Approaches to assess the environmental impact of organic farming with particular regard to Denmark

Birgitte Hansen, Hugo Fjelsted Alrøe, Erik Steen Kristensen

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186 Citations (Scopus)


Ever increasing attention is being paid to the environmental impact of intensive agricultural practices, and in this context organic farming is gaining recognition as a relatively friendly production system. In general, the risk of harmful environmental effects is lower with organic than with conventional farming methods, though not necessarily so. This review examines organic farming in the light of European conditions with special regard to recent research findings from Denmark. It specifies the environmental problems caused by modern farming practices and discusses appropriate indicators for assessing their impact. A driving force-state-response (DSR) framework is employed to organise and understand the processes and mechanisms that lie behind the impact of agriculture on nature and the environment. Important groups of environmental indicators are selected that characterize (a) the aquatic environment (nitrate and phosphorus leaching), (b) the soil (organic matter, biology and structure), (c) the ecosystem (arable land, semi-cultivated areas, small biotopes and landscape), and (d) resource usage and balances (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and energy use). The paper also reviews several empirical studies. With regard to soil biology, organic farming is usually associated with a significantly higher level of biological activity (bacteria (Monera), fungi (Mycota), springtails (Collembola), mites (Arachnida), earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris)), due to its versatile crop rotations, reduced applications of nutrients, and the ban on pesticides. In most cases there is also a lower surplus of nutrients and less leaching with organic than with conventional farming. However, poor management (e.g., the ploughing of grass and legumes (Fabates) at the wrong time of year with no subsequent crops to capture the mineralized nitrogen), low self-sufficiency in feed, and problems with certain production systems (such as those involved in organic pig farming, i.e., grazing sows, low crop yields), can lead to a high level of leaching in some organic systems. Organic farming is faced with a need to expand and develop in line with increasing demands for organic food and growing environmental concerns. This requires closer attention to the goals, values and principles on which organic practices are based, and more research into the influence of organic farming on different aspects of the environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11-26
Number of pages16
JournalAgriculture, Ecosystems and Environment
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Biodiversity
  • Denmark
  • Energy use
  • Environmental indicator
  • Nitrogen leaching
  • Organic farming
  • Soil biology
  • Soil organic matter

Programme Area

  • Programme Area 2: Water Resources


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