Study on the environmental impacts of achieving 25% organic land by 2030 published

The European Union’s ambitious Farm to Fork Strategy target of 25% organic farmland by 2030 is a clear statement of the recognition of the environmental, social and economic benefits that organic farming can deliver. While much has been written about the potential advantages in descriptive terms, this study seeks to put numbers on the possible benefits of achieving the 25% target.  

Using published Eurostat statistical data for the EU-27 Member States, we have estimated various production and environmental outcomes for the actual organic area in 2020 (just under 10%) and three scenarios for 2030: 

  1. continuing linear growth trend (reaching 14% by 2030);
  2. more rapid, enhanced, growth of the linear trend rate to deliver 25% (1.75 times as high); and
  3. equal 25% shares across all farming sectors.

The linear growth scenario (b) reflects current organic production with a higher proportion of grassland, vegetables and permanent crops but less arable land, whereas the equal share scenario (c) reflects shares of the whole agricultural sector, with more arable land at the expense of farming sectors currently over-represented in organic agriculture. 

Our analysis shows that achieving a share of 25% organic farmland in the EU (scenarios b and c) could deliver significant environmental benefits, in terms of climate change mitigation, reduction of nitrogen pollution and pesticide use as well as enhancing biodiversity. Except when stated otherwise, the environmental benefits of the 25% scenarios are here compared with a no-organic baseline in order to recognise the full contribution of organic farming, not just what might result from changes between 2020 and 2030: 

  • Instead of depending on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, the production of which accounts for 50% of energy use in EU agriculture, organic farmers use biological fixation through legumes as their primary source of nitrogen. The reduced use of synthetic nitrogen (N) fertiliser will enhance water quality and biodiversity while reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. The total reduction in synthetic N-fertiliser use from 25% organic land area (including the reduction achieved by the existing organic area in 2020) could potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 25 million tonnes CO2-equivalents (Mt CO2e). 9.5 Mt CO2e (38%) of this relates to the N-fertiliser manufacturing sector and is not normally included in agricultural emissions.  
  • Compared to organic farmland shares in 2020, the 25% equal shares scenario represents a reduction of 1.8 Mt or 18.6% of actual EU-27 fertiliser use in 2020. This means that achieving the 25% organic farmland target could also almost deliver in itself the 20% fertiliser reduction target in the Farm to Fork Strategy as a co-benefit. As most of the nitrogen used in conventional farming is applied to cropland (arable and permanent crops) rather than grassland, special focus should be given to encouraging conversion of cropland to organic management. 
  • Livestock numbers are estimated to be reduced by 18% under the 1.75x linear growth scenario compared with no organic farming, or 11% compared to existing shares of organic farmland in 2020. This reduction would reduce the demand for feed cereals and oilseeds, and hence free up arable land for human consumption. Further reductions in demand for feed grains could result from increased grass-based feeding in animal production. 
  • Total GHG emissions would be reduced by up to 68 Mt CO2e annually or 15% of total EU-27 agricultural GHG emissions compared with no organic farming. This is the result of the combination of no synthetic nitrogen (N) application, reduced livestock production and increased carbon sequestration under temporary grassland. The area of temporary grassland, would increase by 50% in the enhanced 1.75x linear growth scenario, but not in the 25% equal shares scenario. This amount of GHG emission reduction does not include the reduction in N-manufacturing emissions caused by lower N fertiliser production. 
  • Total EU-27 ammonia (NH3) emissions would be reduced by 13% annually compared with no organic farming, with significant benefits for air quality and reduction in indirect GHG emissions. 
  • Pesticide use would be reduced by 90-95% on farm land converted to organic agriculture. This will deliver up to a third of the 50% reduction target in the Farm to Fork Strategy. Herbicides are not allowed in organic production, and pesticides are not used at all on 90% of organic land. Only natural substances are authorised for pest control in organic farming, as a complement to preventive measures, mostly for specialty crops such as fruits and vines. A full assessment of the potential for pesticide reduction was not feasible because of the absence of good quality data on pesticides use in both conventional and organic agriculture. For a full assessment of the decrease of health and environmental risks of pesticide use through the conversion to organic farming, data collection needs to be improved. Nonetheless, a specific assessment of copper-based fungicides concluded that 70% of copper use in EU agriculture takes place on conventional farms, whereas copper use in organic farming is declining, and is only half of the potentially permissible use of copper fungicides in organic farming. Organic producers have been leading efforts to minimise the use of external inputs, including copper. 
  • Biodiversity would increase by 30% on organic cropland compared to no organic farming, while more statistical data are needed to make such a complex assessment. Further biodiversity gains can be achieved with the integration of natural habitats and landscape elements in organic systems, supporting beneficial insects and pollinators, and consistent with the EU Biodiversity Strategy’s target of 10% of farmland to be prioritised for nature restoration by 2030.  
  • Antimicrobial and anthelmintic use would decline at least in proportion to livestock numbers and probably significantly more due to the constraints of organic regulations, but it has not been possible to analyse this based on the available statistical evidence. This reduction is of environmental significance in the context of soil microbial and insect biodiversity impacted by residues in manures and slurries. 

Our analysis shows that achieving the Farm to Fork target of 25% organic farmland in the EU by 2030 would more than triple organic crop production (compared to 2020). Even though the total EU-27 cereal output would be reduced by 5-10%, it is estimated that this would be more than offset by a reduced demand for feed cereals due to declining livestock numbers. A reduction of livestock numbers would be consistent with a lower consumer demand for meat and dairy products, in particular among organic consumers. The net effect of a minimal change in availability of crops for human consumption can be reduced further by addressing food waste

In conclusion, our study shows that delivering the 25% target would come with substantial environmental benefits but needs adequate resourcing, recognising that the transition benefits society as a whole and not only organic food consumers. Public support for organic maintenance and conversion payments in the EU need to work hand in hand with the organic market. Instead of the estimated EUR 9-15 billion needed annually by 2030, the CAP Strategic Plans submitted by Member States plan only EUR 3 billion per year on average, far short of the sums needed to achieve the 25% target and remunerate organic farmers appropriately for the environmental benefits they deliver. 

This publication is co-financed by the LIFE programme of the European Union, under the under the Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency (CINEA). This publication only reflects the views of the authors and its sole responsibility lies with IFOAM Organics Europe. CINEA is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information provided.

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