm income” or “net
value added” addresses the function of agriculture to provide rural livelihoods.
However, multiple functional units are rarely considered, because this complicates
both the research and the communication of the results. Furthermore, current ISO
Standards do not offer suffi cient guidance on multiple functional units.
8.3.2.2 Covering land use impacts
Land use impacts, for example, the change of biodiversity on agricultural land or
soil fertility, can be related to an area more plausibly than to production (Schader
et al.
2008c ) . This leads to the fact that many life cycle assessments neglect or even
ignore these impact categories, although the categories are key indicators for com-
paring both farming systems. We argue that every full life cycle assessment should
address biodiversity and soil fertility impacts if a comparison between organic and
conventional agriculture is made and general conclusions on the systems’ perfor-
mance are drawn.
8.3.2.3 Heterogeneity of products
A mass-related functional unit is often used to visualize the environmental perfor-
mance of a specifi c food product to the consumer. Food quality, however, is not
considered appropriately in this functional unit as we speak of “heterogeneous prod-
ucts” when comparing conventional and organic products. The heterogeneity can be
illustrated using the higher willingness-to-pay of consumers for organic produce
(Krystallis and Chryssohoidis 2005 ) , because the organic product may fulfi l further
functions and uses. As we know from many consumer studies, at least in Europe and
North America, the choice of food products is often made irrespective of energy
content. Often products are consumed even because of their low energy content.
Furthermore, many consumers are willing to pay more for organic products not
only because of the environmental benefi ts but for expected health benefi ts. Although
not a universally held opinion, there are indications that product quality of organic
products is higher, particularly because of a lower risk of pesticide contamination and
higher concentrations of nutritionally desirable fatty acids and antioxidants (Woese
et al.
1997 ; Butler et al. 2008 ) . We suggest that this higher product quality needs to
be taken into account by choosing a monetary functional unit (e.g., consumer price).
201
8 Environmental performance of organic farming
8.3.2.4 Covering social and economic aspects of sustainable development
With the rise of the notion of sustainability (i.e., contribution to sustainable develop-
ment) more comprehensive assessments of organic farming, including economic
and social indicators, are demanded. The great complexity of a full coverage of
sustainability, however, requires neglecting many details that would be taken into
account in studies addressing specifi c environmental categories. Figure 8.5 shows
results from a sustainability assessment using the nominal group technique as a
participatory approach (Delbecq et al. 1975 ; Jeffreys 2002 ) . The results show that
neither organic nor conventional/integrated farming can be characterized as fully
sustainable (=100%). Whereas conventional farming reaches sustainability scoring
of 30–50%, organic agriculture scores better in all categories that were assessed. In
particular regarding product quality, animal welfare, and biodiversity, organic agri-
culture was evaluated with nearly 80% sustainability scorings. Around 60% of sus-
tainability score was given for the environmental indicators biodiversity, climate
change mitigation, and resource use (Schader and Stolze 2010 ) .
If a credible judgement on organic farming is to be made, all relevant impacts on
sustainability need to be analyzed and made transparent. Whether approaches such
as “social LCA” and “life cycle costing” are appropriate and feasible ways for this
remains to be determined. It needs to be stressed, however, that not all impacts that
cannot be quantitatively assessed are unimportant. We therefore suggest including
qualitative assessments if quantitative data is weak. Furthermore, inter and transdis-
ciplinary research needs to be reinforced in order to combine LCA methodologies
with social, economic and psychological methods.
0
20
40
60
80
100
Climate change mitigation
Biodiversity
Animal welfar
e
Resource use
Product quality
Working conditions
Economic performance
Food security
Organic farming
Integrated farming
Fig. 8.5 Sustainability assessment of Swiss organic agriculture
202 C. Schader et al.
8.3.2.5 Regional variations in natural system capacity
and environmental legislation
Both natural system capacity and environmental legislation varies regionally and by
country. Therefore, it matters for some environmental impacts where the pollution
occurs. Attributional LCAs tend to neglect this aspect by using “production mass” as a
sole functional unit. This problem has been addressed in water footprinting methods,
but is also relevant for eutrophication impacts, as the following example will illustrate.
