We may live in the age of information, in a time where all kinds of knowledge is available to anyone with a digital device, and yet there are so many important issues that become buzzwords instead of actions. Sustainability is one of them.
What does “sustainable” even mean?
The Cambridge Dictionary gives two general definitions for the word sustainable: “able to continue over a period of time” or “causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time”.
Both include the element of continuity, which leads us to our next question: can we continue pursuing conventional agriculture as it is?
The 2021 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report suggests that we really shouldn’t. It suggests that we need to act much more and much faster if we want to keep the climate crisis from forever changing life as we know it.
What does agriculture have to do with climate change?
Agriculture is actually one of the top five most polluting industries. The OECD tells us that 17% of all greenhouse gas emissions are directly created through agricultural activities and an additional 7-14% through land use changes.
While cattle farming is undoubtedly a major factor here (just think of all the methane emitted by cows!) it is far from being the only one. However, it is important to understand that agriculture is not only one of the main contributors to global warming but can also be one of the main solutions!
For us, making agriculture more sustainable is strongly linked to fostering organic farming (together with other metrics like avoiding plastic packaging or avoiding post-harvest treatments).
What makes organic farming more sustainable than conventional farming?
- Conventional farming uses more water overall than organic farming and is very energy-intensive because it is highly industrialized. Energy-intensive anything is increasingly problematic, with energy being the top polluting industry.
- The whole “raison d’etre” of conventional farming, the reason why it is widely accepted as the only real alternative to feed the world, is actually linked to one of our society’s great absurdities: overproduction. Supposedly, we should favour conventional agriculture because once upon a time, pesticides saved us from starving by saving our crops from plagues. But in today’s reality, we have learned (and keep on learning!) how to deal with plagues without agro-chemicals and how to co-exist with mother nature without killing everything living in and around our crops. Loss of biodiversity is one of the biggest problems related to conventional intensive agriculture.
- Organic crops have a 10-30% lower crop yield. That is undeniable and is used as the “killer argument” against the voices recommending a switch to organic. However, we have another piece of undeniable data for you to put this into perspective: A third (!) of the food we produce goes to waste. Which begs the question – would it really be so bad to produce less? To not throw away more than one billion tonnes of food every year but to only produce what we consume? And, if the issue is not producing enough food for humans, we could also simply reduce our meat and dairy consumption. After all, 33% of our crops are used for livestock feed production.
- But most of all, lower crop yield is something that needs to be looked at over time. When converting a crop from conventional to organic, there will be major yield loss in the first year, but in the long run, the soil will get more fertile. In – let’s say 20 years – fields that have been continuously abused by herbicides and overproduction are not likely to have any fertility, any life left at all. They will be completely arid and keeping them arable will require huge amounts of resources (if they can even be saved). Which brings us to our next point:
- Soil degradation is one of the many terrible side-effects of climate change, and pumping them full of (agro-)chemicals only makes matters worse. Organic farming aims to maintain and build up overall soil health, combating soil degradation. This is done by augmenting the organic matter present in the soil, to foster the creation of humus. Humus acts like a sponge, helping the soil to absorb and retain water – and nutrients. When it rains a lot, this is much more resource-efficient (and helpful in regards to flood-prevention) than conventionally farmed soil, which rather acts like concrete and retains only small amounts. When it rains little, these quantities are better retained for longer periods of time. This is also why conventional agriculture needs much more artificial irrigation.
- Staying on the humus topic, responsible organic farming has an unbeatable advantage when it comes to sustainability: it actually helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions! To put it condensed and simplified: Humus absorbs greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. To give a more concrete example: For every liter of organic extra virgin olive oil that is produced, 10 kg of CO2 is removed from the atmosphere. The challenge is to turn farming from a carbon source to a carbon sink, and this is possible!
These are just fragments of the arguments that favour organic farming when it comes to sustainability. Added to that we have the ethical layer – such as working conditions and animal welfare – and the health layer, which is the main reason for the popularity of organic products. And, fans of organic agriculture tend to give more importance to the “inner values” of the fruit they buy, so organic fruits are less likely to be sorted out for aesthetic reasons, leading to less food waste.
We hope this goes to show that sustainability is much more than a buzzword and far from being greenwashing when it comes to responsible organic farming. Just to give you an idea of why we are encouraging our farmers to convert!