The livestock sector is of great importance for the sustainability of rural economies and many ecosystems; however, it also has a high environmental impact. Due to the growing demand for animal products, there is a need to design new livestock production systems that allow the combination of food security and sustainability. Within this context, organic livestock may be a useful strategy to achieve such a pivotal goal. However, there is a lack of studies that integrate the existing knowledge, specifically in organic livestock, and integrating the main aspects implied in its practice (its externalities and challenges). The present work aims to fill this knowledge gap, providing strategies and insights that will help stakeholders and policy makers to improve the sustainability of both the organic sector itself and that of the whole food system.
Keywords: Organic, cattle, livestock, sustainability, food system
Alfredo J. Escribano
There has been considerable growth in the number of organic livestock farms  in response to the necessity to fulfill the growing demand for animal products predicted for 2050 . Furthermore, it is required to combine it with the farms’ profitability, environmental protec‐ tion, food safety, and ethical concerns. Due to this, organic livestock farms are nowadays not a despicable part of the census. However, there is no consensus about the consequences of organic livestock farming systems to the sustainability of the overall food system. This lack of convergence has its roots in the effect played by the different characteristics and contexts of the farms. Moreover, some barriers are challenging the development of the sector and shaping its future perspectives. Within this context, and in view of the lack of studies addressing the ing
sustainability of the organic
livestock sector as a whole
by integrating different points of view, it
is very timely
to conduct a thorough study
of this type.
Due to this, the present
review was carried out, aimed at improving the knowledge about the organic
livestock sector such that it will
be possible to adopt a holistic view that increases our understanding of its challenges and future perspectives, with a special
emphasis on the sustainability of both farms and the whole
food system. This integrative knowledge and approach will help stakeholders and
policy makers to make decisions, either at the farm level (implement organic
farms) or making policies. Thus, they both will be able to design strategies
that increase the sustainability, competitiveness, and success of organic
livestock farms, looking at the sustainability of the food systems as a final
and priority goal.
1.1. Socio-economic and environmental role
of livestock production
systems are of great importance for the sustainability of rural economies and many ecosystems. The economic importance of livestock activity
is reflected by the weight of the agricultural sector in the
regional gross domestic product. For example, in rural areas located in southern Europe,
cattle, swine, and small ruminants
sectors billed 396.46 M € in
2010, representing 36.10% of the
agricultural sector production in some regions .
From the social point
of view, it is noteworthy that in semi-arid regions, such those in the
Mediterranean basin, the extensive livestock production systems are often the
main activity, and even the only source of livelihood. This dependence of the
sector highlights the need to protect and enhance
it, as it contributes to the creation
of jobs, to the rural economy, and to the fixation of the rural population,
which are vital for sustainable development in rural areas worldwide [4-5].
From a cultural perspective, the particularities of the different livestock systems are crucial for the conservation of the heritage,
including breeds, landscapes, and habitats of high aesthetic and environmental
value [6-7], which redounds in the economic development of the rural areas.
environment, livestock activity involves lots of environmental benefits , especially when it is carried out under environmentally-friendly production systems, such as the extensive, pasture-based,
low-input, and/or organic systems.
However, the livestock
sector also has an important environmental impact. This sector employs 30% of the overall area not covered
by ice and uses around 80% of global agricultural land. It also generates
most of the greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions
in the agricultural sector,
accounting for 14.5% of human-induced GHGs, exceeding that from transportation
Moreover, it is a major
consumer and polluting water resources, contributing around 30% of N and P
content of watercourses [10-13]. These data are even more striking in the case
of the bovine meat sector as beef is often the food of animal origin with
greater ecological impact [14-18]. Moreover, various socio-economic factors
have led to either the abandonment or the intensification of the farms, which
threatens the conservation of valuable agro-ecosystems.
impact, along with the increasing demand toward animal products, makes it difficult to combine profitability, competitiveness, and environmental sustainability. Consequently,
it is necessary to design and implement
sustainable livestock systems
globally (environmentally, socially, and economically), in which organic
ones have an important role to play.
The objectives of the
present work is (i) to fill the existing knowledge gap with regard to the
sustainability, challenges, and perspectives of the organic
livestock sector, as well as regarding
its contribution to the agrifood system’s sustainability. Moreover, this study
is also aimed at (ii) providing strategies and insights that will help stakeholders and policy makers
to improve the sustainability
of both the organic livestock sector and that of the whole food system.
3. Externalities of organic livestock farming systems
To reduce the
abovementioned environmental impacts, different production systems have been
developed. Among them, organic livestock farms have been studied by several
authors in order to assess their potential and impact on environmental [19-22]
and socio-economic aspects (sustainable rural development) [23-24].
However, some results
are contradictory and some papers are not conclusive, which make it difficult
to generalize the advantages of the organic livestock sector at either farm
level or globally. This lack of convergence in the results
is due to the fact that the externalities of organic
livestock farms are highly dependent on their structure, the breeds reared, as
well as their management, context, and marketing strategies [23-25]. In other
words, it seems that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Moreover, papers
normally address specific aspects of the farms (i.e., economic, health,
welfare, etc.), which does not allow an integrative picture of the situation.
In order to deal with this scenario, many points must be addressed, as  argued, “the
concept of organic animal farming can only fulfill the criteria for
sustainability if all requirements on animal
health, welfare, and ecological soundness are strongly considered and controlled”. Due to this, an analysis of the aspects
mentioned by these authors, along with those related to the economic and social
aspects, have been included in the present work.
3.1. Social dimension: Sustainable rural
economy and development
An important part of
the world forms part of the so-called “rural areas”. In the case of
the European Union, rural areas cover 90% of its territory, where over 23% of
the European population lives in them, and another 35% lives in intermediate zones. In these areas, farming is one of the main drivers of
sustainable rural development .
However, these areas are going through
processes of depopulation that reduces the sustaina‐
bility of such areas, from the social,
economic, and environmental points of view.
Due to this, there is a necessity to develop strategies that allow
overcoming this issue. Within these strategies, organic farming has become
popular, even in the legislative environment. In fact,  defines organic
production as “a system of farm management and food production that plays a dual societal
role: on the one hand it provides
food products to meet specific
consumer demands; on the other hand it delivers public goods that
contribute to the protection of the environment and animal welfare, as well as
to the development of rural areas”.