A system inherent feature of organic agriculture is a lower intensity of production.
Particularly stocking rates are restricted but also other restrictions apply, depending
on the geographical context. These restrictions, on the one hand lead to lower envi-
ronmental impacts per ha and lead to lower productivity per area, at least in devel-
oped countries (Badgley et al.
2006 ) . If a policy aim is to reduce the eutrophication
of groundwater in a particular region, policy-makers might try to reduce the amount
of eutrophication in the region by lowering intensity of agriculture (e.g., by support-
ing the conversion of farmers to organic agriculture). The resulting production loss/
gap might be compensated by moving production to regions with lower production
cost (a) because of better site conditions or (b) because of less strict environmental
legislation, causing indirect land use changes.
Thus, assessing impacts that are purely production-related can lead to wrong
conclusions (i.e., a recommendation to intensify grain production if the gains in
production mass outweigh the higher eutrophication). We therefore argue that pro-
duction-related LCAs need to take into account indirect land use changes via con-
sequential approaches, the capacity of natural systems, and defi ne region-specifi c
maximally allowed pollution rates, at least if applied at a larger scale or if results
from a case study are generalized.
8.3.2.6 Consideration of the whole farm
A generic thought behind organic farming is the cradle-to-cradle design. Plant pro-
duction activities provide animal feed and animal production activities provide
organic fertilizer. One without the other is impossible and will therefore lead to
awed assessment results. Thus, there are several systems closely interlinked with
each other on a mixed farm. Up to which point should emissions from organic fertil-
izers be allocated towards animal production and plant production? A consistent
approach needs to be found, since results of different ways of allocation or system
expansion can lead to very different results (Cederberg and Stadig
2003 ) . If a whole
farm approach is used, we suggest emissions from organic manure are attributed to
animal production on the basis of the principle of economic allocation.
8.3.2.7 Normative assumptions
As was discussed above, the normativeness of assumptions creates a bias of
results for the benefi t for intensifi cation of agriculture. For example, the higher
203
8 Environmental performance of organic farming
the fertilizer amounts and the more toxic the pesticides are, the higher the risk of
negative environmental impacts if substances are applied incorrectly. If risks of
an improper use of the substances are not considered and good agricultural prac-
tice is assumed, a bias towards intensive agriculture is generated. We suggest
taking into account the risks of toxic substances owing to improper use and over
fertilization. Furthermore, empirical data need to be used as much as possible for
rendering normative assumptions superfl uous.
8.3.2.8 Resulting decisions of agents are not taken into account
There has been a long debate about attributional and consequential LCAs during the
last years. With few exceptions, consequential LCAs are hardly ever applied in the
agricultural fi eld (Schmidt
2008 ; Thomassen et al. 2008a ) . However, the consequen-
tial perspective seems to be important in particular in agricultural LCAs. As indi-
cated by the standards and restrictions of organic production, the management of
organic farming systems differs systematically from that of nonorganic farming sys-
tems. Furthermore, agri-environmental schemes usually provide farmers low sym-
bolic capital, which thus provides no incentive to change farmer’s long-term behavior
with respect to environmentally friendly farm management practices. Because
organic systems are based more on the “naturalness” of the production, organic
farmers might have a different system of cultural capital generation (Burton et al.
2008 ). Studies suggest that applying nature conservation measures is of higher sym-
bolic capital for organic farmers (Stotten 2008 ) , which might result in differences in
uptake of agri-environmental schemes (Schader et al. 2008b ) . These differences in
attitudes between organic and conventional farmers imply multiple and systematic
effects on the environment (Morris et al. 2001 ; OECD 2004 ) , which are disregarded
in most of the LCA studies that were reviewed. Thus, we argue that if organic and
conventional products are compared, a purely normative (standards-based) com-
parison leads to wrong conclusions. Positive aspects derived from empirical or mod-
elled data and consequential LCAs should be used wherever feasible.
