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Global option space for organic agriculture is delimited by nitrogen availability


Organic agriculture is widely accepted as a strategy to reduce the environmental impacts of food production and help achieve global climate and biodiversity targets. However, studies concluding that organic farming could satisfy global food demand have overlooked the key role that nitrogen plays in sustaining crop yields. Using a spatially explicit biophysical optimization model that accounts for crop growth nitrogen requirements, we show that, in the absence of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, the production gap between organic and conventional agriculture increases as organic agriculture expands globally (with organic producing 36% less food for human consumption than conventional in a fully organic world). Yet, by targeting both food supply (via a redesign of the livestock sector) and demand (by reducing average per capita caloric intake), public policies could support a transition towards organic agriculture in 40–60% of the global agricultural area even under current nitrogen limitations thus helping to achieve important environmental and health benefits.

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Fig. 1: Organic-to-conventional cropland energy production gap or surplus.
Fig. 2: Nitrogen flows in the 100% conventional farming and REF 100% organic farming scenarios.
Fig. 3: The global food energy production–demand option space for various organic scenarios.
Fig. 4: Number of people fed globally under scenarios of 20% or 60% conversion of global cropland to organic farming.
Fig. 5: Cropland- and livestock-based energy production used as food and feed in scenarios with or without redesign of the livestock sector.
Fig. 6: Energy production from croplands, grassland and livestock in the 100% conventional and the REF 100% organic scenarios.

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Data and material requests should be addressed to corresponding author.

Code availability

The full model code and documentation are freely available via the following GitHub repository:


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We are grateful to M. Kvakic and B. Ringeval for their suggestions and help in the model construction. This work was funded by Bordeaux Sciences Agro (University of Bordeaux) and the INRA-CIRAD GloFoodS metaprogramme.

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Authors and Affiliations



P.B., S.P. and T.N. designed the study; P.B. collected the data, coded the model and performed the calculations; P.B., V.S., T.N., L.S. and N.R. were involved in the model set-up and improvement. All authors were involved in the interpretation of results and contributed to writing and revising the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Pietro Barbieri.

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Peer review information Nature Food thanks Elizabeth Stockdale and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Barbieri, P., Pellerin, S., Seufert, V. et al. Global option space for organic agriculture is delimited by nitrogen availability. Nat Food 2, 363–372 (2021).

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