Concept: Sustainable agriculture
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.
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.
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.
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.
Organophosphate pesticide (OP) exposure to the US population is dominated by dietary intake. The magnitude of exposure from diet depends partly upon personal decisions such as which foods to eat and whether to choose organic food. Most studies of OP exposure rely on urinary biomarkers, which are limited by short half-lives and often lack specificity to parent compounds. A reliable means of estimating long-term dietary exposure to individual OPs is needed to assess the potential relationship with adverse health effects.
Feeding a growing world population amidst climate change requires optimizing the reliability, resource use, and environmental impacts of food production. One way to assist in achieving these goals is to integrate beneficial plant microbiomes-i.e., those enhancing plant growth, nutrient use efficiency, abiotic stress tolerance, and disease resistance-into agricultural production. This integration will require a large-scale effort among academic researchers, industry researchers, and farmers to understand and manage plant-microbiome interactions in the context of modern agricultural systems. Here, we identify priorities for research in this area: (1) develop model host-microbiome systems for crop plants and non-crop plants with associated microbial culture collections and reference genomes, (2) define core microbiomes and metagenomes in these model systems, (3) elucidate the rules of synthetic, functionally programmable microbiome assembly, (4) determine functional mechanisms of plant-microbiome interactions, and (5) characterize and refine plant genotype-by-environment-by-microbiome-by-management interactions. Meeting these goals should accelerate our ability to design and implement effective agricultural microbiome manipulations and management strategies, which, in turn, will pay dividends for both the consumers and producers of the world food supply.
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.
- Environmental health : a global access science source
- Published almost 2 years ago
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.
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.