FondsGoetheanum: Agriculture

Organic agriculture produces less CO2 emissions

Organically cultivated fields are more climate friendly than conventional ones, says a study of the Research Institute for Organic Agriculture. 

Text: René Schulte

Paul Mäder

Paul Mäder

Agricultural Engineer, ETH, Zurich
Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL)

The Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL) and the Agroscope Reckenholz-Tänikon (ART) have been conducting a field trial in Therwil (BL) since 1978. Scientists like Paul Mäder analyse the difference between organic and conventional agriculture.

"The study shows that, while the yields in organic agriculture are on average about 20 percent lower than conventional ones, much less fertiliser and energy is required, and practically no pesticides are used." (Science, 2002, Vol. 296)

This is where climate protection starts. Instead of relying on energy-intensive chemical fertilisers and pesticides, as is done to a greater or lesser extent in conventional agriculture, organic farmers primarily use dung and manure coming from their own farms. Organic soils are also distinguished by a greater diversity of species.

"Small animals and microbes improve the soil structure. They make efficient use of dung and harvest by-products, contributing to higher humus levels in the soil," explains Mäder.

"This leads to far lower CO2 emissions than what is emitted by conventional agriculture."


What kind of landscape do we want to live in? How much do we care about the food we eat? How do we treat each other as participants in the Market? These and other future questions are research topics at the Agricultural Section at the Goetheanum.

Nikolai Fuchs

Nikolai Fuchs

Leader of the Agricultural Section at the Goetheanum

What is needed for agriculture to become more diverse, rather than more uniform? 

Biodynamic agriculture already leads the field in many parameters of sustainability. But we continuously strive for improvements out of respect for the world we live in. Every year more than 600 farmers from all over the world come together for the Agricultural Conference at the Goetheanum, making it the biggest annual conference for organic farmers worldwide.

This is an opportunity for farmers to talk among professionals, and to learn from each other. People even schedule additional meetings during the breaks. Experiences are exchanged and new ideas developed, also in discussions about current topics, such as climate change. Research topics include:

  • new scientific approaches in agriculture
  • the meaning of animal husbandry for agriculture
  • a new economic approach in agriculture
  • new concepts of hygiene in agriculture and production
  • warmth processes in agriculture
  • the effects of genetic modification on the shape of plants

Clearly, these unconventional questions can only be approached by open-minded research methods. In addition to this general basic research, we cooperate with international research networks. Two of the ten Sections at the Goetheanum that are dedicated to a specific professional sector, the Natural Science Section and the Agricultural Section, jointly run the Research Institute at the Goetheanum. The Institute is the oldest research institution dedicated to organic agriculture in the world. First trials were conducted as early as 1920.

Pioneers in establishing the Research Institute were, among others, Dr. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer (1899-1961) and Prof. Dr. Dr. hc Herbert Koepf (1914-2007), who was also the leader of the Agricultural Section for many years. Their work has been widely recognised in other scientific circles, particularly in the United States. Approaches to science and research as they are cultivated at the Goetheanum, do not usually receive public funding, and therefore depend entirely on donations.

Dr. sc. ETH Urs Niggli

Dr. sc. ETH Urs Niggli

ETH Zurich
Director Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Frick

Mr Niggli, what is the significance of organic and biodynamic agriculture? 

In Switzerland there are more than 6400 organic and biodynamic farms, this amounts to 10% of all farms with 11% of the usable agricultural area. There is an increasing demand for organic products. The number of organic farmers, and the organically cultivated agricultural lands will grow accordingly. Organic farming is an important contribution to climate protection. While certain points in biodynamic agriculture may be difficult to comprehend by conventional scientific means, its positive effects are proven. Health related advantages of organic products become increasingly relevant for many consumers. These are laid out clearly in the FiBL study "Quality and Safety of Organic Products"2.

How do you respond to the accusation that organic agriculture is an old-fashioned method of farming?

Organic agriculture is a modern technology that discerningly uses the benefits of scientific progress. It allows for a high level of diversity of crops and wild plants, and constantly re-vitalizes the soil structure. These soils absorb atmospheric CO2, show fewer problems with erosion, and store water exceptionally well, all very topical issues.

What are the advantages of organic agriculture compared to conventional agriculture?

Organic farming does not rely on synthetically produced nitrogen for fertilization. Instead, it makes use of the natural absorption of atmospheric nitrogen by different kinds of clover and other legumes. Large quantities of nitrogen are transported from the air into the soil, without burning huge amounts of crude oil in the process. This is an astonishingly efficient, climate-positive method. In this respect, organic agriculture is setting the trend. 

What is your opinion about Biodynamic preparations?  

Biodynamic agriculture is based on closed, self-contained cycles, the strengthening of plants, and the vitalization of the soil through biodynamic preparations. Scientific, long-term studies show that the preparations enhance soil fertility.

To what extent is organic agriculture environmentally friendly?  

The positive effects of organic agriculture are scientifically proven. Organic agriculture is always named the best strategy when it comes to the balance of productivity (production of foodstuffs), ecology (the protection of natural resources), and avoidance of environmental damage.

2 more info at FiBL, 5070 Frick