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Concept: Organic farming


Organic agriculture is proposed as a promising approach to achieving sustainable food systems, but its feasibility is also contested. We use a food systems model that addresses agronomic characteristics of organic agriculture to analyze the role that organic agriculture could play in sustainable food systems. Here we show that a 100% conversion to organic agriculture needs more land than conventional agriculture but reduces N-surplus and pesticide use. However, in combination with reductions of food wastage and food-competing feed from arable land, with correspondingly reduced production and consumption of animal products, land use under organic agriculture remains below the reference scenario. Other indicators such as greenhouse gas emissions also improve, but adequate nitrogen supply is challenging. Besides focusing on production, sustainable food systems need to address waste, crop-grass-livestock interdependencies and human consumption. None of the corresponding strategies needs full implementation and their combined partial implementation delivers a more sustainable food future.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Agriculture, Organic farming, Natural gas, Sustainable agriculture, Greenhouse gas, Agroecology, Permaculture


This study was conducted with the objective of testing the hypothesis that tomato fruits from organic farming accumulate more nutritional compounds, such as phenolics and vitamin C as a consequence of the stressing conditions associated with farming system. Growth was reduced in fruits from organic farming while titratable acidity, the soluble solids content and the concentrations in vitamin C were respectively +29%, +57% and +55% higher at the stage of commercial maturity. At that time, the total phenolic content was +139% higher than in the fruits from conventional farming which seems consistent with the more than two times higher activity of phenylalanine ammonia lyase (PAL) we observed throughout fruit development in fruits from organic farming. Cell membrane lipid peroxidation (LPO) degree was 60% higher in organic tomatoes. SOD activity was also dramatically higher in the fruits from organic farming. Taken together, our observations suggest that tomato fruits from organic farming experienced stressing conditions that resulted in oxidative stress and the accumulation of higher concentrations of soluble solids as sugars and other compounds contributing to fruit nutritional quality such as vitamin C and phenolic compounds.

Concepts: Protein, Agriculture, Antioxidant, Vitamin C, Fruit, Tomato, Vegetable, Organic farming


It has been suggested that conversion to organic farming contributes to soil carbon sequestration, but until now a comprehensive quantitative assessment has been lacking. Therefore, datasets from 74 studies from pairwise comparisons of organic vs. nonorganic farming systems were subjected to metaanalysis to identify differences in soil organic carbon (SOC). We found significant differences and higher values for organically farmed soils of 0.18 ± 0.06% points (mean ± 95% confidence interval) for SOC concentrations, 3.50 ± 1.08 Mg C ha(-1) for stocks, and 0.45 ± 0.21 Mg C ha(-1) y(-1) for sequestration rates compared with nonorganic management. Metaregression did not deliver clear results on drivers, but differences in external C inputs and crop rotations seemed important. Restricting the analysis to zero net input organic systems and retaining only the datasets with highest data quality (measured soil bulk densities and external C and N inputs), the mean difference in SOC stocks between the farming systems was still significant (1.98 ± 1.50 Mg C ha(-1)), whereas the difference in sequestration rates became insignificant (0.07 ± 0.08 Mg C ha(-1) y(-1)). Analyzing zero net input systems for all data without this quality requirement revealed significant, positive differences in SOC concentrations and stocks (0.13 ± 0.09% points and 2.16 ± 1.65 Mg C ha(-1), respectively) and insignificant differences for sequestration rates (0.27 ± 0.37 Mg C ha(-1) y(-1)). The data mainly cover top soil and temperate zones, whereas only few data from tropical regions and subsoil horizons exist. Summarizing, this study shows that organic farming has the potential to accumulate soil carbon.

Concepts: Agriculture, Soil, Charcoal, Organic farming, Humus, Input, Crop rotation, Subsoil