As a consequence, several
researchers have evaluated the contribution of organic livestock to sustainable rural development [29-30], of which most of them
have been reviewed and discussed by . Some of them have considered that organic production is an important
pillar of sustainable rural development, since this production model
generates more positive externalities than the conventional one in terms of
conservation of agro-ecosystems, creation of jobs, farms’ profitability,
workers´ income, and local economy.
In this regard, it is fair to mention
that most of the benefits
provided by the organic production model in relation to rural
development seem to be due to both their participation in short marketing
channels [31-32] and obtaining a higher price (“price premium”) for their
organic products [33-34]. According
to the authors cited, this premium price is necessary
for organic farms
profitability, especially during the years of conversion, because the farms’
incomes are often reduced and costs increased [31-32]. However, there is
controversy on the relationship between the condition of being organic and
short marketing channels, but in general terms, such relationship is weak [24,
However, few studies
addressed the potential role of organic livestock production systems (studies
usually mix agriculture and livestock) towards sustainable development, despite
having been proposed to be models of it .
Furthermore, such studies show contradictory results and did not adopt a
holistic approach (social, economic, and environmentally public policies),
which is really needed. Due to this,  summarized the studies published with
regard to organic livestock sector and discussed them with the results of the
case study they carried out addressing organic beef cattle farms located in
Studies dealing with
this topic paid special attention to the number of jobs created, salaries paid, and the profitability of the farms. Thus, authors
such as  found no increased presence of labor in organic livestock
farms when compared with conventional holdings. On the contrary,  found that organic beef cattle farms
(mainly those that also fattened
their calves) used more labor. However,
these last authors
stated that this was mainly
due to both the higher degree of business diversification of these farms
and the fact that for many of the farmers,
the farm under study was not the only source of income. Both aspects
increased the necessity to hire external workforce. Moreover,  found
that the salaries
paid by the organic farms
were lower than those of the conventional ones, which is contrary to the
findings of the review carried out by . However, these two last studies did
not focus only livestock farms, such that results cannot be compared precisely.
 concluded that
organic dairy farms may contribute more to the local economy and economic
development of rural communities located in the northeast and upper midwest of
the U.S. than average and similar-size conventional dairy farms. As they
stated, in Vermont, organic dairy farm sales revenue would result in greater state-wide impacts of 3% in output,
39% in labor income,
33% in gross state product,
and 46% in employment relative
to the impacts from an equivalent level of sales revenue to
conventional dairy farms. In Minnesota, these economic impacts are 4, 9, 11,
and 12% greater.
Later,  found that organic beef cattle farms
that fattened their
calves performed better
from the economic point of view. These authors compared these full-cycle
organic farms with (i) conventional farms that scarcely fattened
their calves and (ii) organic
farms with no fattening
period. This comparison allowed them to conclude
that the differences were mainly due to the consequences that some differential factors had on overall economic
performance, more than the
condition of being organic. These factors were the following: most of the farms that fattened
their calves were full-cycle (they were part of an association that had the
organic crops, the mill, the livestock farms, the trucks, and even established
contracts with supermarkets). Moreover, they all received the subsidies for organic
farming (in the other organic group of farms they did not), and they sold their
fattened calves at a price 25% higher than that of the conventional ones.
However, as the production cycle (and the age at which calves were slaughtered)
was longer, these farms showed lower economic performances when it was
calculated per year.
In summary, the authors
have come to the conclusion that many of the benefits provided by organic
production in relation to rural development are not due to the mere fact
produced under the ecological model, but to sell their products through
short marketing channels
[31-32] and to obtain a higher price (“price
premium”) for organic
products [33-34]. This is especially important during
the years of conversion because
farm incomes are often reduced,
and its costs increased.
Moreover, the pathway followed
by the products (marketing channels)
has a great impact on the sustainability of the food system.
Thus, transportation accounted for 17.43% of the total energy consumed by the
Spanish food sector in 2000 . In this sense, it is important to comment that short marketing
channels (and “local”
products) are commonly
thought to have lower environmental impacts. However,
the concentration of supply can lead to lower emissions of GHGs of short
marketing channels, in which small amounts of products are transported by vehicle or fuel. In fact,  found that most of that 17.43%
of energy consumed by transport comes from road
transport due to their lower energy efficiency per load trans‐ ported.
3.2. Environmental dimension
low-input livestock systems (e.g., the organic systems) are key to the
ecosystems in which they are integrated as they provide with numerous benefits,
such as increased carbon sequestration, improved quality of the pastures, and
reduction of scrub invasion and risk of fire [5, 8, 39].
According to ,
livestock production is fundamental to the organization of agricultural
production on organic holdings in so far as it provides the necessary organic
matter and nutrients for cultivated land and accordingly contributes towards
soil improvement and the development of sustainable agriculture.  completed
this view arguing that organic livestock provides organic
nutrients that are recycled at the farm level, allowing
the production of on-farm
inputs, which increases
their sustainability. Similarly,  claimed
that when cattle are introduced in environmental
systems, increased efficiency and sustainability occurs. However, organic
livestock farms do not always present a significant cultivated area, so that
their differences with conventional farms with regard to this parameter may be
few . Moreover, mixed
crop-livestock farms could miss out on potential economies of scale. To
overcome these interactions, organic mixed crop-livestock farms could be a solution, since  observed that these farms exploited the diversity of herd feed resources more efficiently than the
rest of the groups, which varied in both their degrees of mixing these two components and their organic/conventional status.
to water resources, some authors have found that its use is more efficient in organic
farms, and that water retention is increased, leading to higher resistance to
drought . Moreover, in these farms, land degradation is prevented and soil fertility
increased . These
aspects are of particular interest in semi-arid areas, where water shortages
often occur, and both soils and pastures are poor. Additionally, it has been
shown that agrobiodiversity is greater in organic agro-ecosystems [20, 21, 45],
which greatly increases the number of inter‐ actions between system components
and their complexity. Therefore, their resilience is increased, which is key for their adaptation and resistance against
pests, diseases, and climate
change. In parallel, their higher degree of business diversification make them
less vulnerable in the face of market changes [25, 44].
