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Sustainable Development Goals and the link to organic

How organic is part of the solution when it comes to achieving the global goals

Global agriculture has reached a crossroad. Although our current food system has boosted agricultural productivity over the past decades it has also had a detrimental effect on the environment and society. Soil degradation, biodiversity loss, water pollution, climate change, ocean dead zones are just a few of the challenges that we are confronted with.  To combat these and other major issues in 2015 the global community came together and launched the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; a plan of action based on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). More and more these SDG’s are determining the sustainable agenda of the planet.  Food production and consumption have a massive direct positive or negative impact on these goals.

Since organic farmers all around the world refrain from using harmful agro-chemicals and work as much as possible in harmony with nature, it is clear that these heroes can be seen as part of the solution.

As this report proves, if the global community is serious about achieving the SDG’s by 2030 it is essential that we switch to more sustainable farming practices like organic.


Global land degradation and biodiversity loss are continuing to occur at an alarming rate causing detrimental change to habitats and the natural food chain. According to the United Nations, more than 1,000,000 species are under threat.

One of the main reasons why natural habitats are under pressure is intensive farming practices. A UN report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food mentions: “The continued excessive use and misuse of pesticides result in the contamination of surrounding soil and water sources, causing a major loss of biodiversity, destroying beneficial insect populations that act as natural enemies of pests and reducing the nutritional value of food.”  

This report is backed up by a tremendous body of hard evidence showing that when it comes to biodiversity, organic agriculture scores much better than the conventional counterpart.  The report Organic Agriculture and the Sustainable Development Goals particularly focusses on the impact on pollinators and other insects as well as the consequence for birdlife. Furthermore, the impact on flora diversity is also analyzed.

Finally, when we speak about biodiversity it is essential to talk about what is happening below our feet as 25% of biodiversity is found in the soil. According to the global food organization the FAO, intensive crop production has depleted the soil in many countries and as a consequence, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation encourages organic farming as one of five forms of sustainable agricultural farming practices.

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When it comes to climate and agriculture the keyword is soil. In the FAO report Soil Organic Carbon, The Hidden Potential the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation is crystal clear: “In the presence of climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss, soils have become one of the most vulnerable resources in the world. Soils are a major carbon reservoir containing more carbon than the atmosphere and terrestrial vegetation combined”.

The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) also recognizes the important link between agriculture, soil and climate change. In a recent publication, the organization highlights the role of agriculture when it comes to meeting the 2015 Paris Agreement. The IPCC calculated that: “Agriculture, forestry and other types of land use account for 23% of human greenhouse gas emissions”. At the same time, land management is also seen as part of the solution; “natural land processes absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to almost a third of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry”, according to the IPCC

When it comes to the climate debate, one the biggest advantages of organic farming and other sustainable forms of agriculture is the fact that the soil on these farms can take up CO2 from the atmosphere and bind it into the soil (Carbon Sequestration), increasing levels of soil organic carbon. (Lal 2007)

But there is also another side of the argument namely the fact that the production of agrochemicals (specifically artificial fertilizers) is the second-largest emitter of CO2 in agriculture. 

Therefore since organic farmers build healthy soils that take up C02 and do not use agrochemicals that produce CO2, organic agriculture can very much be seen as part of the solution.

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One of the major issues that our oceans and seas are being confronted with are large areas known as dead zones due to fact that there is little to no oxygen to support life, a process called eutrophication.  Although dead zones occur all around the globe the largest and most documented ones can be found in the Gulf of Mexico, in the yellow sea, the Gulf of Thailand and the Baltic sea.

When nutrients (specifically nitrogen and phosphorous) run off the land and reach large bodies of water through the groundwater, streams and rivers they start fertilizing microscopic plant life in our oceans and seas causing massive algae blooms.  When the algae die and sink to the seafloor they are digested by microorganisms and this process removes oxygen from that specific part of the ocean creating these catastrophic low oxygen dead zones.

According to the European Environment Agency, different nutrients affect different water bodies:  “The overloading of seas, lakes, rivers and streams with nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) can result in a series of adverse effects known as eutrophication. Phosphorus is the key nutrient for eutrophication in freshwaters and nitrate is the key substance for salt waters”.

When it comes to the causes of such pollution the European Environment Agency points out that agriculture, households and industry all play a role: “ The main source of nitrogen pollution is run-off from agricultural land, whereas most phosphorus pollution comes from households and industry”. In the same publication the EEA points out that: In agriculture, the two main nitrogen inputs to agricultural land are mineral fertilizers and manure

As organic agriculture prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides, there is little to no risk of synthetic pesticide pollution of ground and surface waters.  It is important to mention, however, that when organic farmers use manure fertilization that this can also reach waterbodies and contribute to dead zones.