Demand for organic foods is partially driven by consumers' perceptions that they are more nutritious. However, scientific opinion is divided on whether there are significant nutritional differences between organic and non-organic foods, and two recent reviews have concluded that there are no differences. In the present study, we carried out meta-analyses based on 343 peer-reviewed publications that indicate statistically significant and meaningful differences in composition between organic and non-organic crops/crop-based foods. Most importantly, the concentrations of a range of antioxidants such as polyphenolics were found to be substantially higher in organic crops/crop-based foods, with those of phenolic acids, flavanones, stilbenes, flavones, flavonols and anthocyanins being an estimated 19 (95 % CI 5, 33) %, 69 (95 % CI 13, 125) %, 28 (95 % CI 12, 44) %, 26 (95 % CI 3, 48) %, 50 (95 % CI 28, 72) % and 51 (95 % CI 17, 86) % higher, respectively. Many of these compounds have previously been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including CVD and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers, in dietary intervention and epidemiological studies. Additionally, the frequency of occurrence of pesticide residues was found to be four times higher in conventional crops, which also contained significantly higher concentrations of the toxic metal Cd. Significant differences were also detected for some other (e.g. minerals and vitamins) compounds. There is evidence that higher antioxidant concentrations and lower Cd concentrations are linked to specific agronomic practices (e.g. non-use of mineral N and P fertilisers, respectively) prescribed in organic farming systems. In conclusion, organic crops, on average, have higher concentrations of antioxidants, lower concentrations of Cd and a lower incidence of pesticide residues than the non-organic comparators across regions and production seasons.

Concepts: Epidemiology, Agriculture, Nutrition, Pesticide, Flavonoid, Organic farming, Organic food, Sustainable agriculture


Numerous reports have emphasized the need for major changes in the global food system: agriculture must meet the twin challenge of feeding a growing population, with rising demand for meat and high-calorie diets, while simultaneously minimizing its global environmental impacts. Organic farming—a system aimed at producing food with minimal harm to ecosystems, animals or humans—is often proposed as a solution. However, critics argue that organic agriculture may have lower yields and would therefore need more land to produce the same amount of food as conventional farms, resulting in more widespread deforestation and biodiversity loss, and thus undermining the environmental benefits of organic practices. Here we use a comprehensive meta-analysis to examine the relative yield performance of organic and conventional farming systems globally. Our analysis of available data shows that, overall, organic yields are typically lower than conventional yields. But these yield differences are highly contextual, depending on system and site characteristics, and range from 5% lower organic yields (rain-fed legumes and perennials on weak-acidic to weak-alkaline soils), 13% lower yields (when best organic practices are used), to 34% lower yields (when the conventional and organic systems are most comparable). Under certain conditions—that is, with good management practices, particular crop types and growing conditions—organic systems can thus nearly match conventional yields, whereas under others it at present cannot. To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Agriculture, Organic farming, Sustainable agriculture, Green Revolution, Crop rotation, Agroecology, Industrial agriculture


The “organic food” market is the fastest growing food sector, yet it is unclear whether organically raised food is nutritionally superior to conventionally grown food and whether consuming organic food bestows health benefits. In order to evaluate potential health benefits of organic foods, we used the well-characterized fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model system. Fruit flies were raised on a diets consisting of extracts of either conventionally or organically raised produce (bananas, potatoes, raisins, soy beans). Flies were then subjected to a variety of tests designed to assess overall fly health. Flies raised on diets made from organically grown produce had greater fertility and longevity. On certain food sources, greater activity and greater stress resistance was additionally observed, suggesting that organic food bestows positive effects on fly health. Our data show that Drosophila can be used as a convenient model system to experimentally test potential health effects of dietary components. Using this system, we provide evidence that organically raised food may provide animals with tangible benefits to overall health.

Concepts: Nutrition, Model organism, Drosophila melanogaster, Drosophila, Organic farming, Flies, Organic food, Sustainable agriculture


Land area devoted to organic agriculture has increased steadily over the last 20 years in the United States, and elsewhere around the world. A primary criticism of organic agriculture is lower yield compared to non-organic systems. Previous analyses documenting the yield deficiency in organic production have relied mostly on data generated under experimental conditions, but these studies do not necessarily reflect the full range of innovation or practical limitations that are part of commercial agriculture. The analysis we present here offers a new perspective, based on organic yield data collected from over 10,000 organic farmers representing nearly 800,000 hectares of organic farmland. We used publicly available data from the United States Department of Agriculture to estimate yield differences between organic and conventional production methods for the 2014 production year. Similar to previous work, organic crop yields in our analysis were lower than conventional crop yields for most crops. Averaged across all crops, organic yield averaged 80% of conventional yield. However, several crops had no significant difference in yields between organic and conventional production, and organic yields surpassed conventional yields for some hay crops. The organic to conventional yield ratio varied widely among crops, and in some cases, among locations within a crop. For soybean (Glycine max) and potato (Solanum tuberosum), organic yield was more similar to conventional yield in states where conventional yield was greatest. The opposite trend was observed for barley (Hordeum vulgare), wheat (Triticum aestevum), and hay crops, however, suggesting the geographical yield potential has an inconsistent effect on the organic yield gap.