When looking at
comparisons between organic livestock farming systems and conventional ones, several
authors have shown that organic
systems have a greater potential
to preserve the environment, mainly with regard to
biodiversity [19-21]. These positive externalities are the consequence of many factors,
such as the reduced use of inputs,
better nutrient recycling, less use and exploitation of non-renewable/external resources,
and finally, ecotoxicity.
are of great importance, since the increasing degradation of the agricultural soils and the reduction in the supplies of
fresh water are two of the most serious problems that humankind is facing.
These problems pose an impediment to achieving food security, especially if one takes into account
the growing population and demand for animal products. It is even more relevant in
developing countries and in semi-arid areas characterized by pasture-based (low-input/pasture-based/extensive) production systems. According to several
authors [46-47], organic
livestock systems have the potential
to contribute to the sustainability of these areas.
Due to the advantages
provided by organic livestock production, it would be logical to think that this production model allows facing the two main challenges of the food system: sustain‐ ability and food security. In
this sense,  stated that a shift to organic production will be increasingly
necessary for the renewal of resources (mainly water and soil) and to secure
sustainable food security.
However, there is much debate in this sense , due to the lower
production that organic
production often shows, the increased need for agricultural land for organic
production, and the scarcity of organic fertilizers of good quality.
environmental impact in terms of GHGs and energy use, extensive and low- input
farms (including the organic ones) tend to be more sustainable [50-52]. Among other reasons, this is due
to lower consumption of fossil fuels and energy. However, some studies conclude that emissions in organic systems
may be higher than those
of the conventional ones
, because they have lower
production per unit of input.
In this sense,
 showed that the product carbon footprint in dairy cow organic farms
was significantly higher
than that of the
conventional farms [1.61±0.29 vs. 1.45±0.28kg of CO2 equivalents (CO2 eq) per kg of milk].
This divergent results
are showing that the differences among studies are mainly due to the productive
system under study, its context, the experimental design work, and the units
and limits of the study (farm level, hectare, unit of product, food system,
etc.), more than their conditions of being organic.
One of the aspects
that plays a great effect
on greenhouse emissions of the farms
is the quality of the feed. In this sense,  measured the GHGs from enteric fermentation and manure on
organic and conventional dairy farms in Germany in order to assess the effect
of different feeding practices. In general terms, lower emissions from enteric
fermentation were found when feed quality
and feed intake
was increased (which
normally means feedstuff, instead of
pastures). In general terms, results depended strongly on the calculation
methodology, especially those related to enteric fermentation. Moreover,
differences between the methods were particularly prominent when high amounts
of fiber-rich feedstuff were used. As feed quality management on farms
influences milk yield and enteric CH4 emissions, these aspects should be part of advisory concepts
that aim at reducing GHG emissions in milk production.
In line with these
results,  stated that feed demand per kilogram of milk, high grassland
yield, and low forage area requirements per cow are the main factors that
decrease PCF (product carbon footprints). They observed that the interaction between GHG mitigation and the farm’s profitability is key for improving efficiency
and sustainability. Thus, for organic farms, a reduction of feed demand of 100
g/kg of milk resulted in a PCF reduction of 105 g of CO2 eq/kg of milk and an increase in incomes of
approximately 2.1 euro cents (c)/kg of milk. For conventional farms, a decrease
of feed demand of 100 g/kg of milk corresponded to a reduction in PCF of 117 g of CO2 eq/kg of milk and an increase in management incomes
MI of approximately 3.1 c/kg
of milk. Accordingly, farmers could achieve higher profits while reducing GHG
Regarding the environmental externalities of the different livestock species and sectors, dairy cows are those that have received
more attention.  studied the productive, environmental and economic performances of organic and conventional suckler
cattle farming systems.
They found that the reduction in the use of inputs resulted in a 23% to
45% drop in NRE (non- renewable energy) consumption/ha, 5-20% of which is a
drop in non-renewable energy per ton of live weight produced. The authors
stated that, however, the shift to organic farming does not significantly
affect gross GHG emissions per ton of live weight produced, but suggested that net GHG emissions could be lower for organic
farming systems due to the
carbon sequestration in
grasslands. Contrary to the results that are normally found when GHGs are
measured per kg of product, the lower productivity per hectare (fewer animals
reared per hectares) allowed a reduction from 26% to 34% in net GHG emissions
per hectare of farm area in the study of .
studies that compared
different beef production systems using life cycle analysis (LCA). They classified such
systems by three main characteristics: origin of calves (bred by a dairy cow or a suckler cow),
type of production (organic or non-organic), and type of diet fed to fattening calves (roughage-based -<50% concentrates, or concentrate-based -≥50% concen‐ trates). They observed that organic farms
had lowers GWP (global warming
potential) and use of energy (on average 7% and 30%,
respectively) than that of the non-organic systems. However, they showed higher
eutrophization potential, acidification potential, and land use per unit of
beef produced. Lower GWP (on average 28% lower), energy use (13% lower), and
land use (41% lower) were found per unit of beef for concentrate-based systems
when compared with roughage-based systems. Although these results are not
giving the whole picture (because aspects such as biodiversity, carbon
sequestration, and others were not included in all the studies), the authors
came to interesting conclusions that we cite literally:
• Environmental impacts were lower for dairy-based than for
• GWP was similar for organic and non-organic beef
• GWP, energy use, and land use were lower for concentrate- than
• Dairy-based beef showed the largest potential to mitigate
environmental impacts of beef
• Marginal grasslands unsuitable
for dairy farming may be used for production of suckler-
based beef to contribute to the availability and access to animal-source food
The study of  studied the potential environmental impacts of four different types of organic dairy farms, paying special
attention on the farm´s structure (the percentage of grassland on total farm area, and feeding intensity). The results showed that farms with high
feeding intensity tend to show ecological advantages with regard to their
climate impact and their demand for land. On the contrary, low-input
farms showed to be better with regard to animal welfare, milk quality, and ammonia
losses. But more interestingly, when they assessed the overall environmental index of the farms, low-input
and mixed ones showed the best results. Finally, the authors pointed out
the necessity of using a wider range of environmental parameters, since results
may differ greatly between studies, farms, and systems.
 measured the
carbon footprint of the organic dairy sector, based on farm data from six
European countries. The results showed that the main contributor to the farm´s
carbon footprint was enteric fermentation, which has much to do with the feed
management, as exposed earlier.