Nevertheless, a study aimed at assessing what agricultural methods could be implemented to reduce nutrient pollution suggests that “an agriculture system based on local and renewable resources, which integrates animal and crop production on each farm or farms in close proximity” is the solution.  

Since there are a lot of similarities between such methods and organic agriculture including crop rotation and a better recycling of biomass and nutrients, organic agriculture can be seen as part of the solution. 

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Although we live on a blue planet where water covers 70% of our planet, only 3% of the world’s water is freshwater and two-thirds of that is unavailable as it is in frozen glaciers. Of that one third that remains more than 70% is used in agriculture.

Chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers used in farming not only stay on the plants but also reach our water systems through the soil and groundwater. According to WWF, the use of pesticides and fertilizers on farms has increased by 26-fold over the past 50 years and this has had serious environmental consequences.

That these forms of pollution are also a tremendous financial burden was made clear in a report published in 2011 by the French Government. The study estimates that the full cost of cleaning the groundwater in France would exceed € 522 billion and linked specifically to nitrates and pesticides the study concludes that: “Based on the treatment costs of nitrates and pesticides in drinking water purification plants, the costs for eliminating nitrates and pesticides in aquatic environments are respectively above 70 euros per kg for nitrates and 60,000 euros per kg for pesticides”.

There are two significant ways that organic farmers contribute to SDG 6. Firstly since organic legislation prohibits the use of artificial fertilizers and chemical pesticides they are, in this regard, not contributing to the pollution of our water systems.

Furthermore, since organic farmers do not use artificial fertilizers they feed their crops indirectly through the soil by for example applying compost. Other techniques to build healthy soil includes crop rotation and the use of cover crops. Interestingly enough these healthy soil have an excellent water holding capacity meaning that the soil needs less water and can handle periods of drought better. Alternatively when there are heavy showers, healthy soils, due to a more porous structure ensure better drainage resulting in less water loss from run-off.

So when it comes to our protecting our freshwater supplies, organic agriculture is very much part of the solution.

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When one considers that more than 95% of our food comes directly and indirectly from soil, it is critical that we realize that in order to tackle the issue of hunger we need to save our soils.  According to FAO: “Our soil is seriously under threat, which is not only detrimental for global food security but also negatively impacts our climate, our water systems and our biodiversity. In other words, soil has a direct impact not only on SDG 2: Zero Hunger but also SDG 13: Climate, SDG 6: Clean Water and SDG 15: Life on Land.

Every minute mankind destroys the equivalent of 30 football fields of fertile soil, mostly due to intensive farming methods which result in a loss of 10 million hectares of farmland every year. As a consequence, 25% of our earth’s soils are classed as being highly degraded. So in order to feed the 10 billion people projected to live on Earth in 2050, we must strike the critical balance between soil quality and diversity as well as productivity and sustainability. 

When it comes to preserving and improving soil quality and fertility, the FAO encourages five different forms of sustainable agricultural farming practices including organic farming. According to the FAO, If these sustainable soil management practices were to be adopted, we could produce up to 58% more food.

So we can conclude that preserving our soils is crucial if we are going to tackle SDG 2: Zero Hunger. Since organic farmers do not use chemical fertilizers, they feed their plants indirectly through the soil by for example applying compost. This is not only good for the plants but also enriches the soil. Research shows that biomass (soil organic matter) quantities in agricultural production without the use of synthetic chemicals, and growth regulators are far greater and directly leads to increases in soil microorganism and fauna biodiversity.

When it comes for food security, in a joint report of UNEP (United Nations Environmental Agency) and UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) the United Nations calls for “a wide range of creative, sustainable agricultural systems which not only provide food, but also factor in the economic value of nature-based services of forests, wetlands and soil organisms that underpin agricultural services, simply applying industrial agricultural models of the twentieth century into the twenty-first as a single global solution will not serve us well”. When it comes to organic farming and food security in Africa the introduction mentions “ The evidence presented in this study supports the argument that organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and that it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term”  

When it comes to addressing Zero Hunger in an era when we are being confronted with the impacts of climate change, it is of vital importance to grow food during long periods of physical stress. FAO research shows that organic agriculture is showing that it can produce better yields during periods of drought.

Finally, organic farming practices are also proving successful when it comes to turning barren wastelands into agricultural land.

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The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has estimated that 90% of the 2 billion workers – 61 percent of the world’s workforce – are categorized as part of the informal workforce. Furthermore, 90% of these workers live in rural areas and work in agriculture where, according to the ILO  they are forced to accept inadequate working conditions, including exposure to hazardous and toxic chemicals. This is backed up by a report from the United Nations environment assembly that claims that as many as 25 million agricultural workers worldwide experience unintentional pesticide poisoning every year.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on the other hand estimates that there are up to 5 million acute unintentional pesticide-related illnesses and injuries per year, and that annually there are 20,000 deaths related to unintentional pesticide poisoning.

