Organic agriculture: Fit for the Challenges of the Future?

Conventional agriculture “simply is not the best choice anymore today” the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter stressed. “A large segment of the scientific community now acknowledges the positive impacts of agro-ecology on food production, poverty alleviation and climate change mitigation – and this is what is needed in a world of limited resources[1].”

Organic agriculture is one of the farming methods which is based on agro-ecology. It is globally still a niche with less than 1 % of farm land. Nonetheless, in some countries, it has grown out of the niche reaching 20 % like in Austria or 11 % in Switzerland.

Driving factors for the success of organic agriculture are i) consumers, ii) agro-environmental measures (AEM), iii) the positive basic attitude of the civil society and iv) action plans of the governments with clear targets and with support for applied research and dissemination.

In Austria and Switzerland, conventional retailers like REWE, Hofer/Aldi, Coop and Migros are the main promoters of organic food, in Germany, exclusively organic chains like Alnatura and Basic have become very successful.

For the permanent success of organic agriculture, it has to be fit for global challenges like mitigating of and adapting to climate change, halting the loss of biodiversity and minimizing the negative external impacts on the environment.

There is abundant evidence from European, United States, Australian and African studies that organic farms and organic soil management lead to good soil fertility. Compared to conventionally managed soils, organically managed ones show higher organic matter contents, higher biomass, higher enzyme activities of microorganisms, better aggregate stability, improved water infiltration and retention capacities, and less water and wind erosion [2].

Organic farmers use different techniques for building up soil fertility. The most effective ones are fertilization by animal manure, by composted harvest residues and by leguminous plants as (soil) cover and (nitrogen) catch crops. Introducing grass and clover leys as feedstuff for ruminants into the rotations and diversifying the crop sequences, as well as reducing ploughing depth and frequency, also augment soil fertility. All these techniques also increase carbon sequestration rates on organic fields. 74 long-running field experiments in the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia reveal significant carbon gains in organically managed plots, whereas in the conventional or integrated plots soil organic matter is exposed to losses by mineralization. The average difference in the annual sequestration rate between the organic and conventional management amounted to 190 kg of carbon (or approx. 700 kg of CO2) per hectare [3]. A further increase of carbon capture in organically managed fields can be measured by reducing the frequency of soil tillage. In the Frick experiment in Switzerland the annual sequestration rate was jacked up to 3.2 tons of CO2 per hectare and year by not turning the soil upwards down with a plough but by preparing the seed bed by loosing the soil with a chisel plough instead [4].

Techniques for enhancing soil fertility help to maintain crop productivity in case of drought, irregular rainfall events with floods and rising temperature. Soils under organic management retain significantly more rainwater thanks to the “sponge properties” of organic matter and water infiltration capacity is improved [5].

The capacity of farms to adapt to climate change depends not only on soil qualities, but also on their diversity of species and diversification of farm activities. The parallel farming of many crop and livestock species greatly reduces weather-induced risks. Landscapes rich in natural elements and habitats buffer climate instability effectively. New pests, weeds and diseases – the results of global warming – are likely to be less invasive in natural, semi-natural and agricultural habitats that contain a high number and abundance of species. These are exactly the techniques used on good organic farms [6]. Therefore, organic agriculture is an excellent strategy for halting biodiversity loss.

For the further growth of organic agriculture, sufficient capacities for applied research and for dissemination and training are crucial. The potential for innovation and smart solutions are considerable but in many cases, the deficits are huge compared to conventional agriculture. 

 Text 9.11.2011: Urs Niggli, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL)

The lecture of Urs Niggli in Mikkeli 9.11.2011 The potential of organic agriculture for coping with global warming

[1] The report “Agro-ecology and the right to food” is available at

[2] Niggli, U. (2010) Organic agriculture: a productive means of low-carbon and high biodiversity food production. Trade and Environment Review 2009/2010: 112-142, UNCTAD.

[3] Gattinger et al., 2011 (submitted); Niggli, U., Fließbach, A., Hepperly, P. and Scialabba, N. (2009). Low greenhouse gas ag¬riculture: mitigation and adaptation potential of sustainable farming systems, Rev. 2. Rome, FAO, April; at:

[4] Berner, A., Hildermann, I., Fließbach, A., Pfiffner, L., Niggli, U., Mäder, P. 2008. Crop yield and soil fertility response to reduced tillage under organic management, Soil & Tillage Research, 101: 89-96.

[5] Siegrist, S.; Staub, D.; Pfiffner, L. & Mäder, P. (1998). Does organic agriculture reduce soil erodibility? The results of a long-term field study on loess in Switzerland. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 69: 253–264.

[6] Zehnder, G.; Gurr, G.M.; Kühne, S.; Wade, M.R.; Wratten, S.D. & Wyss, E. (2007). Arthropod pest management in organic crops. Annual Review of Entomology, 52: 57–80.
DOI: 10.1146/annurev.ento.52.110405.091337