8.3.2.9 Bias of complexity and data availability
As discussed in relation to sustainable development, impact categories that are dif-
cult to assess tend to be neglected or ignored. This results in the systematic trend
that important environmental impacts are not considered. For instance, most assess-
ments of the global warming potential do not include carbon sequestration in the
soil, although carbon stores in agricultural soils have been identifi ed as an important
factor for climate change. We suggest including these factors as much as possible
and applying in-depth sensitivity or uncertainty analysis.
Although the general use of the life cycle assessment method is seen as a signi-
cant improvement for assessing environmental impacts of agriculture, if the
above implications are not taken into account, we risk biased results of current envi-
ronmental impact assessments. We, therefore, recommend further research in order
204 C. Schader et al.
to consider the above mentioned problems, which need further methodological
developments for a sound comparison of environmental impacts of organic and
conventional products.
8.4 Conclusions
Figure 8.6 provides a qualitative overview of environmental impacts of organic
farming relative to conventional farming on the basis of the review in Sect. 8.2 and
taking into account the methodological discussion in Sect. 8.3 . The dots represent
the most frequently found result in literature. Because of regional differences, farm
and management-specifi c impacts, and gaps in scientifi c measurement methodolo-
gies, there is a range of uncertainty (blue and grey color). However, several impacts
can be determined relatively precisely, because their systematic infl uence dominates
regional or farm-specifi c differences. The following section will summaries the
conclusions regarding the different impact categories.
Impacts of organic farming on biodiversity range from much better to equal
compared with nonorganic agriculture. Genetic diversity can be infl uenced both
Organic agriculture is
Biodiversity and Landscape
Genetic diversity
Floral diversity
Faunal diversity
Habitat diversity
Landscape
Resource depletion
Nutrient resources
Energy resources
Water resources
Climate change
CO2
N2O
CH4
Ground and surface water pollution
Nitrate leaching
Phosphorus runoff
Pesticide emissions
Air quality
NH3
Pesticides
Soil fertility
Organic matter
Biological activity
Soil structure
Soil erosion
much worsemuch better better equal worse
Fig. 8.6 Classifi cation of environmental impacts and relative performance of organic farming
compared to conventional farming (Source: Stolze et al. 2000, updated)
205
8 Environmental performance of organic farming
positively and negatively in organic systems. Because of lack of scientifi c evidence,
we conclude that both systems perform equally well. According to most studies,
organic agriculture clearly performs better for faunal and fl oral species diversity
(Bengtsson et al.
2005 ) . Concerning landscape and habitat diversity , organic
farming may perform better because of more diverse crop rotations (Norton et al.
2009 ) and higher implementation rates of structural elements such as hedges and
fruit trees (Schader et al. 2009 ) . However, landscape effects are very farm and site-
specifi c. Therefore, no general trend can be determined (Steiner 2006 ) .
Regarding resource depletion , organic farming performs better regarding nutri-
ents and energy , which confi rms the evaluation done by Stolze et al. ( 2000 ) .
Compared with conventional farming, water consumption is not substantially
affected by organic farming systems.
Stolze et al. ( 2000 ) found that organic agriculture bears a lower CO
2 and NH
3 gas
emission potential than conventional farming systems. Furthermore, several long-
term trials from the United States, Germany, and Switzerland (Mäder et al. 2002 )
show that organic farming systems are able to sequester on average 590 kg/ha per
year more carbon from the atmosphere than the best performing conventional coun-
terparts. On the basis of the suggested methodological implications, organic farm-
ing is likely to perform generally better in terms of CO
2 emissions. Regarding both
CH
4 and N
2 O emissions, there is not enough scientifi c evidence to make a fi nal
judgement. Furthermore, there are indications of better performance regarding CO
2
sequestration. Thus recent studies suggest a change in the appraisal that Stolze et al.
made in 2000 from “equal” to “better.
Eutrophication of ground and surface water is very much dependent on what
exactly is the subject of comparison. The impacts of nitrate leaching from organic
farming can range from better to worse, compared to conventional agriculture.
However, most of the studies analyzed found that organic farming performs better.
Regarding pesticide emissions into ground and surface water, organic agriculture
performs much better due to the ban on artifi cial pesticides.
