Conventional and organic animal production compared on sustainability
The animal article of the month for October is ‘Animal Board Invited Review: Comparing conventional and organic livestock production systems on different aspects of sustainability‘.
Whether conventional or organic animal production is more sustainable can now be debated on facts.
The world population is growing and getting richer. People will not only need more food, but will also demand more meat and other animal products in their diet. To meet this demand, animal farmers will have to increase their production. However, they also ought to consider other societal demands on animal farming, for example regarding greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, and animal welfare whilst ensuring a sufficient income from the farm. Today, a multitude of animal production systems exists differing in many aspects and also in intensity of farming and the use of technology. Two systems, conventional farming and organic farming, and the differences between them, are heavily debated in society.
Often, the arguments used in this debate are based on gut feeling rather than on actual proven differences in sustainability performance. Moreover, often single differences are used in a debate instead of an overall approach. A systematic overview of proven differences between conventional and organic animal production can contribute to this debate and help to outline sustainable livestock production of the future. Our study shows that conventional systems have lower labour requirements per unit product, lower income risk per animal, higher production per animal per time unit, higher reproduction numbers, lower feed conversion ratio, lower land use, generally lower acidification and eutrophication potential per unit product, equal or better udder health for cows and equal or lower microbiological contamination. In contrast, organic systems have higher income per animal or full time employee, lower impact on biodiversity, lower eutrophication and acidification potential per unit land, equal or lower likelihood of antibiotic resistance in bacteria and higher beneficial fatty acid levels in cow milk.
For many aspects and animal species, more data are needed to conclude on a difference between organic and conventional animal production systems. For most sustainability aspects, sometimes conventional and sometimes organic systems performed better, except for productivity, which was consistently higher in conventional systems. So, the relative importance of sustainability topics is the core of a preference for conventional or organic livestock production. That means that instead of arguing which system is better, the discussion should be about how we weigh different sustainability topics against each other. The strong points of each system we identified in our study could be used to further develop both systems or even to design new, future-proof livestock production systems that combine these strong points.
In our study, we compared conventional and organic animal production systems on economy, productivity, environmental impact, animal welfare and public health. We reviewed the scientific literature on these sustainability topics for dairy cattle, beef cattle, pigs, broilers and laying hens in Europe, North America and New Zealand. In total, 179 articles were analysed, which varied widely in indicators, research design, sample size and location and context. No study analysed all aspects of sustainability simultaneously.
This article is freely available for one month: ‘Animal Board Invited Review: Comparing conventional and organic livestock production systems on different aspects of sustainability‘.
Authors: C. P. A. van Wagenberg, Y. de Haas, H. Hogeveen, M. M. van Krimpen
The animal Article of the Month is selected by the Editor-in-Chief and is freely available for one month. View the recent selections