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Environmental impact and macro-economic feasibility of organic agriculture in the Danube River Basin

Znaor, Darko and Kieft, Henk (2000) Environmental impact and macro-economic feasibility of organic agriculture in the Danube River Basin. In: Alföldi, Thomas; Lockeretz, Willie and Niggli, Urs (Eds.) IFOAM 2000, the World Grows Organic, pp. 160-163.

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Several studies from the mid-nineties pointed to agriculture as the single biggest nutrient polluter of the surface water in the Danube River Basin (Haskoning, 1994). Following these findings, the EU Phare programme awarded in 1995 a four-year education and research project aimed at introducing and assessing feasibility of organic agriculture in three Danube River countries: Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. So far it is the biggest and most elaborate project on organic agriculture ever implemented in these three countries. The project consisted of a spectrum of training, on-farm demonstration and research/study activities, and prepared strategy papers for policy redesigning. The studies and research performed assessed the impact of organic agriculture on (i) water quality; (ii) biodiversity; (iii) regional markets, and (iv) macro-economic feasibility. In order to comply with the highly demanding project terms of reference and its complexity, an international consortium led by ETC Netherlands (consultancy specialised in sustainable types of agriculture) was formed. The consortium involved partners from Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Netherlands, Romania and United Kingdom. This paper is an attempt to summarise the most important findings of the research performed within the framework of this project. However, the diversity of the research topics as well as the limited size of the paper doesn’t allow very elaborated presentation of the results. Therefore this paper outlines only the most essential research findings.
Water quality
The results obtained show considerable variations between the three countries, as well as among the organic and conventional variants. A true comparison of the country results is not possible, since due to the differences in soil types and research organisation, the three countries were forced to apply different monitoring system. In Hungary, the total amount of seepage water fluctuated over the years. In 1997 there was no significant difference between organic and conventional arable plots, while the organic horticulture plot had some 31% less seepage water than the conventional one. In 1998, the organic arable plot produced 22% less seepage water than the conventional vegetables. However, this was not the case with organic vegetables plot: in 1998 it produced 24% more seepage water than the conventional plot. In 1997 the nitrogen concentration in the soil solution of the organic arable plots was most of the time below 25 mg NO3 l-1, and always below 50 mg NO3 l-1. However, neither organic nor conventional vegetable plots were able to reduce the nitrogen concentration below 60 mg NO3 l-1, and the conventional plot exhibited figures as high as 185 mg NO3 l-1 (sandy soil). In 1998, only the organic arable plot maintained in early spring (and before manuring) the nitrogen concentration below 50 mg NO3 l-1. All other variants exhibited very high nitrogen concentrations, with conventional vegetable plot resulting in figures as high as 265 mg NO3 l-1. The Hungarian results show that the nitrate-N in vegetable plots (both organic and conventional) was much higher than in arable plots, which is due to higher level of nutrients applied, intensive soil cultivation and row cultivation. Contrary to the sandy soil in Hungary, the trial at the loamy soil in Bulgaria gave quite different figures. In the arable plots, organic treatment resulted in nitrate concentrations below 20 mg NO3 l-1 in all soil depths through the year, while the conventional treatment recorded concentrations of 40-60 NO3 l-1. Similar results were obtained from the plots under perennial grassland: the nitrate concentration under organic management was below 20 mg NO3 l-1 throughout the year, while the concentration in the conventional plot amounted to 110 mg NO3 l-1 in spring and 75 mg NO3 l-1 in winter. In Romania the total amount of water transferred from the soil profile to the groundwater (calculated from the difference between cumulated drained water and the cumulated upward flux by capillary rise) was higher in conventional plots than in organic ones. This was due to a lower soil bulk density, a greater water retention and deeper root penetration in the organic plots. A more elaborated information on the results obtained can be found in Hartl and Kromp (1999).
Biodiversity assessment
The biodiversity was found to be significantly higher (often 100% more) in the organic plots both on weeds and fauna. In Hungary, the organic plots had 19-25 carabid sub species compared to 16-19 found in the conventional plots, while several carabid species occurred significantly more abundant under the organic treatment (Brachinus explodens, Carabus scabriusculus, Dolichus halensis and Harpalus rufipes). Spiders exhibited similar result to that of carabides. In Bulgaria, monitoring of beneficial insects in an orchard (Figure 1), and grain fields found organic treatment to be more favourable than the conventional and integrated ones. The assessment in barley found that earthworms occur significantly more abundant in the organic barley fields. In 1997, one cubic meter of the soil from organic plot contained 41 earthworms, compared to 18 at the conventional plot. In 1998 the difference was even more pronounced, with one cubic meter of organic barley soil harbouring 124 earthworms and conventional only 21. In Romania, the weed survey in maize fields showed a significantly higher biodiversity of weed species in organic maize fields compared to a herbicide-treated conventional one. Further, in Romania organic manure application was found to have a favouring effect on the soil mesofauna. Organic plots exhibited higher densities of total mesofauna as well as of collembolans and oribatid mites compared to the conventional plots. Gammasid mites, occurring only sporadically and with single species in the conventional fields, showed up in higher densities and 2-3 spp. in the organic soils. In Romania, too, the more spiders and Carabus individuals occurred in the organic treatment, as well as a moderately higher diversity of beetle species active on the soil surface. A more elaborated information on the biodiversity results can be found in Hartl and Kromp (1999).