To sum up, high-quality
feedstuffs reduce enteric methane emissions, and this is important because these
emissions account for a high proportion of total GHGs (45% of them in the study of ). However, one must keep in mind that the environmental impact
of the farms belongs to
just one pillar of global sustainability. Hence, with regard to feed, other
factors must be taken into account, such as the competence with human food.
methodological aspects of the assessment of farm sustainability, it must be
remembered that the different parameters, frameworks, and approaches available,
as well as the limit of the study and the context of the farms, make it
difficult to integrate results and make conclusions. In this sense,  stated that the method for calculating the carbon footprint could be improved, since this
calculation does not take account of carbon sequestration. This aspect is very
important for extensive livestock systems (either organic or not), especially
for ruminant ones, since cattle grazing
captures 20% of the CO2 released into the atmosphere by deforestation and agriculture worldwide
. If carbon sequestration were included in the evaluations (as done by
), extensive farms and sensitive ecosystems would show better results in
the evaluations of their environmental impact, which could lead to higher
public support, competitiveness, and sustainability.
In relation to the
organic beef cattle sector,  carried out a comparative assessment of the
sustainability of organic and conventional beef cattle farms located in agroforestry
systems and rangelands of southwestern Spain.
It is worthy to mention
that conventional farms
where extensive, pasture-based, and low-input; and that all farms had cows, either
with presence of a fattening period of the calves or
just selling them at the weaning age. These two last pro‐ ductive orientations where selected as they are representative of the sector
and the area under
study. The results showed that organic farms had a higher overall
sustainability, especially with regard to the environmental dimension. In this sense, the authors reported
that the agro- ecosystem management (agricultural
practices) and farm structures were slightly more environmentally friendly. For
example, organic farms tend to implement more measures to reduce erosion and to
improve soil fertility, also developing better dung management that avoided
nitrogen fluxes and allowed farmers to elaborate compost. Only clear
differences where found regarding the use of pesticides, herbicides, and/or
mineral fertilizers. This is consistent with the findings of  in smaller organic
beef cattle farms
located in a more humid area (northwestern Spain).
Hence, the presence of
an approach and configuration of the farms oriented to organic principles
(namely, the environmental systems) found in the study of  was really
scarce, since the improvement and/or maintenance of the ecosystem did not
constitute an important driver nor a motivation of the farmers to run their
organic adventure. A higher degree of farmer’s
engagement and awareness toward the sustainability of the agrifood
sector is needed. Specifically, the implementation
of such sustainable management practices of the agro- ecosystem, such as diversification (the integration of crops, livestock, and trees), are advisable
for sustainable land use management [60, 61] and reduce their carbon footprint
. Also, these measures deserve to be taken into
account by policy makers due to their positive agro- environmental and
socio-economic externalities .
With regard to swine,
Dourmad et al. (2014) evaluated the environmental impacts (per kg of pig live weight and per ha of land used) of 15 European
pig farming systems,
comparing them with their
conventional counterparts, among other types of farming systems, from which “traditional”
was an interesting classification worthy of being mentioned since they account
for an important part of the livestock sector and rural economy of many areas.
This system was defined as “using very fat, slow-growing traditional breeds and generally outdoor
pigs”. When looking
at the results, one can observe that the main differences were found between the traditional systems and the rest of farms. Environmental impacts were, in general terms, lower for conventional farms,
when they were measured by kg of pig produced. Conversely, when expressed per
ha of land use, mean impacts were 10% to 60% lower for traditional and organic
systems, depending on the impact category. These results are in line with those
abovementioned, and as previously explained, they are mainly due to the higher
land occupation per kg of product and the longer productive times.
Another important point that  mentioned was the effect
of the autochthonous breed on the
environmental impact of the farms. They stated that the use of traditional
local breeds, with reduced productivity and feed efficiency, results in higher
impacts per kg of live weight.  added that the effects of the use of
autochthonous breeds have not been adequately demon‐ strated with regard to some topics
(different than the preservation of the genetic
heritage and traditional landscape—aesthetical values).
Due to this,  and  highlighted the necessity to deeply study the interactions and effects of the different
livestock systems, especially those with beef cattle, since the scientific literature in
addressing this sector is scarce. In line with this argument,  mentioned
that agricultural practices
affect biodiversity in a higher degree
than the breeds itself.
Due to these results,
context, and the scientific literature available that addressed
the topic, 
came to the conclusion that the externalities of organic farms (when compared
with the conventional ones), are highly dependent on their production system,
their context (socioe‐ conomic, environmental, political, and institutional),
and their marketing strategies. These conclusions can also be found in other
studies, such as the review of 
about the organic sector as a whole and its relationship with rural
Therefore, the future strategy
of research and innovation in organic farming
must priori‐ tize
productivity gains that address the farms as a whole, while paying major
attention to secure the positive ecological performance organic agriculture can
provide, since the environmental benefits it provides are absolute goods and
cannot be relativized by the fact that yields are currently lower than in
conventional agriculture. Moreover, there is a high potential for reducing the yield gap between organic and conventional farms through
agricultural research .
4. Factors influencing organic livestock farms’ success
4.1. Regulation and certification bodies
With regard to the
legislative side, it is very important to note that regulations on organic
production embrace a wide variety
of organic farms; they allow using different
animal breeds, structures,
agro-ecosystem managements, feeding strategies, and marketing strategies. As a
consequence, organic the livestock farm’s success and perspectives are really
different from one place to another. For example,  found that the situation
in North Germany was in contrast to the region in the south,
where the variability of amount and proportion of the
feed types is predominantly independent of the milk yield. Many factors shape these
differences, such as the ecosystems on which farms are based and consumers’
demands and willingness to pay.
Additionally, the different criteria of the
certification bodies (public and private) act in the same way, since they usually decide
whether some exceptions to the regulations can be applied at the farm level. Due to this,
it is important to unify criteria. Also, the cost of certification is not
affordable for many farmers (especially small farmers, which play a great role
in sustain‐ ability and food security). Fortunately, nowadays, many efforts are
being made to both facilitate the market of organic products worldwide (i.e.,
agreements between the European and American (USDA) standards) and to reduce
cost of certification (i.e., by means of Partic‐ ipatory Guarantee Systems).
