Environmental Impacts of Organic Farming

Abstract

Organic agriculture is a production system that aims at sustaining healthy soils, ecosystems and people by prohibiting the application of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers in crop production and by emphasising animal welfare in livestock breeding. This article shows that organic agriculture is characterised by higher soil quality and reduced nutrient or pesticide leaching compared to nonorganic agriculture, but that positive effects on biological control services or emission of greenhouse gases are less evident. Yield gaps between organic and nonorganic agriculture are on average 20%, but vary between crops and regions. Given the environmental risks that are associated with intensive, nonorganic agriculture, farming practices should be modified to decrease risks. Organic agriculture can be a more environmentally friendly alternative, but individual farming practices need improvement to meet the demands of a growing human population. Further growth of the organic farming sector will contribute to reduce the negative environmental impact of agriculture.

Key Concepts

  • Organic agriculture leads to higher soil quality and reduced nutrient and pesticide leaching compared to nonorganic agriculture.
  • Organic agriculture may lead to a higher provision of ecosystem services and reduced soil erosion compared to nonorganic agriculture, but more research is needed to address these impacts.
  • Organic agriculture leads to higher greenhouse gas emissions if considered per unit product and, on average, has 20% lower yields than intensive, nonorganic agriculture.
  • The current situation of nutrient supply to crop plants in organic agriculture is often not optimal and this is a major challenge for future research.
  • Intensive, nonorganic agriculture is based on the application of pesticides that cause risks to human health, and organic agriculture can act as an environmentally friendly alternative.

Keywords: biological control; conventionalisation; decomposition; ecosystem services; greenhouse gases; nitrogen leaching; organic agriculture; pollination; soil organic matter; yield gap

Figure 1. Pictures of nonorganic (left column) and organic (right column) cereal systems showing differences in crop physiognomy (row 1), non‐cop vegetation (row 2) and soil structure (row 3). Note that pictures in one row were taken at the same time, under identical soil and weather conditions and in adjacent fields or experimental long‐term plots.
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Birkhofer, Klaus, Smith, Henrik G, and Rundlöf, Maj(Jul 2016) Environmental Impacts of Organic Farming. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0026341]