Biodiversity, soil and water
Producing food while preserving our natural resources
Water pollution, desertification, biodiversity loss and soil erosion are a result of today’s industrial agricultural system. Organic farming helps reversing and mitigating these effects. Its practices create humus-rich topsoils, restore diversity above and below ground, retain water and contribute to solutions to water pollution. On average, organic farms host 34% more biodiversity than conventional ones.
By prohibiting the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, organic farming avoids their unwanted negative effects on water, soil & biodiversity. As a way of pest and disease management, organic farms create multifunctional landscapes rich in cultivated crop types providing a wildlife habitat in and around production areas.
Organic farm landscapes offer many benefits. On average, they are 50% more abundant with wildlife, hosting up to 34% more species on average on and around the farm. This includes almost 50% more pollinator species and 75% more plant species as well as more resilient systems.
Organic farming is a viable option to reduce agricultural intensity while at the same time fulfilling biodiversity protection goals. Farmland biodiversity also provides many ecosystem services that in turn are important for agricultural production itself, such as pollination, pest control and nutrient cycling.
A healthy soil and high biodiversity are at the core of successful organic farming, rather than a massive use of inputs. Organically managed soils have 16 cm more top soil and higher levels of Soil Organic Matter (SOM), storing carbon and increasing the capability of retention. Unsustainable land management practices, on the other hand, erode soil, deplete it of soil nutrients and, instead of capturing it, release CO2 into the atmosphere.
Industrial agriculture relies heavily on pesticides and mineral fertilizers. This has proven to be unsustainable in many ways. Overuse of irrigation also depletes usable water resources by over-pumping groundwater to an extent that exceeds the earth’s ability to replenish.
Ongoing water pollution through using chemical pesticides and fertilisers reduces its quality for human consumption and creates so called dead zones in fresh and marine water bodies. Organic farms leach 40-64% less nitrogen, sustaining ecosystems and public health.
Organic farms’ water-infiltration rate is better than that of conventional farms, resulting in a 30% reduction of peak-flooding.
IFOAM Organics Europe…
- Advocates for including organic farming as a solution for issues on water, soil and biodiversity in EU policies;
- Established a task force on climate change and biodiversity to identify how organic food and farming can further improve its contribution to protecting our natural resources;
- Plays a key role in EU research projects looking into continuously improving organics.
- Land‐use intensity and the effects of organic farming on biodiversity: a hierarchical meta‐analysis, Tuck et al. Journal of Applied Ecology, 2014
- Environmental Impact of Different Agricultural Management Practices: Conventional vs. Organic Agriculture, Gomerio et al, Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 2011
- Environmental performance of organic farming, Schader et al, in J.J. Boye and Y. Arcand (Eds.), Green Technologies in Food Productions and Processing, 2011
Bringing nature back into our lives: EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 aims to recover Europe’s biodiversity by 2030. To do this, it states that 25% of the EU’s agricultural land should be farmed organically.
The Proposal Soil Framework directive (COM(2006) 620 was eventually withdrawn in 2014, and the EU still lacks a comprehensive soil protection policy. The newly published Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies and the proposal for a new CAP contain measures that could potentially trigger actions to protect European soils.
The Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) establishes a framework for the protection of inland surface waters, transitional waters, coastal waters and groundwater. Among others, it promotes sustainable water use based on a long-term protection of available water resources and contributes to mitigating the effects of floods and droughts. The first management cycle ended in 2015 and showed mixed results. The second cycle will end in 2021.
- Our life insurance, our natural capital: an EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 (COM(2011) 244) aims at halting the loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystem services. The Commission states that it wants to restore ecosystems inasmuch as possible and step up the EU’s contribution to averting global biodiversity loss.
- The mid-term review of the EU biodiversity strategy to 2020 (2015): states there is no significant progress towards the target. Biodiversity loss and ecosystem services degradation in the EU have continued since the 2010. This is consistent with global trends and negatively impacts the capacity of biodiversity to meet human needs in the future. While many local successes prove that action on the ground delivers positive outcomes, these examples need upscaling to have a measurable global impact.
- The European Commission’s Policy report on the implementation of the Soil Thematic Strategy (COM(2012) 46) provides an overview of the actions the European Commission took. It underlines that, at the March 2010 Environment Council, a minority of Member States blocked further progress on the proposed Soil Framework Directive. It also presents current soil degradation trends in Europe and globally, as well as future challenges to ensure protection.
- Proposal for framework Directive (COM(2006) 620)
- The Impact Assessments SEC (2006) 1165 and SEC(2006) 620 contain an analysis of the economic, social and environmental impacts of the different options that were considered.
- The Environmental Quality Standards Directive (2008/105/EC) lays down environmental quality standards (EQS) for priority substances and certain other pollutants with the aim of achieving good surface water chemical status;
- The Groundwater Directive (2006/118/EC) establishes a regime setting groundwater quality standards and introduces measures to prevent or limit inputs of pollutants into groundwater.