Moreover, organic regulations and private
standards do not cover marketing aspects (key in the social, economic, and
environmental sustainability), so that it is difficult to evaluate to
contribution of the organic livestock sector to the sustainability of the food
4.2. Implementation of organic farms: Its
consequences on the farms’ economic and productive performance
Some studies have assessed the consequences
of converting livestock farms to the organic system. Their feasibility and
success depend upon the structure and context of the previous (conventional) farm.
To cite an example, ruminants pasture-based farms such as those
located in southwestern Europe and in the Mediterranean basin
(especially those oriented to meat production) may be easily converted into
organic ones since conventional and organic farms are quite similar [66-67]. On
the contrary, species that are mainly reared under intensive production systems
will have to go through a difficult process of conversion, e.g., poultry,
swine, and dairy cows. And in parallel
depending on the farmers´ motivations for converting, the
situation of the farms, and their perspectives vary.
As monogastric production systems are not so
linked to land as ruminants ones are, and due to the higher prices of organic
feedstuffs, it is far more difficult for farmers to convert to produce
under the organic system. In this sense, swine rearing under free range
production systems (such as those of the dehesa ecosystem in southwestern
Spain) appears to be the system that could be converted
to the organic model successfully. However, the weaning
period seems to be the bottleneck of this sector,
because many veterinary interventions are usually needed.
Moving from species
to farms structure, it is interesting to note that mixed livestock
production systems are those with a higher resilience (also
economically), which would allow an easier transition to the organic system . Accordingly,  claimed that
co-grazing sows with heifers can diminish
the parasite burden
of the heifers, and that the pig inclination for rooting
can be managed in a way that makes ploughing and other heavy
land cultivation more or less superfluous. With regard to poultry, there
is an indication that quite
big flocks can be managed efficiently in a way where the
flock act as weeders in other crops or fight pests in orchards. This integration of feed resources
of the farms with the different livestock
species is possible
due to their different
grazing habits [69, 70], and is pivotal for the sustainability of the agro-
ecosystems and rural areas .
However, the consequences of the conversion process and externalities of organic farms may be very changing, since they
depend on many factors [66, 23, 25, 35], such as the socioeconomic and environmental context
of exploitation, the climate and topography of the land, the production system under
study, the species reared, the regulations on course, the influence of private standards of certification, the availability of organic inputs
and prices thereof, the development of the organic industry and
marketing channels, and the consumer’s behavior (demand and willingness to pay). In order to deal with these
uncertainties, researchers have conducted studies that have evaluated the ease
of conver‐ sion of different conventional farming systems to the former one:
for dairy goats  and dairy cattle . Therefore, before making
conclusions about the adequacy of organic livestock farming, one must establish
the limits of the study (local or global scale), its objectives, and motivations. Later, a multidisciplinary assessment of farm sustainability, a
SWOT analysis, and an assessment of the feasibility of success along with a
study of farms competitiveness must be carried out, as proposed
by [67, 73].
In relation to organic
beef cattle farms, although there is controversy, studies mainly show that
organic farms have worse economic results than their conventional counterpart
when they are studied by farm and year since they used to have longer production cycles when
the farms are under the Common Agricultural Policy’s (CAP) conditions [25, 59]
or not . They are also more dependent on both subsidies and premium prices.
Finally, higher production costs
(mainly derived from feeding
and during the conversion period) have also been observed
[25, 59, 74-75].
the productive, environmental and economic impacts
of the conversion process
of conventional suckler cattle farms. They reported that the ban on chemical
fertilizers led to a drop in farm area productivity and meat production (by 18% to 37% for the latter)
and farm income (more than 20%). These drops were not compensated by the increase
in the meat selling price (+5% to +10%). However, the use of inputs was reduced (by -9% to -52%), which is really important for the sustainability of
pasture-based/low-input ruminant farms.
With regard to milk production,  found that organic systems
had greater milk production.
However, it seems that milk production per animal  and agricultural area
[40, 78-79] is lower in organic farms.
Although at first
glance, this lower milk production seems negative, this could have very
positive implications and advantages. Firstly, cows could have a longer
productive life (longevity), which in turn could make animals produce more
liters in their entire life, thus reducing the environmental and economic impact
of rearing heifers.
Secondly, the increase
of the productive capacity of the cows has been followed by health
problems such as increased somatic cell counts
and mastitis, as well as reduced fertility rates and tolerance to heat stress, which could be reduced
if cows reduce
their production level.
Moreover, such reduction would help to reduce the amount and/or proportion of
non-structural carbohydrates given to the animals, which would reduce the risk of acidosis,
lameness, and other secondary disorders. In
this sense, 
observed that cattle on conventional farms were fed approximately twice as much
grain as cattle on organic farms. All these advantages match part of the goals
set in the Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda for Organic
Food and Farming
set by the European
Technology Platform (TP Organics) : improved health, robustness, and
Moreover, as the price
of organic milk seems to be more stable ,
the consumption of mothers’ milk by calves may be a profitable strategy in
farms where milk is not the main marketable
product. Thus,  found that the consumption of mothers’ milk by calves
resulted in high weaning weights at 3 months of age, and Keifer et al.
(2014) found that organic dairy cows farms performed economically better than
the pasture-based conventional farms analyzed.
Not all is about
ruminants. Other sectors, such as rabbits, have also been studied. Thus, 
showed that the effects on zootechnical parameters are due to the production
system and genetics. They found that hybrid rabbits reared under conventional
housing had the highest average daily gain, and local grey and organic, the
4.3. Public subsidies: The Common
Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the European Union
abovementioned low productivity in organic farms, their higher environmental
externalities should drive a higher support by the rural development measures
of the EU’s CAP [24, 84-85],
since they play a greater
role in the conservation of traditional landscapes and ecosystems by means of a “greener” agro-environmental management, which is finally of great
importance for the sustainable development of the surrounding rural areas,
where the agricultural sector remains
an essential driver
of the rural development of this area . In this sense,  have claimed
the necessity to recognize in a higher
degree the role of the extensive
livestock systems on environmental and cultural heritage preservation.
