Bringing down organic by focussing on yields alone, sets us all up to fail.
I’ve just come back from the IFOAM Organics International 50th anniversary conference. It was held alongside a conference for the International Society of Organic Farming Research (ISOFAR) - a golden opportunity for scientists and researchers to come together to discuss the pressing issues in organic and agroecological research.
A key discussion area was yields from organic systems.
It’s no secret that yields are often lower in organic systems compared to conventional, and this becomes an undermining argument that makes some shy away from organic as the global solution to address the climate, nature and health crises we face.
It’s unhelpful to write off organic in this way. It’s much more useful to take the focus away from a comparison with conventional and instead explore how yields in organic systems can meet their full potential. A singular focus comparing yields in organic and conventional systems is like comparing apples with oranges. It fails to take into account the hidden costs that are often inherent in conventional farming systems. These include the energy involved in nitrogen fertiliser production and the biodiversity losses and pollution from pesticides. Yields might be lower in organic systems, but they don’t have these hidden costs. By looking at absolute yields alone as the key measure of success risks skewing the picture. It’s important the picture is broad enough to take a range of factors into account.
Focussing on yield becomes an issue when it comes to increasing support for sustainable food.
There’s a growing interest in creating product labels that indicate how environmentally friendly food products are - discussions about this are already quite advanced in the EU. It has been suggested that these product labels can be based on the outcomes of what are called Life Cycle Assessments, which tend to measure ‘efficiency’. When it comes to products of agriculture, the proxy for efficiency is yield. Thus, an organic product, with all the benefits it brings to climate and nature, appears to have a worse environmental performance than a product produced in a highly unsustainable intensive system. This is because LCAs don’t tend to take into account crucially important metrics like biodiversity, water, and nitrous oxide emissions.
I’m pleased to see that already, some are finding solutions to this, by taking an ‘LCA plus’ approach by also taking into account metrics for biodiversity, climate and animal welfare. The French organisation ITAB’s Planet Score is a leading example of this. Sabine Bonnot from Planet Score will be joining us at our Trade Conference on 17th October. You can find more about the event here.
Yield means more food, but that is all it means. Do we even need more food?
We cannot afford to be overly obsessed with yield as the top indicator of our ability to feed a growing population, because doing so is much more complex than just boosting what we produce – in fact some estimates suggest we already have enough food produced today to feed 10 billion people – it’s just either the wrong sort of food, going to the wrong places or being wasted before and after it reaches our plates. There’s decent research to show an organically farmed Europe can feed a growing population a healthy diet.
Measuring the effectiveness of a food system in a way that acknowledges its wider benefits to climate, nature and health must surely be a more useful assessment, helping us to identify longer term direction towards the food systems we need for the future.