Ammonia emissions into the air are lower in organic systems, mainly owing to
the lower amounts of nitrogen in the system. However, depending on the assump-
tions, some studies show an equal performance of both systems. Because of the ban
of artifi cial pesticides, air pollution is also lower.
Organic farming performs much better in terms of soil biological activity than
nonorganic farming. Soil erosion and organic matter content are also affected posi-
tively by organic practices, although soil structure remains unaffected.
Both in organic and conventional farming there is potential for improving the
environmental performance. Neither of the systems currently satisfi es the principles
of sustainability. However, organic agriculture on average performs better regarding
most of the indicators than conventional systems. Furthermore, if social and eco-
nomic indicators are taken into account, organic farming seems to render further
benefi ts for society.
Methodologically, comparisons between organic farming need to be adequate to
the aims of the study. As has been shown, there are several different levels of com-
parisons regarding scope, functional unit, stage of processing, life cycle perspective,
206 C. Schader et al.
normativeness, time perspective, scope of impacts, view on sustainability, and units
of impacts. In our perception nine severe problems are commonly found in agricul-
tural LCAs and studies using similar approaches. Besides heterogeneity of produc-
tion systems, these problems are responsible for the highly fl uctuating results found
in the literature. We suggest refl ecting methodological choices more carefully, to be
aware of both the uncertainty of the results and the potentially misleading political
consequences in the communication of LCA results on agricultural enterprises to
consumers and policy makers. Future studies should furthermore integrate the anal-
ysis of environmental problems in the socio-economic context in order to come to a
comprehensive view of sustainability of farming systems.
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... The impact of organic farming on biodiversity varies from much better to equal than conventional agriculture. In particular, organic farming clearly performs better for the diversity of fauna and flora species, but genetic diversity could be affected both negatively and positively compared to conventional farming (Bengtsson et al., 2005;Schader, Stolze, & Gattinger, 2012). With respect to landscape and habitat diversity, organic farming can perform better than conventional farming because it provides higher implementation rates of structural elements such as hedges and fruit trees (Schader, Stolze, & Gattinger, 2012) and more diverse crop rotations (Norton et al. 2009). ...
... In particular, organic farming clearly performs better for the diversity of fauna and flora species, but genetic diversity could be affected both negatively and positively compared to conventional farming (Bengtsson et al., 2005;Schader, Stolze, & Gattinger, 2012). With respect to landscape and habitat diversity, organic farming can perform better than conventional farming because it provides higher implementation rates of structural elements such as hedges and fruit trees (Schader, Stolze, & Gattinger, 2012) and more diverse crop rotations (Norton et al. 2009). However, the effects on the landscape are very farm and site specific, so no general trend can be determined (Schader, Stolze, & Gattinger, 2012). ...
... With respect to landscape and habitat diversity, organic farming can perform better than conventional farming because it provides higher implementation rates of structural elements such as hedges and fruit trees (Schader, Stolze, & Gattinger, 2012) and more diverse crop rotations (Norton et al. 2009). However, the effects on the landscape are very farm and site specific, so no general trend can be determined (Schader, Stolze, & Gattinger, 2012). As far as energy consumption is concerned, organic farming has been shown to require less energy per unit of land and, above all, per unit of product than conventional agriculture (Meemken & Qaim, 2018). ...
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The environmental impacts of organic agriculture have been controversially discussed in the scientific community for many years. There are still conflicting views on how far organic agriculture can help address environmental and resource challenges, and whether its promotion is an appropriate policy approach to solving existing socioecological problems. So far, no clear perspective on these questions has been established. How can this be explained? And is there a “lock-in” of the scientific discourse? The aim of this paper is to retrace the scientific discourse on this topic and to derive possible explanations as to why environmental impacts of organic agriculture continue to be assessed differently. To this end, a qualitative content analysis was conducted with a sample of n = 93 scientific publications. In addition, expert interviews were conducted to verify the results of the literature analysis. Two main lines of discussion were identified: first, the extent to which aspects of food security should be included in the assessment of environmental aspects (thematic frame); second, the extent to which net environmental impacts or possible leakage effects because of lower yield levels should be considered (spatial frame). It is concluded that the polarizing debate mainly results from the often-binary initial question (is organic agriculture superior to conventional agriculture?). Further, aspects that have been insufficiently illuminated so far, such as the choice of reference units or normative basic assumptions in scientific sustainability assessments, should be given greater consideration in the discourse.
