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How the organic food system contributes to sustainability

Schader, Christian; Stolze, Matthias and Niggli, Urs (2015) How the organic food system contributes to sustainability. In: Meybeck, Alexandre; Redfern, Suzanne; Paoletti, Flavio and Strassner, Carola (Eds.) Assessing sustainable diets within the sustainability of food systems. Proceedings of an International Workshop, 15–16 September 2014, CREA, Rome, Italy, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), pp. 27-36.

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Document available online at: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4806e.pdf


Despite many agricultural systems and most food companies claiming to be sustainable, recent studies show that the planetary boundaries have been exceeded mainly by food production and consumption. Against the background of a looming 9.6 billion people in 2050, many scientists argue for a further intensification of agricultural systems.
Organic food systems may offer an alternative approach towards sustainability. Many studies on organic agriculture suggest that organic practices are less harmful for the environment, may foster social well-being and may lead to economic resilience. Others argue that organic systems yield on average about 20 percent less than comparable conventional systems. On the bottom line, this may even lead to higher environmental impacts, land use and pressure on natural ecosystems and put global food availability at risk.
This paper aims at providing an overview of the contribution of organic food systems to sustainability distinguishing between different levels. Using (i) the SAFA Guidelines and (ii) the three sustainability strategies of efficiency, consistency and sufficiency as a framework, we assess how organic food systems can contribute to sustainability.
We distinguish between the operator level, the product level and the spatial/policy level. We show that the operator level (i) focuses on consistency and allows covering the widest range of sustainability themes. At the product-related level (ii), only specific environmental themes can be covered and the efficiency is the central issue addressed by the studies. The spatial/policy level (iii) addresses all three sustainability strategies, as food security and systemic changes such as dietary patterns and food waste are considered, but is often too general for looking at many social themes of sustainability.
Results show that organic food systems perform well with respect to environmental performance at the operator and spatial/policy level, while results at the product level are more heterogeneous, as yields are often lower. Differences between organic and conventional systems vary between different regions and product types. The economic performance can be judged at operators’ level, which reveals context-specific differences in profitability, depending on product type and regional context. However, apart from profitability, organic food systems may provide further benefits in terms of economic resilience due to the cradle-to-cradle principle. At the spatial/policy level, food availability and food security play important roles. Global studies show how organic food systems can provide sufficient food if demand patterns change towards less resource-consuming products.
The social dimension is very context-specific and cannot be judged in general.
We conclude that organic production impacts the entire food system and that organic agriculture can contribute to the efficiency, consistency and sufficiency strategies. Yet, innovation and further development of the organic system is indispensable for addressing future challenges.

EPrint Type:Conference paper, poster, etc.
Type of presentation:Paper
Keywords:Department of Socio-Economi Sciences, Sustainability Assessment, Policy, organic food system
Subjects: Food systems > Policy environments and social economy
Research affiliation: Switzerland > FiBL - Research Institute of Organic Agriculture Switzerland > Society > Agri-food policy
Switzerland > FiBL - Research Institute of Organic Agriculture Switzerland > Sustainability
Deposited By: Schader, Dr. Christian
ID Code:30481
Deposited On:18 Aug 2016 08:43
Last Modified:16 Feb 2022 15:45
Document Language:English
Refereed:Peer-reviewed and accepted

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