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Steffen Noleppa:

“Conventional agriculture is viable”

The HFFA Research GmbH recently published a study comparing the impact of conventional farming against organic farming on biodiversity in Germany. In the following interview, Steffen Noleppa, the corresponding author of the study, talks about why organic farming is not better than conventional farming and why ideological fronts need to be broken down.

What are the main findings of your study?
We confirmed a fact that is already well known: Organic farming creates certain benefits with respect to maintaining species richness on arable land that is properly managed. However, organic farming also constitutes a substantial human intervention in natural ecosystems and already results in a considerable loss of biodiversity. In comparison, conventional farming results in little additional loss.

Can you explain that in more detail?
Biodiversity is just one goal of agricultural production but not its main goal. First of all, agriculture is charged with supplying enough food, feed, fiber, and fuel for an ever-growing world population. Within this broader view, the outcome in terms of biodiversity impact is changing. The significant yield advantage of conventional farming results in less losses of species richness per ton produced when compared to organic agriculture. According to our calculations, the loss of species richness per ton of wheat, corn, or other crop produced in organic farming in Germany is on average more than 50 percent higher than in cases where advanced and productivity-enhancing technologies are used through conventional production methods.

What are the reasons that yields are lower in organic farming than in conventional farming?
Organic farmers also use inputs to control pests and fauna that threaten their crops, for example fatty acids, salts, or natural insecticides. In addition, they use mechanical or thermal measures to control weeds, and they apply sulfur and copper compounds, for example, to minimize fungi. However, these measures are limited and usually less targeted than others. The restriction of using “natural” options leaves crops partially exposed to considerable damage, and diseases and insects cause higher yield losses. And by using only organic fertilizers, farmers are limited in meeting periods when nutrient demand of crops peaks. This lowers yields further.

What would happen if only organic farming existed?
Our various analyses have shown that conventional agriculture is not only economically viable but also saves scarce natural resources such as land and water. If we converted to organic farming completely, much more land and other resources would be needed to keep up with demand. Moreover, food prices would increase considerably.

In your study, you state that “ideologically hardened fronts must be broken down.” How can that be put into practice?
In my view, the answer is simple and complex at the same time: Increasing productivity is important – and the benefits of higher productivity (not to be confused with intensity) in agricultural production need to be highlighted time and again. However, that does not mean that we should ignore environmental or other goals. On the contrary, they need to be included in smart climate and biodiversity agricultural production schemes. To reach a societal consensus about the design of such complex production schemes, a dialog between all stakeholders – such as members of civil society, industry representatives, politicians, and scientists – is needed. This is both the challenge and the key.

Source: Bayer Food Chain Partnership
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