Concepts: Agriculture, United States, Wheat, Soybean, Organic farming, Crops, Crop rotation, Agroecology


Demand for organic meat is partially driven by consumer perceptions that organic foods are more nutritious than non-organic foods. However, there have been no systematic reviews comparing specifically the nutrient content of organic and conventionally produced meat. In this study, we report results of a meta-analysis based on sixty-seven published studies comparing the composition of organic and non-organic meat products. For many nutritionally relevant compounds (e.g. minerals, antioxidants and most individual fatty acids (FA)), the evidence base was too weak for meaningful meta-analyses. However, significant differences in FA profiles were detected when data from all livestock species were pooled. Concentrations of SFA and MUFA were similar or slightly lower, respectively, in organic compared with conventional meat. Larger differences were detected for total PUFA and n-3 PUFA, which were an estimated 23 (95 % CI 11, 35) % and 47 (95 % CI 10, 84) % higher in organic meat, respectively. However, for these and many other composition parameters, for which meta-analyses found significant differences, heterogeneity was high, and this could be explained by differences between animal species/meat types. Evidence from controlled experimental studies indicates that the high grazing/forage-based diets prescribed under organic farming standards may be the main reason for differences in FA profiles. Further studies are required to enable meta-analyses for a wider range of parameters (e.g. antioxidant, vitamin and mineral concentrations) and to improve both precision and consistency of results for FA profiles for all species. Potential impacts of composition differences on human health are discussed.

Concepts: Agriculture, Nutrition, Evidence-based medicine, Systematic review, Meta-analysis, Organic farming, Organic food, Sustainable agriculture


This review summarises existing evidence on the impact of organic food on human health. It compares organic vs. conventional food production with respect to parameters important to human health and discusses the potential impact of organic management practices with an emphasis on EU conditions. Organic food consumption may reduce the risk of allergic disease and of overweight and obesity, but the evidence is not conclusive due to likely residual confounding, as consumers of organic food tend to have healthier lifestyles overall. However, animal experiments suggest that identically composed feed from organic or conventional production impacts in different ways on growth and development. In organic agriculture, the use of pesticides is restricted, while residues in conventional fruits and vegetables constitute the main source of human pesticide exposures. Epidemiological studies have reported adverse effects of certain pesticides on children’s cognitive development at current levels of exposure, but these data have so far not been applied in formal risk assessments of individual pesticides. Differences in the composition between organic and conventional crops are limited, such as a modestly higher content of phenolic compounds in organic fruit and vegetables, and likely also a lower content of cadmium in organic cereal crops. Organic dairy products, and perhaps also meats, have a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventional products. However, these differences are likely of marginal nutritional significance. Of greater concern is the prevalent use of antibiotics in conventional animal production as a key driver of antibiotic resistance in society; antibiotic use is less intensive in organic production. Overall, this review emphasises several documented and likely human health benefits associated with organic food production, and application of such production methods is likely to be beneficial within conventional agriculture, e.g., in integrated pest management.

Concepts: Health, Epidemiology, Agriculture, Nutrition, Pesticide, Organic farming, Organic food, Sustainable agriculture


Organic farming practices have been promoted as, inter alia, reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture. This meta-analysis systematically analyses published studies that compare environmental impacts of organic and conventional farming in Europe. The results show that organic farming practices generally have positive impacts on the environment per unit of area, but not necessarily per product unit. Organic farms tend to have higher soil organic matter content and lower nutrient losses (nitrogen leaching, nitrous oxide emissions and ammonia emissions) per unit of field area. However, ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems. Organic systems had lower energy requirements, but higher land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit. The variation within the results across different studies was wide due to differences in the systems compared and research methods used. The only impacts that were found to differ significantly between the systems were soil organic matter content, nitrogen leaching, nitrous oxide emissions per unit of field area, energy use and land use. Most of the studies that compared biodiversity in organic and conventional farming demonstrated lower environmental impacts from organic farming. The key challenges in conventional farming are to improve soil quality (by versatile crop rotations and additions of organic material), recycle nutrients and enhance and protect biodiversity. In organic farming, the main challenges are to improve the nutrient management and increase yields. In order to reduce the environmental impacts of farming in Europe, research efforts and policies should be targeted to developing farming systems that produce high yields with low negative environmental impacts drawing on techniques from both organic and conventional systems.

Concepts: Agriculture, Soil, Nitrogen, Organic farming, Sustainable agriculture, Humus, Crop rotation, Industrial agriculture