4.4. Animal nutrition: Legislation and
constitutes an important pillar of organic livestock production. Thus,  found
that feeding strategies among Wisconsin organic
dairy farms were major determinants of herd milk production and income over feed costs. These findings
may serve current
organic and transition farmers when considering feeding management
changes needed to meet organic pasture rule requirements or dealing with
dietary supplementation challenges.
In relation to organic
feedstuffs, the most important obstacles are the difficulty to find them and
their prices. This situation is aggravated by the farms’ high external
dependence of feedstuff due to decoupling between crops and livestock. These
facts reduce the organic livestock farms´ adaptability, and their access
to feed additives and materials of high quality. As a result, the organic livestock
sector face a big challenge
that, along with other factors,
has lead to a situation characterized by organic livestock farms without
organic products, which reduces their profitability and future perspectives of success. This has been observed either in
beef cattle , dairy cows farms , or other species .
One possible solution
for overcoming this barrier would be the use of local agricultural by- products for animal nutrition
since their price is usually
low, and according
to , they allow
to add to their
economic value, while
providing an environmentally sound method for disposal
of the by-product materials. Also, it would lead to either an increase in the
incomes for the organic business that sell such by-products or a reduction in
the expenditure related to their disposal.
limited the use of many feed additives, such as mineral preparations, with the
aim that organic livestock farms rely on soil minerals. However, their levels
can be low in some areas, which can lead to some mineral deficiencies, as observed by  in organic calves. This limitation is
especially important in the case of dairy cattle, since nutritional
requirements of cows are really high. Due to this, researchers are looking for
new feedstuffs that are both allowed and useful for the organic livestock
sector, such as minerals sources (seaweed in ), different pastures
(birdsfoot trefoil by ), and fat supplements .
As the ration for
organic herds has been required to be 100% organic by the European regulations,
investigated the possible
effects of 100% organic feed on the energy balance in Swedish organic dairy herds as
indicated by blood parameters, and concluded that the legislative restrictions
“did not appear to have had any detrimental effects on the metabolic
profiles of organic cows in early lactation and there was no evidence that
organic cows were metabolically more challenged or had a severe negative energy
However, the feed
resources of the own farm are usually scarce and/or of poor quality in many areas.
Thus,  pointed
out that the availability of the forages
in semi-arid areas, such as the Mediterranean basin, is seasonal,
and that its quality is not always optimal.
Due to this, the supplementation of the animals is frequently needed.
Nevertheless, their availability is low, because for the feed industry it is really costly to turn organic
or to create an organic line of products, as they must separate the conventional and the organ‐ ic lines of productions, and
the profitability of this investment is very questionable. Moreover, the bureaucracy would increase the workload of the companies, thus reducing their agility and
profitability. In this sense, more concrete instructions for the inclusion of
feed additives should be introduced in the regulations.
A correct nutritional
management is the basis for an optimal health status and, as a conse‐ quence, adequate
levels of productivity. Furthermore, this productivity has been identified as key to reduce
the GHG emissions from livestock. Due to this,
policy makers should
seriously address this topic since many conventional companies of the
feed sector have a really good portfolio of feed additives that are not
susceptible for having not-allowed products (such as GMO or residues of
antibiotics), and could improve rumen fermentation (thus reducing the enteric
methane emissions), reduce the use of antibiotics (reducing the environmental
pollu‐ tion and public health issues related to them), which would increase the
efficiency of the livestock sector, and finally, the competitiveness and
sustainability of it. Good examples of additives would be limiting amino acids
(such as methionine in dairy cows), chelated (also called “organic”)
minerals, salts of organic acids, yeasts, essential oils, and fat supplements,
among a large list of them. Specifically, organic minerals allow a correct
nutritional manage‐ ment, reduce the exploitation of resources, and reduce
4.5. Animal health, welfare, and technical
As a consequence of the growth
in the number of organic
farms worldwide, many veterinarians
are encountering this method of production. However, they normally suffer from
lack of knowledge with regard
to the management of animal
health suitable to this type of production, such that it “sustains
and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible” (according to IFOAM).
The focus is to achieve
and maintain high herd health and welfare status with low usage
of veterinary medicines . The EC regulations for organic
farming  state that organic livestock should be treated preferably with
phytotherapeutic products. However, almost no phytotherapeutic product is
registered for livestock, and information regarding veterinary phytotherapy is
really scarce .
As health and welfare
of organic livestock are highly interrelated, veterinarians not only must avoid
livestock illness, but also maintain the animals´ physical, mental, social,
and ecological well-being . However, the combination of “natural
behavior/living” with optimal health and welfare status
is not easy, as  and  interestingly stated,
exten‐ sive production systems
(e.g., free range production) expose livestock to increased disease
challenge, and “a healthy system does not automatically mean good welfare
for the individual”. However, outdoor housing also has benefits ;
outdoor housing with functional wallows and access to grass and roots or outdoor runs
and roughage can enhance pig
welfare and reduce pen-mate-directed oral activity and aggression, which is a
really important issue in piglet production.
 came to the conclusion that animal health
is as good or better
than in conventional farming, with the exception of parasitic diseases, and that
organic farming systems have a “welfare potential”, but organic
farmers must deal with the dilemmas and take animal welfare issues seriously.
 explores how the special organic conceptions of animal welfare are
related to the overall principles of organic agriculture. They identified
potential routes for future development of organic livestock systems in
different contexts (northwestern Europe and tropical low-income countries).
Moreover, as outdoor-reared animals make more use of the farm’s feed resources, negative consequences can
also be found with regard to food safety.
Thus, it has been demonstrated that a significant number of organic
eggs had dioxin
contents that exceeded the EU standard .
When one analyzes the
health and welfare status of different livestock species, one rapidly realizes that the control
of intestinal parasites
and to achieve adequate nutritional management are the main bottlenecks and challenges.
 also identified these two issues as challenging after studying organic
goats. Later,  observed lower
calf mortality, less incidence of mastitis, fewer rates of spontaneous abortions, and reduced
ectoparasite loads in organic farms. However, internal parasite control was again
detected as a weak point (greater prevalence was observed in organic farms).