Soil is a valuable, non-renewable, resource of global importance. Manmade activities are having long-lasting damaging and detrimental effects on this life-supporting structure. The European Commission took a first step to a coordinated approach to protect this resource in 2006, but the proposed EU directive for the protection of soil was never adopted due to a blocking minority of Member States in the European Council. IFOAM Organics Europe calls for more action, in particular through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), to:
- Minimise erosion,
- Stop salinization,
- Limit surface sealing and protect valuable farmland,
- Set maximum levels for soil contaminants,
- Assist by means of experts,
- Maintain or enhance soil biodiversity,
- Limit compaction,
- Prescribe a flexible organic matter content,
- Impose restrictions on damaging forms of land use.
Read our position paper on soil.
Organic farmers adhere to high standards in producing quality food while protecting the environment and climate. However, to ensure organic farming keeps meeting its ambitious objectives it needs to improve continuously. Therefore, ‘Replacement of Contentious Inputs in Organic Farming Systems’ (RELACS) will foster the development and adoption of cost-efficient and environmentally safe tools and technologies to:
- Reduce the use of copper and mineral oil in plant protection,
- Identify sustainable sources for plant nutrition, and
- Provide solutions to support livestock health and welfare.
As a system approach to sustainable agriculture, organic farming aims to effectively manage ecological processes whilst lowering dependence on off-farm inputs. The 29 RELACS partners will evaluate solutions to further reduce the use of inputs across Europe as well as in countries on the Southern shore of the Mediterranean.
- Policy brief explaining the organic approach to inputs
- Practice abstract on ‘Farmer Field Schools – Using peer-to-peer advisory to reduce antibiotic inputs and to improve animal health and welfare’
- News stories
RELACS has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 773431. The information contained in this communication only reflects the author’s view.
SOLMACC – Organic farmers countering climate change
SOLMACC (Strategies for Organic and Low input farming to Mitigate and Adapt to Climate Change) was about demonstrating that farming can be climate-friendly by applying a combination of optimised organic farming practices to respond to climate change. It seeked to promote wider adoption of innovative practices that eventually can contribute to reaching the EU’s climate change mitigation and adaptation objectives in the food and farming sector. Across Europe, 12 demonstration farms were selected with farmers adjusting their agriculture techniques over the course of five years under close scientific monitoring and supervision. The objective was to significantly reduce farms’ greenhouse gas emissions compared to average farms under similar climatic conditions. Modelling allowed for predictions about the long-term impact on soil, biodiversity and climate to be made with the project’s results used to develop transferable approaches for other farms, be they organic or conventional.
See how agroforestry, optimised tillage, optimised crops rotation and optimised nutrient management improved farms’ adaptation capacity. You can also read a summary of the SOLMACC project in the Layman report.
Are you a policy-maker? You might want to read the policy recommendations: Increasing climate change mitigation and adaptation of the agriculture and food sector.
Watch the videos
- Summary and results
- Policy recommendations
- Practical manual for climate-friendly practices: Part 1 and Part 2 (available in other languages on SOLMACC’s website)
SOLMACC was supported by
the contribution of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union under agreement number LIFE12 ENV/SE/000800
the Mercator Foundation Switzerland
Practices that increase Soil Organic Matter (SOM) and promote soil biological activity, with benefits for soil structure and water management, include:
- Multi-stage crop rotations: sequential cultivation of different types of crops to improve soil fertility and nutrient efficiency;
- Return of organic matter to the soil in the form of animal manure, compost or crop residues;
- Year-round soil coverage with inter-tillage (tillage between rows of crop plants), undersown crops or perennial forage;
- No use of harmful synthetic pesticides;
- At a processing level modern cleaning equipment and reusing water for pre-cleaning can contribute to save water in general.
Practices that maintain or increase overall biodiversity are:
- Usage of increased number of cultivated crop types;
- Growing indigenous plant varieties and raising animal breeds adapted to local conditions;
- Employment of mixed plant and animal farms, that also encourage nutrient cycling;
- Creation of green infrastructure, e.g. hedges, fallows, beetle banks, meadows and waters to attract birds, mammals, and insects for pest control;
- Soil quality management;
- Intercropping: growing two or more crops together at the same space for a part of or the whole growing season;
- Mechanical weeding.
SAVE BEES AND FARMERS
This European Citizens’ Initiative calls on the European Commission to support an agricultural model that allows farmers and biodiversity to thrive in harmony. By signing this petition, you can help to bring our vision of a European Union in which agriculture is a vector of people’s well-being in terms of employment, health and biodiversity recovery, closer to reality.
Visit the ECI’s website for more information.
The work of IFOAM Organics Europe on this topic is co-financed by the LIFE programme of the European Union, under the Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME). This page only reflects the views of the authors and its sole responsibility lies with IFOAM Organics Europe. The EASME is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information provided.