Organic milk: soil carbon changes, ecotoxicity and biodiversity

The importance of including soil carbon changes, ecotoxicity and biodiversity impacts in environmental life cycle assessments of organic and conventional milk in Western Europe

New paper co-authored by Susanne Padel and Laurence Smith, arising from work in the SOLID (Sustainable Organic and Low Input Dairying) project.

Knudsen MT, Dorca-Preda T, Djomo SN, Peña N, Padel S, Smith LG, Zollitsch W, Hörtenhuber S, Hermansen JE (2019) The importance of including soil carbon changes, ecotoxicity and biodiversity impacts in environmental life cycle assessments of organic and conventional milk in Western Europe. Journal of Cleaner Production 215: 433-443

Abstract

Estimates of soil carbon changes, biodiversity and ecotoxicity have often been missing from life cycle assessment based studies of organic dairy products, despite evidence that the impacts of organic and conventional management may differ greatly within these areas. The aim of the present work was therefore to investigate the agnitude of including these impact categories within a comprehensive environmental impact assessment of organic and conventional dairy systems differing in basic production conditions. Three basic systems representative of a range of European approaches to dairy production were selected for the analysis, i.e. (i) low-land mixed crop-livestock systems, (ii) lowland grassland-basedsystems, (iii) and mountainous systems. As in previous publications, this study showed that when assessing climate change, eutrophication and acidification impact organic milk has similar or slightly lower impact than conventional, although land-use is higher under organic management. Including soil carbon changes reduced the global warming potential by 5-18%, mostly in organic systems with a high share of grass in the ration. The impacts of organic milk production on freshwater ecotoxicity, biodiversity and resource depletion were 2, 33 and 20% of the impacts of conventional management, respectively, across the basic systems considered. The study highlights the importance of including biodiversity, ecotoxicity and soil carbon changes in life cycle assessments when comparing organic and conventional agricultural products. Furthermore, the study shows that including more grass in the ration of dairy cows increases soil carbon sequestration and decreases the negative impact on biodiversity.

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