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“Organic delivers!”…and helps fight climate change

In 2020, BIOFACH, the world's leading trade fair for organic food, will focus on the positive effects of organic farming as part of the congress theme "Bio wirkt! In an interview, Prof. Dr. Andreas Gattinger explains the positive effects of organic for the climate and why climate change makes a change in agriculture and nutrition inevitable.

In its report published at the beginning of August 2019, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ( IPCC ) warns of the massive impact of the climate crisis on agriculture and forestry. At the same time, the report makes it clear that agriculture, animal husbandry and forestry contribute strongly to global overheating. The demand: These economic sectors must finally take responsibility and initiate a change in order to put a stop to climate change. Prof. Dr. Andreas Gattinger, an agricultural and soil scientist, has been working on climate issues since he was a student, then as head of climate research at the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL, and in many national and international projects. In particular, he researches the climate relevance of organic farming and other farming systems. As an organic farmer on his parents' farm, which he converted in 2006, he is confronted in a very practical way with the pressing issues of climate change. There, as well as in his role as Professor of Organic Farming with a focus on sustainable land use at the Justus Liebig University of Giessen (JLU) and as Scientific Director of the Gladbacherhof Teaching and Experimental Farm, JLU, he tries to develop solutions.

Prof. Dr. Gattinger, all over the world, as well as in Germany, we are experiencing, especially in recent years, the threatening effects of climate change, which is progressing faster than expected and predicted. Agriculture and forestry account for a quarter of man-made climate-damaging emissions. These have almost doubled globally in the last 50 years. The main causes are intensive livestock farming - including resource-wasting feed production - and the production and excessive use of nitrogen fertilisers. In comparison, does organic farming contribute significantly less to CO2 emissions or even provide solutions to achieve the Paris climate goals?

Organic cattle also emit climate-damaging gases, especially CH4 (methane). This is a completely natural process. The harmfulness for our climate is a question of the amount of emissions and whether there are greenhouse gas reduction or compensation possibilities elsewhere in the "animal food" system. This is where the holistic concept of organic farming has clear advantages over conventional, industrial farming. Climate-friendly factors are the strict adaptation of the animal stock to the farm area and, in plant cultivation, the consistent use of CO2-binding green manure with nitrogen-producing legumes and the build-up of humus. In the Thünen Report 65 of the Federal Research Institute for Rural Areas, Forests and Fisheries, Johann Heinrich von Thünen Institute, we have calculated this in more detail and it also shows that German agriculture currently emits around 66 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents per year. This does not even include the energy-intensive production of nitrogen fertilizer. According to our meta-studies, 100% organic farming would largely reduce the entire greenhouse gas emissions of agricultural soils, which corresponds to about 25 million tons of CO2 equivalents per year! That is a huge saving. The only drawback is that the amount of food produced is likely to fall by a quarter to a fifth. But there are solutions for this.


Climate change makes a change in agriculture and nutrition inevitable.

What solutions do you see to reconcile declining harvests, the growing world population and the turn towards sustainable agriculture? There is a lot of talk about an agricultural turnaround.

Yes, there is a lot of talk about the agricultural turnaround. But that alone is not enough, that is clear. We also need a nutritional turnaround, because agricultural production is part of an overarching food system. Each of us must question our eating habits. Our diet must become more plant-based. However, globally, meat consumption is increasing and we spend 2/3 of crop yields on livestock instead of eating the crops directly. We don't all have to go vegan. Ruminants are important for agriculture, as efficient finishers of grassland, suppliers of animal protein in the diet, but also of natural fertilizer and for landscape management. But we must not abuse animals in industrial farming systems. This is not only harmful to our climate, but also unethical. Of the approximately 5 billion hectares of agricultural land worldwide, 3.5 billion hectares are permanent grasslands that are not in direct competition with the production of human food; 1.5 billion hectares are cropland. If we use this land more wisely and efficiently, we serve decarbonization.

The fact is that we also have to look at global climate change globally. You have done a lot of international work. How differentiated do we have to look at the various ecosystems? and which organic farming measures will bring measurable reductions in the high CO2 concentrations that are harmful to the climate and thus provide relief for the earth's overheating?

Of course, we need to adapt the practices or concepts of sustainable agriculture to climates and soils, agricultural traditions, food habits and other local conditions. With regard to agriculture, it is extremely important to act from a holistic systems approach that always takes into account a whole bouquet of climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. These include, in addition to compost management and humus build-up through intensively rooted plants, biodiversity, animal welfare and social justice.

It is high time to act!

What are the biggest challenges in stopping the accelerating climate change?

It is high time to act! To do this, all actors must first acknowledge that climate change is man-made and will not be remedied naturally. The climate sins have been sufficiently analysed, there is a large consensus among scientists, and there are a lot of proposals on how we can counteract climate change. In my view, we need to put climate justice high on the agenda. Countries that emit the most - primarily the industrialised nations - must also make the greatest contribution, both in financial terms and in terms of conserving resources.

What measures do you propose that can be implemented in the short and medium term?

We need to reduce our emissions by at least 50% in order to reach the 1.5 degree mark of the Paris Climate Agreement; it would even be better to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. This has been proven to be possible. Just expanding organic farming to 20-25% of the land in industrialised countries would go a long way to achieving this, as we have seen. If the political will is there, as well as the appropriate incentives, we would come a lot closer to the goal of CO2 savings in the short term, or should be able to achieve it by 2030 at the latest, if we consistently pursue the expansion of organic farming. In addition to the expansion of organic farming, the greening of the entire agricultural and food sector must be promoted on a global level. In particular, the organic farming system could be supplemented in the medium term by other factors from the holistic concept of the organic movement as well as regenerative agriculture, agroforestry and permaculture.

Everything that is good for the soil is our capital against climate change: humus build-up, mulching methods, the use of compost and plant charcoal make an important contribution to CO2 sequestration. But digitalisation in agriculture also makes sense: smart farming with GPS-controlled tractors helps to save resources and thus emissions, as does more efficient feeding of animals. What matters is that something happens as soon as possible!

Read the full interview in the BIOFACH Newsroom.

The interview was conducted by Karin Heinze, BiO Reporter International.

Redaktionsmitglied Barbara Böck
Barbara Böck
Online Editorial// Public Relations Manager
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Image credits:

  • Unsplash / Herman Delgado