Regional marketing study
The organic sector represents less than 0.5% of agricultural production in the region. The share of organic market in the Czech Republic is estimated at 0.35%, while in Poland it represents only 0.05% of agricultural production. The organic market stagnates both in Poland and the Czech Republic, while Hungary exports most of its organic production and the market is under expansion. The majority of the organic farms in central and eastern Europe rely on direct marketing, and substantial part of the organic production is still sold through conventional distribution channels. The results obtained suggest that organic farmers in the region can produce for almost the same cost as conventional farmers. The price difference between organic and conventional products seems to be fairly small, with Polish organic market exhibiting somewhat higher differences. The price differences between countries were found to be smaller than differences within a country. The premium price is very small in the countryside, while in big cities consumers sometimes accept considerably higher prices. Cereals and dairy products tend to attract lower premium than other products, particularly fruits and vegetables. More information on the marketing study outcome can be found in Verschuur et al. 1998.
Macro-economic feasibility
The large-scale conversion study exhibited substantial macro-economic and environmental benefits of the “sustainable scenario”. The calculation suggests that large-scale conversion to the sustainable scenario in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania would result in gross national agricultural production values comparable to those obtained by the conventional scenario. When the external (environmental) costs of N-leaching are internalised into the price of the produce, by charging a shadow price of 1 EURO per kg of nitrogen leached, the sustainable scenario showed even greater economic benefit. It resulted in higher net national agricultural production values (Romania 5%; Bulgaria 16% and Hungary 40%) than in the conventional scenario. At the same time, the sustainable scenario resulted in substantially lower nitrogen leaching than that in the conventional scenario: 55% in Romania, 66% in Bulgaria and 82% in Hungary. Since the study took into account exclusively the portion of nitrogen lost through leaching, which represents only 39% of the total, the positive environmental impact of organic agriculture migh turn out to be even greater if losses occurring through direct discharge, erosion and run-off were added as well.
• The study was too short to establish scientifically reliable results. Only two full seasons were monitored. Therefore the intention of the national research partners to continue this original type of research is laudable. However, the emerging results are in line with comparable research results in western Europe and the USA: in arable farming and pasture the N-leaching is lower under organic as compared to conventional; in horticulture, covering small land areas however, N-leaching tends to be higher in the initial stages of transition as a result of initially high manure dosages. Careful manure management is crucial indeed, both for environmental and for cost-saving reasons.
• Preliminary results obtained suggest that the area under organic agriculture generally exhibits positive environmental effects in terms of reduced nutrient leaching, as horticulture covers relatively small percentages of the agricultural land. Leaching is critical on sandy soils under intensive production like in Hungary. In Bulgaria only leaching from organic land use remained below 25 mg NO3 l-1.
• Bio-diversity benefits are demonstrated in all 3 countries for various beneficial species and in various crops. In the case of the longer term research in Bulgaria these results are more reliable already and indicate increasing positive effects of organic management on pest- and disease prevention in orchards.
• The growing demand for organic food in western Europe could pull the market in central and eastern Europe, on the condition that certification is promoted and larger quantities of produce become available. The Hungarian tactics may be relevant for other countries as well: enhancing organic production via the export market with attractive prices, while creating a local demand in the meantime with slightly lower market prices.
• The macro-economic benefits of organic agriculture are very pronounced when the environmental costs of nitrogen leaching are internalised in the production value. This conclusion would justify policy incentives towards environmentally more sustainable agriculture.
The emerging results are in line with research results elsewhere. They indicate the potential of organic agriculture to positively contribute to environmental, biodiversity and macro-economic situation in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania.
To enable development of sustainable agriculture in these countries, a 3-track policy is suggested. Its measures should improve environmental and economic performance of the current low-external-input agriculture; promote further development of pioneering organic agriculture; and convert high-external-input regime to integrated agriculture.

EPrint Type:Conference paper, poster, etc.
Type of presentation:Paper
Keywords:Environmental impact and macro-economic feasibility of organic agriculture; Danube River Basin; biodiversity; water pollution; Internalisation of external costs; agricultural externalities; large-scale conversion to organic farming
Subjects: Farming Systems > Farm economics
Farming Systems
Crop husbandry
Farming Systems > Social aspects
Environmental aspects > Air and water emissions
Environmental aspects > Biodiversity and ecosystem services
Food systems > Policy environments and social economy
Environmental aspects
Farming Systems > Farm nutrient management
Knowledge management
Research affiliation: Netherlands
Related Links:http://books.google.hr/books/about/IFOAM_2000_the_World_Grows_Organic.html?id=1vv4Qkd9zTwC&redir_esc=y
Deposited By: Znaor, Dr Darko
ID Code:26413
Deposited On:01 Jul 2014 08:14
Last Modified:20 Aug 2014 15:03
Document Language:English
Refereed:Peer-reviewed and accepted

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