Changes in crop rotations would impact food production in an organically farmed world

Abstract

The debate about organic farming productivity has often focused on its relative crop yields compared with conventional farming. However, conversion to organic farming not only results in changes in crop yields, but also in changes in the types of crops grown. To date, the effects of such changes on global crop production have never been systematically investigated. Here, we provide a novel, spatially explicit estimation of the distribution of crop types grown, as well as crop production, under a scenario of 100% conversion of current cropland to organic farming. Our analysis shows a decrease of −31% harvested area, with primary cereals (wheat, rice and maize) compensated by an increase in the harvested areas with temporary fodders (+63%), secondary cereals (+27%) and pulses (+26%) compared with the conventional situation. These changes, paired with organic-to-conventional yield gaps, lead to a −27% gap in energy production from croplands compared with current production. We found that ~1/3 of this gap is explained by changes in the types of crops grown (a contribution rising to 50% when focusing on food crops only), and that such changes strongly affect the repartition of total production among different crop types. Feeding the world organically would thus require profound adaptations of human diets and animal husbandry.

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Fig. 1: Differences in harvested cropland areas between the 100% organic and 100% conventional scenarios for the different crop categories at the global scale and for different global regions.
Fig. 2: Differences in harvested cropland areas between the 100% organic and 100% conventional scenarios for the major crop categories.
Fig. 3: Ratio of organic-to-conventional energy production from crop products at the global scale, for each global region and by crop category (considering all of the 61 crop species).
Fig. 4: Organic-to-conventional production ratios (expressed in quarters) between the 100% organic and 100% conventional scenarios.

Data availability

All of the parameters and variables used are reported in the Supplementary Information. The full code is available from the corresponding author upon request.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to M. Kvakic and B. Ringeval for suggestions and help with the model construction, and G. Wagman for improving the English. This work was funded by Bordeaux Sciences Agro (Université de Bordeaux) and the INRA-CIRAD GloFoodS metaprogramme.

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P.B., S.P., V.S. and T.N. designed the study. P.B. collected the data, coded the cropland management model and performed the calculations. All authors were involved in interpretation of the results and contributed to writing and revising the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Pietro Barbieri.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Tables 1–12, Supplementary Figures 1–5, Supplementary References 1–6

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Barbieri, P., Pellerin, S., Seufert, V. et al. Changes in crop rotations would impact food production in an organically farmed world. Nat Sustain 2, 378–385 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0259-5

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