... Besides, organic farming with its lower use of fossil energy and the renunciation from mineral fertilizers is likely to be favored by phasing-out fossil fuels. Organic farming would result in further benefits for the environment [141][142][143], among others, due to the livestock-toland ratio and reduced feed imports. ...
... Although emissions per area and per animal are lower in organic livestock farming, emissions per product unit often exceed the values of conventional farming due to lower yields. However, emission amounts vary widely, and organically managed soils regularly show advantages in terms of carbon storage and long-term yield stability, even in times of climate change risks [142,[154][155][156][157]. ...
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Background Phosphorus (P) is a vital and non-substitutable nutrient for agricultural production. However, P is often used inefficiently in European agriculture. To ensure food security while avoiding environmental damage caused by improper fertilization, a sustainable P management is required. Although P-related problems are partly addressed by existing agricultural and environmental legislation, e.g., in the EU, the current regulation lacks sufficient governance effect. In addition, the existing legal framework is strongly characterized by detailed command-and-control provisions and thus suffers from governance problems such as enforcement deficits, rebound and shifting effects. This paper focuses on how these challenges could be addressed by economic instruments. The article highlights not only the impact of the instruments on P management, but also on adjacent environmental areas. We pay particular attention to the governance effects on reaching international binding climate and biodiversity objectives, for which fertilization and agriculture play a major role. Results The analysis builds on two economic instruments that ensure compliance with the climate target of the Paris Agreement and the Aichi targets of the Biodiversity Convention: a cap-and-trade scheme for fossil fuels and a cap-and-trade scheme for livestock products. We state that both instruments simultaneously address a large part of P-related problems. Moreover, if the two emissions trading schemes are combined with a livestock-to-land ratio at farm level, only little need for regulatory supplementation relating to P remains. The latter includes in particular a threshold value for contaminants in P-containing fertilizers. Furthermore, we discuss an almost complete phasing-out of fertilizers containing rock phosphate by means of a further certificate trading scheme. Conclusions The article shows that a wide variety of problems can be tackled with a few overarching instruments. This is true even for very specific and diverse problems such as those related to P use in agriculture.
... However, these methods have many limitations. As an example, life cycle assessment tools quantify many aspects of the environmental dimension in a narrow way, need a high amount of data and do not consider the impacts on soil quality and biodiversity [76] and economic and socio-cultural impacts [77], or can only be applied to agricultural enterprises [32]. Eco-management and audit schemes, as well as sustainability reporting systems, include procedures accounting for the sustainability of a company, but do not enable comparison between the outcomes of different ones since they are not science-based assessments [78]. ...
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Recent research established a link between environmental alterations due to agriculture intensification, social damage and the loss of economic growth. Thus, the integration of environmental and social dimensions is key for economic development. In recent years, several frameworks have been proposed to assess the overall sustainability of farms. Nevertheless, the myriad of existing frameworks and the variety of indicators result in difficulties in selecting the most appropriate framework for study site application. This manuscript aims to: (i) understand the criteria to select appropriate frameworks and summarize the range of those being used to assess sustainability; (ii) identify the available frameworks to assess agricultural sustainability; and (iii) analyze the strengths, weaknesses and applicability of each framework. Six frameworks, namely SAFA, RISE, MASC, LADA, SMART and public goods (PG), were identified. Results show that SMART is the framework that considers, in a balanced way, the environmental, sociocultural and economic dimensions of sustainability, whereas others focused on the environmental (RISE), environmental and economic (PG) and sociocultural (SAFA) dimension. However, depending on the scale assessment, sector of application and the sustainability completeness intended, all frameworks are suitable for the assessment. We present a decision tree to help future users understand the best option for their objective.
