Organic agriculture: A more environmentally friendly farming system?
Agriculture is a major source of environmental degradation, contributing to climate change, depleting freshwater resources, threatening biodiversity, degrading soil fertility and polluting the environment through fertilizer and pesticide use. Organic agriculture is often suggested as a more environmentally friendly farming practice that reduces some of these negative environmental externalities. But what exactly does organic agriculture mean today? How are environmental best practices regulated in organic agriculture? And what evidence do we have about the environmental performance of organic agriculture? Here we first conduct a comparison of organic regulatory texts across the world to assess how organic agriculture is conceived, and how environmental principles are represented in organic regulations today. We then systematically examine the environmental performance of organic agriculture across multiple dimensions.
Our analysis shows that organic practices and regulations do not differ substantially between countries – across the board organic regulations understand and define organic mainly in terms of 'natural' vs. 'artificial' substances that are allowed (or not) as inputs. This interpretation of organic, as “chemical-free” farming, largely void of environmental principles, does not fully incorporate the original ideas of organic pioneers, who conceived organic agriculture as a holistic farming system aimed primarily at improving soil health, thereby leading to improved animal, human, and societal health. Our systematic review of evidence on the environmental performance of current organic agriculture shows, instead, that while organic practices typically improve the provision of multiple ecosystem services per unit area, the environmental benefits of organic practices are not as obvious if assessed per unit output. The influence of organic management on nitrogen cycling and water quality is particularly ambivalent and needs to be better understood. We observe considerable variability in the environmental performance of organic agriculture, suggesting that there is substantial room for improvement by learning from the best performing systems. We conclude that if organic agriculture is to contribute to sustainable farming in practice, organic regulations need to place more emphasis on environmental best practices, and the aspects where organic systems are underperforming need to be better understood and addressed.