Fortunately, animals in the organic
system exhibited lower
parasitic resistance to anthelmintics, which gives hope to improve
herd health status
by means of future strategies.  reviewed the prevalence
of zoonotic or potentially zoonotic bacteria, antimicrobial resistance, and somatic cell counts in organic dairy
production; and they found contradictory
results in relation
with in bacterial outcomes and Somatic
Cell Count (SCC)
tional and organic farms.
Later,  discussed the effects of weaning calves at an older age on welfare and milk
production. They claimed that foster cow systems with additional milking might
be a prom‐ ising alternative since calves can satisfy their sucking motivation
and have social contact to mothers/adult cows; and additionally, weaning
stress might be reduced and milking the cows
when suckling calves could lead to an increased total
milk production. However,
this system has economical
consequences that must be assessed carefully. Due to this, the authors
concluded that further research is needed to reconcile consumers’ demands and
the possibil‐ ities of farmers using such systems.
to animal welfare,
 assessed the welfare state
of dairy cows in European
farm systems (extensive and/or low-input farms compared with organic
ones) using the Welfare Quality® assessment protocol.
Farms had mainly an acceptable and enhanced overall
welfare state, although
specific problems were found (injuries and discomfort of the lying areas, mutilations, poor human-animal relationship, or insufficient water
provision).  indicated
that most of the organic and conventional farms would have been unlikely to
achieve many criteria of audit and assessment programs currently used in the
U.S. dairy industry. The parameters recorded were the following: neonatal care,
dehorning, pain relief, calf nutrition, weaning, age at weaning,
pain relief after
and during dehorning, size of the calving area,
body condition score, animal hygiene scores, hock lesions, and use of
veterinarians.  explored how
calf welfare is approached in six different organic dairy farms and how far the
concept of naturalness is implemented. They observed differing understandings
of “naturalness” and welfare, which lead to such diversity of organic farms in aspects
that should be shared. In this
sense,  found that some farmers had difficulties accepting negative implications of suckling
systems such as stress after weaning.
of veterinary drugs
is a hot topic that globally is trying to be reduced.
In organic farms, where
limitations in the use of veterinary drugs
are higher, health-related problems can occur, thus undermining the farm’s profitability. To reduce these
situations, , through the
CORE Organic ANIPLAN, carried out a study with organic dairy farms of seven
European countries, aiming at minimizing medicine use through animal health and
welfare planning. Overall, after the implementation of the plan, there was a
reduction in the total treatment incidence, and an improvement of the udder
health situation across all farms. Hence, these authors concluded that the plan applied
“can be regarded
as a feasible approach to minimizing
medicine use without the impairment of production and herd health under several
organic dairy farming conditions in Europe”.
Regarding beef cattle, [24, 59] found
less use of veterinary medicines. These results are in line with those of , who found
that the use of outside
support and vaccinations were found to be
less prevalent on organic dairy
farms than on conventional farms.
These last authors
found little difference in the average reported somatic cell count and
standard plate count.
In relation with
monogastrics, parasites also constitute a concern. Due to this, the topic was
also addressed under
the framework of the COREPIG
project, a pan-European project on
organic pig production focused
on the “Prevention of selected
diseases and parasites in organic pig
herds”. One of the results of this project has been the publication of
review papers that have provided really valuable information and reflections on the current
status and challenges of the swine sector. [109, 110] reported that sows are kept in a
variety of different production systems, “with some countries having
totally outdoor management at pasture, some keeping animals indoors
with concrete outside
runs, and others
having combinations of these systems”. Although reports suggest
that relatively few health and welfare problems are seen, the problem of parasites is also a concern within
this sector (they
are more prevalent in the organic sector). According to the arguments above exposed by  and , the authors discussed
that organic sows had more behavioral freedom, but may be exposed
to greater climatic
challenges, parasite infestation, and risk of body condition
loss. So that, again, the combination of welfare,
health, and productivity poses an issue. Even, public health could be
compromised,  highlighted the high exposure to T. gondii in organic
pig farms in Italy, indicating a potential risk for
 also studied the
health and welfare of suckling and weaned piglets in six EU countries. For this
purpose, these authors used animal-based parameters from the Welfare Quality®
protocol, and showed the main issues prevailing in these farms.  studied
issues related to weaning in piglets, and they concluded
that diseases around weaning are multifactorial so that
“in order to solve problems
around weaning, the complexity and the individuality of farm systems need
to be taken into account”.
Furthermore, it has also been reported
that some disorders
in pigs are less frequent
under the organic system,
namely, respiratory problems, skin lesions (including abscesses and hernias)
and tail wounds. However, joint lesions, white spot livers,
and parasitic infections were more common among
organic pigs .
Due to this, although organic
herds consumed three
times less antibiotics than conventional ones, the reduction of
anthelmintics seems to be more complicated. However, these researchers did not
find any difference in mortality rate nor if more pigs in need of treatment in
the organic herds.
Fortunately, it seems
that some strategies to control the parasites in organic production are coming
to scene. Thus,  recommended to rotate outdoor areas with as long interval
as possible, i.e., by including the pigs in the crop rotation. Furthermore,
they stated that an increase in the number of specialized organic farms will
help carry out other management strategies needed to maintain the good health
of the pigs: implementation of age-segregated production and buying piglets
from only one or few units.
aquaculture growing sector has also been assessed from the organic side. ,
after studying the open aquaculture systems, reported that both organic and
conventional systems present unresolved and significant challenges with regard
to the welfare and to environmental integrity, due to many issues such as water
quality, escapes, parasites, predator control, and feed-source sustainability. Finally, they
concluded that under the current situa‐ tion,
open net-pen aquaculture production cannot be compatible with the principles inherent to organic farming.
4.6. Marketing of organic products and
Organic livestock farms
(when pasture-based and low-input) are perceived as socially more acceptable
than intensive ones because they provide many environmental services, such as
reducing the risk of fire, improving soil fertility and pastures quality, as
well as biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Moreover, they have lower
environmental impact linked to land use change (deforestation) and to the use
of energy (extraction, manufacturing feedstuff, transportation, etc.) [19-22].