... This narrow view, which focuses only on production efficiency, can often favour conventional agricultural products, although when evaluated by other methods, these systems prove to be less environmentally friendly and less sustainable [30][31][32]. The solution to the issue of multifunctionality lies in choosing another functional unit that allows multifunctional outputs or allocating environmental impacts to the whole complex of products and services provided within the agricultural system [33]. The choice of the functional unit determines the nature of the study outputs and their interpretation and is one of the key moments in implementing the LCA study [34]. ...
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The demand for food vegetable oil is rising and this trend is reflected in the agricultural sector of the Czech Republic. The traditional oil crops of the Czech Republic are winter rapeseed and sunflower. These oil crops have high demands on energy inputs, for example, in the form of land preparation and chemical protection. At the same time, they are characterized by high food oil production and oiliness. Moreover, marginal oils crops, such as hemp, are also gaining prominence. This work aimed to evaluate the environmental impacts associated with the cultivation of winter rapeseed and sunflowers based on standard cultivation practices typical of the conditions of the Czech Republic. For comparison, an intensive cultivation strategy for hemp was modelled, also corresponding to the conditions of the Czech Republic. This study assessed the environmental impact of traditional oil crops from the agricultural Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) perspective. The system boundaries included all the processes from the cradle to the farm gate. Mass-based (volume of food oil) and area-based (land demand for generating the same volume of food oil) functional units were employed. The results cover nine impact categories related to the agricultural LCA. ReCiPe Mid-point (H) characterization and normalization models were used for the data expression. Hemp is a plant with generally low demands on the inputs of the growing cycle but generally has a low oil production, which affects the character of the results relating to the goal and scope definition of the study. Hemp food oil thus generated a higher environmental impact per unit of production and area compared to sunflower and rapeseed food oil.
... Schader et al. (2015) discussed the contribution of the OFS to sustainability advocating for differentiation between different assessment levels -operator, product and spatial / policy levels. Better performance has been revealed in terms of overall environmental assessment, in specifics with regard to ground and surface water pollution, air quality, soil fertility, biodiversity and landscape (faunal and habitat diversity particularly), resource depletion and CC (Schader et al., 2012;Schader et al., 2015). Organic production systems might positively contribute to CC mitigation, which can be explained by the fact that organic practices such as cultivation of perennial clover grass in organic crop rotations and application of manure and compost lead to humus accumulation in soil, which, in turn, benefits carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestration in soil (Gattinger, 2010). ...
Book
One way to approach the food systems transformation is through the prism of food system outcomes. The present PhD study employed a mixed methods research design and actor-oriented approach to investigate the outcomes and transformative potential of one of the alternative food systems – the Organic Food System. A stepwise analysis began with the identification of outcome categories along with the specifi c outcomes and proceeded with the investigation of the contribution to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, from goal- to target-level. The revealed outcomes can be attributed to the three dimensions of sustainability. Higher perception of wellbeing and overall quality of life have been repeatedly reported by the organic actors. The Sustainable Development Goals were found to have a high representation in the investigated case studies, whereby the goal 12, responsible consumption and production, seems to be central in all the investigated cases acting as a leverage, activating further outcomes. The results enabled the formulation of a conceptual framework, which needs to be tested in other contexts and settings.
... In addition, lower productivity implies less output per amount of cultivated area and less environmental advantages if calculated per amount of food supplied rather than per agricultural area (Meier et al., 2015). Several research studies have investigated different aspects of organic agriculture, including its environmental performances (Reganold and Wachter, 2016), Neely and Fynn, 2012;Schader et al., 2012), soil nutrient and fertility aspects (Badgley et al., 2007) or agro ecological farming contribution in terms of ecological services and biodiversity issues (Cazalis et al., 2018;Mitchell, 2013) verifying their contribution to sustainability also in terms of SDGs (Eyhorn et al., 2019). Some emerging studies are providing evidence of the feasibility of agro ecological agriculture by adopting a rounded approach to the food system which integrates farming practices, consumption and dietary patterns aspects (Garnett. ...
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Chapter
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