To what extent is organic farming equipped to deal with the climate crisis?

To what extent is organic farming equipped to deal with the climate crisis?

A conversation about adaptation strategies for farmers with the organic farming associations Bioland e.V. and Naturland e.V.

Farmer on a field looking towards the sky
Organic farming is also being impacted by the climate crisis. Although it is proving to be more resilient than conventional cultivation methods, the organic farming sector is also seeing an increase in crop failures due to extreme weather events. What adaptation strategies are available to farmers?
Portrait Werner Vogt-Kaute
Organic farming is a form of active climate protection, and its practices can help farmers cope better with the impacts of climate change. “Generally, the crop losses in organic farms under extreme weather conditions are lower than in conventional farms. This is due firstly to the higher humus content in the soil of longstanding organic farms and secondly, because of the multiple crop rotations and the fact that farming practices are adapted to the prevailing conditions, as aggressive processes like tillage are not possible under wet conditions,” explains Werner Vogt-Kaute, adviser on arable farming and poultry farming at Naturland e.V.
Low precipitation, mild and wet winters, and pre-summer drought are a challenge for both conventional and organic farmers1.  This is compounded by increasingly frequent extreme weather events like intense rainfall and heat waves. “Naturally, organic farming is also affected by the climate crisis. In some places, we too must contend with dry soils in hot summers, heavy rainfall and excessively wet spells in general that make harvesting difficult. Nevertheless, organic farming is proving to be a more resilient system and is therefore an important part of the response to the impacts of climate change and to mitigating the climate crisis,” says Sigrid Griese, Project Manager Sustainability and Climate Protection at Bioland e.V.
Portrait Sigrid Griese

Regional differences

In Germany alone, there are significant regional, and in some cases local, differences in the impact of extreme weather conditions,” says Griese: “We are seeing not just large-scale differences in the amount of precipitation, but also varying scenarios within the regions. Within just a few days, we recorded differences in precipitation of up to 60 litres, in some cases over an area of five to ten kilometres. In some cases, this is leading to great uncertainty among farmers.  When it comes to periods of drought, the northeast is affected somewhat more than the rest of the country.”

Extremes call for more flexibility and risk diversification

Climate change adaptation strategies in agriculture are critical to ensure food security. Increasingly, farmers are approaching farming association advisors to talk about adaptation options. “Our farmers are concerned above all about the increasing uncertainties and the question of how they can reduce crop cultivation risks. Bioland’s experts recommend diversification to spread the risks broadly. This means, for example, using even more varied crop rotation, building up new business segments like agroforestry2 or agrivoltaics3, but also continuing to develop sales channels. It is also increasingly important to establish expertise in interpreting weather forecasts and climate assessments,” says Griese.


Adaptation of cultivation methods for soil protection and fertility

Farmers can adapt their cultivation practices to meet altered conditions. This can take the form of adjusting sowing and harvesting schedules, but also using more drought-resistant varieties. “Due to climate change, there are crop ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. An example of ‘losers’ are summer peas and beans, which struggle with very high temperatures, and winter rye, which prefers a cold winter. This is where alternatives need to be sought. In the case of ‘winners’ like millet, we need to get more experience in growing it,” explains Vogt-Kaute.

A shift away from the ‘old’ rules was essential, according to Vogt-Kaute: “At the height of summer meanwhile, it is often too dry and hot to plant seeds, whereas in autumn and winter, a longer growing season is available.” By growing a wider range of crops, farmers can adapt better to changing climatic conditions. This means planting different varieties and species of crops to reduce the risks of crop failures. “Increased cultivation of humus-building crops like clover grass, grain legumes, catch crops and nurse crops is important to counter the increased degradation of humus due to higher temperatures. This has an impact on the design of crop rotations. New crops like soybeans or millet must be integrated into the crop rotations with the associated catch crops, which should be wintering crops,” explains the Naturland consultant.

In the meantime, soybeans and quinoa are also being cultivated more frequently in Germany. What is special about soybeans is not just their resistance to drought; as a legume, the plant forms a symbiosis with bacteria and extracts nitrogen from the air4.  The cultivation of quinoa can also be readily integrated into the crop rotation on a field. It is frost- and drought-resistant, can tolerate high temperatures and grows on permeable soils5.


A look into the future: changes in organic farming and animal husbandry?

With a view to the future, the farming associations believe that the organic farming sector is in a good position:

“The climate crisis is highlighting the strengths of the circular economy and thus of organic farming. We need more of this resilient farming system. The German government’s goal of expanding organic farming to 30 percent of the area under cultivation by 2030 is an important step in this context. Within this system, drought resistance and tolerance will become increasingly important in plant breeding. Water-conserving soil preparation, composition and management will also play an increasingly important role. The organic farming of the future will also certainly work with technical innovations to a greater extent. One such option, for example, would be the Use of drones to plant seeds  to counteract soil compaction,” says Griese, summing up.

The livestock farming industry must also adapt to the changes caused by the climate crisis. “There’s no getting around a general reduction in livestock numbers to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis. In this context, organic farming is already in an ideal position thanks to land-based animal husbandry. Also increasingly important are husbandry systems adapted to heat waves, which include breeding animals to be more heat tolerant but also the use of regional protein feed. Because another issue that is becoming increasingly relevant is the procurement of feed in times of drought or other climatic influences that make feed self-sufficiency difficult. In this conjunction, our association members can access our specialist advice and make use of collaborations among farmers like the animal feed trading platform,” says Griese.

To sum up, organic farming is active climate protection, and its practices make it well-equipped to tackle the future challenges of the climate crisis. However, to protect yields and farmers’ livelihoods, adaptation strategies that differ from region to region need to be put into place. “Organic farming is basically in a good position, but the tools for climate-adapted farming need to be used more systematically,” says Vogt-Kaute in an appeal to farmers.


[1] Federal Information Centre Agriculture (BZL). (undated). Extreme weather: How the climate is changing agriculture. Federal Office for Agriculture and Food

[2] Agroforestry is the integration of trees and other woody plants into agricultural systems. This can improve resilience against extreme weather events and support carbon capture. Agroforestry systems can better survive prolonged periods of drought because in the shelter of the trees, the micro-climate on the field improves and less water.

[3] Agriphotovoltaics (Agri-PV) is a process for the simultaneous use of land for agricultural crop production and solar PV electricity generation.

[4]  Bavarian Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Tourism (undated). Grain legumes. Bavarian State Research Centre for Agriculture.

[5] Weinhappel, M. & Schally, H. (2020, January). Quinoa. Chamber of Agriculture Lower Austria.


Anna Frede

Anna Frede

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