Whatever the exact figures pesticide poisoning is a major public health problem in developing countries and not only for farm workers but also people living next to sprayed fields.

In this regard, organic farms, where such chemicals are forbidden, can generally be perceived as a healthier work environment compared to their conventional counterparts, particularly in developing countries. 

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For SDG 3 the report addresses how agricultural farming practices have an impact on the health of consumers. When it comes to the health risks for farmers and farm workers, this issue will be addressed in the SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth chapter. 

When it comes to health there is still an ongoing discussion as to the exact, generally accepted definition of what “health” entails and what the relationship is between nutrition and health.  On the one hand, there are studies that show that organic products are healthier and on the other hand there are studies that show that there is no difference between organic and non-organic. In our research, however, we were unable to find any studies showing that non-organic products are healthier than organic.

Healthy food comes from healthy agriculture. Producers of baby food use organic products almost exclusively because organic vegetables and fruit are normally free from pesticide residues. According to research from the British Journal of Nutrition, organic products also contain more vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and bio-active matter. The research “Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops" is a meta-analysis of 343 previous research papers comparing the health benefits and nutritional values between organic and non-organic products.

The outcome of the British report was backed up by a recent study published by the Louis Bolk Institute and the RIKILT institute of food safety.

When it comes to agriculture and health apart from the consumer and farm workers (SDG 8), there is also an effect on people living close to areas where pesticides are being used. In one of the largest studies analyzing the potential effects of pesticide exposure on still-developing fetuses and newborns, scientists found that exposure to the most commonly used pesticides was linked to a higher risk of autism spectrum disorder. The research was conducted by the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California and the results were published in the British Medical Journal.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also points out that “Highly hazardous pesticides may have acute and/or chronic toxic effects, and pose a particular risk to children”

Furthermore, the WHO talks about the dangers of pesticides particularly in countries where there are no strong registration and control systems:  “Environmental contamination can also result in human exposure through consumption of residues of pesticides in food and, possibly, drinking water. While developed countries have systems already in place to register pesticides and control their trade and use, this is not always the case elsewhere”

Since organic agriculture does not use chemical pesticides in this regard this sustainable form of agriculture is not contributing to these contamination issues.

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According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO): “Sustainable agriculture must nurture healthy ecosystems and support the sustainable management of land, water and natural resources, while ensuring world food security”. When one speaks about healthy ecosystems as well as sustainable land and water management it is imperative one focusses on healthy, living soils, particularly when one considers that more than 95% of our food comes directly and indirectly from soil.

Unfortunately according to the UN food organization: “Our soil is seriously under threat, which is not only detrimental for global food security but also negatively impacts our climate, our water systems and our biodiversity. In other words, soil has a direct impact on at least four SDG’s namely: 2: Zero Hunger, SDG 13: Climate Action, SDG 6: Clean Water & Sanitation and SDG 15: Life on Land.

When it comes to preserving and improving soil quality and fertility, the FAO encourages five different forms of sustainable agricultural farming practices including Agro-Ecology, Agro-Forestry, Zero Tillage, Conservation Agriculture and Organic farming.

Of these five sustainable farming practices only organic agriculture has a strong independent control system that adheres to strict international regulations and just as importantly, is recognized and trusted by concerned consumers

Basically, if the European organic logo is displayed on a product, it's guaranteed organic. Furthermore, the word "organic" is protected by European law, so it can only be used by producers who have received official certification according to European standards. Compliance with regulations is strictly monitored. When organic products are imported from outside Europe, these products not only have to adhere to strict European organic regulations they are also controlled by EU approved organizations. It therefore really does not matter if an organic product is sold at the farmers market or at the discounter, if it is sold as “organic” it should apply to the strict regulations set down in legislation.

Clearly, when it comes to SDG 12, Organic products have excellent credentials in both sustainable production and consumption.

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Part Of The Solution - Organic Agriculture and the Sustainable Development Goals

In order to determine the role of organic agriculture a research project was launched with the University of Twente. In the report: Organic Agriculture and the Sustainable Development Goals – Part of the Solution, was launched and showed that organic agriculture has a positive impact on no less than 8 of the 17 goals including Zero Hunger (SDG 2), Good Health and Wellbeing (SDG 3), Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG 6), Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8), Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12), Climate Action (SDG 13), Life Below Water (SDG 14) and Life on Land (SDG 15).

Although all of the 17 SDG’s are extremely important, there are four that have a direct impact on the biosphere of our planet namely SDG 15 (Life on Land) SDG 13 (Climate Action) SDG 15 (Life below Water) and SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation). Since the health of our planet depends on these four goals it is vital that we work extra hard in these four domains. When it comes to food production and consumption, it is clear that agriculture is either part of the solution or part of the problem.

Conventional compared to Organic agriculture: Production (orange), environment (blue), economics (red) and social wellbeing (green)

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