Furthermore, they do not compete
with humans for food, which could be another argument to buy
organic as the concern about food security has become mainstream. Note that around
70% of the grains used by developed countries are fed to animals and that livestock consume
an estimated one-third
or more of the world’s
cereal grain, with
40% of such feed going
to ruminants, mainly cattle . However, out of the farm gate, the lack of development of the marketing
channels and industry,
low consumers awareness
of organic products,
and their low willingness to pay a premium
price for them hinder
the demand for organic animal
products. As a consequence, most of the farmers are not able to sell their products
to the organic market and at a price that allow them to
cover their production costs; one can easily find many organic farms without organic products [25, 88]. In the case of livestock, this situation is due to: (i) the difficulty to find organic feedstuff and its cost and (ii)
low consumer demand linked to low level of knowledge, awareness, and willingness to pay premium
prices. Specifically, in the beef sector, the demand
for organic weaned calves (not fattened) was almost non-existent, which make it very difficult to carry out the market of
organic beef .
In the few cases in which producers can manage to sell their products as organic, such scarcity
of developed channels causes the price differential between organic and conventional products to be still high, feeding a loop
characterized by reduced per capita consumption and low presence of organic
products in the supermarkets [115-116]. As a consequence, demand and
willingness to pay consumers for organic products is reduced , especially in relation to beef and in countries
such as Spain [118-119], despite
being one of the first producers in Europe.
In order to reduce the cited price differential and increase consumption, a
wider distribution of these products is key.
In the case of beef,
this little demand is partly due to the fact that consumers do not perceive
clearly the differences between organic
and conventional meat . Therefore,  showed that there is a clear need to excel in organic meat
products, quality, and environmental contribution. However, it is can be
complex to define and evaluate the quality characteristics of a meat product,
especially when the benefits of organic meat over conventional are not clear from the sensory, nutritional, and
health aspects, particularly when they are compared with conventional
extensive systems, such as those present in the pasture.
In summary, it is
necessary to note that the demand for organic meat could stagnate due to the following reasons: price differential with conventional meat,
inelasticity of demand
for this product, and limited knowledge and awareness about
the product by consumers. Fortunately, there are strategies that could solve
this weak domestic
demand, such as exporting. However,
meat export is not a
strategy easy to carry out due to the cost of transportation and storage, the
bureaucracy, and the needed know-how.
Moreover, the approach should not be to just find the markets for organic products,
but other additional
strategies must be studied. Firstly, it must be taken into account that there
is a change in consumer preferences towards local [121-123] and more
sustainable [122, 124] products. Moreover, the level of knowledge and awareness
about organic products is really low in some countries and regions in Europe
, leading to the fact that consumers find it hard to differentiate between
organic, local, traditional, and sustainable [122, 125-127]. Additionally, one cannot assume that all consumers believe
that all organic
products are totally complying with the organic
principles (many consumers
may have not even heard about such principles) and that the organic
principles match with the internal triggers and values of the consumers.
To overcome this
diversity in the market, organic products should try to be linked to other
quality standards. The products with more added value (they would be more than
organic) and the growing consumer preferences towards them have both been called
‘organic-plus’, and have been described by some authors . Within this
trend, environmental sustaina‐ bility, freshness, and local economy are
attributes of relevance. In other words, the conse‐ quences of the agrifood
system (marketing channels, distribution) are becoming
important for a growing
number of consumers. However, these topics are not covered by the organic
regulations, and most of the organic products
have been produced
and marketed through
the mainstream agrifood system; conventional marketing channels
characterized by the concen‐ tration of production, exporting most of the
production, low domestic consumption, and concentration in supply centers
and large retail
chains. This orientation of organic production into conventional marketing channels
and production systems
(monocultures and agrochem‐ icals) has been well-documented
and is known as “conventionalization” of the organic production and “input
As a consequence, this
type of production (despite being organic) does not always provide consumers with products as fresh, local,
and sustainable as they desire,
nor positively impact environmental protection and/or
rural development in such degree, as was explained above.
it seems that organic products
are not the solution for many consumers
that really want to access
sustainable products. If organic companies and/or policy makers do not take
into account these aspects, the growth of the organic sector, as well as their
positive external‐ ities, will be limited.
Organic livestock farming (especially its organic principles than regulations) may be a useful
strategy to overcome the challenges of the agricultural sector (sustainability, food security, and food
safety) while matching
with consumers´ tendencies (animal welfare, health,
etc.). Furthermore, organic livestock farming could be also an interesting
strategy for the eternal rural development issue and the farms’ decreasing
combination of complying with organic regulations and objectives and princi‐
ples of organic farming while
increasing overall sustainability is not an easy task.
Due to this, it is inappropriate to generalize the benefits of organic
livestock farming itself, since the feasibility of implementing organic
livestock production systems and their consequences varies greatly, and are
site and time-specific. Therefore, it must be remembered that any production
system that does not evolve from its initial state (i.e., defined by law) and
do not take into account both the time and spatial scales cannot be sustainable
worldwide and for a long time. Due to this, a SWOT study along with an
assessment of the future effects and difficulties of organic farms under
specific contexts is really needed. By doing so, it will be possible to design
site-specific and successful options that comply with organic regulations and
principles, while being sustainable.
Moreover, some topics
must be addressed in order to increase the organic livestock farm’s success.
Firstly, it has been observed that most of the farmers do not focus on sustainability
nor environmental improvement, and that many farms are easily complying
with the organic regulations without carrying out
environmentally-friendly management practices in their agro-ecosystems. Due to
this, improved education and training of farmers and consultants regarding
conservation agriculture and GHG mitigation are really needed.
Secondly, there is a
need to design feeding strategies that provide adequate nutrition, espe‐ cially
in areas with environmental constraints, such as arid and semi-arid areas.
Moreover, regulations should both unify criteria and facilitate the production
of feed additives by companies, because the consequences of it could be really
important and positive for the organic livestock sector and for the
sustainability of the food system.
Thirdly, the knowledge of the veterinarians with
regard to animal health management must be improved as fast as the sector is
growing. Related to this, more light must be shed on the relationship between
animal welfare, “natural living-behavior”, and animal health. Further‐
more, health care protocols must be developed for each species, including
research on alternative and complementary methods of disease prevention.
Fourthly, CAP schemes should
be improved in order to reward systems
that produce positive externalities in a greater
extent despite being
low in productivity, since the agricultural sector remains an essential driver of rural areas. These systems contribute to environmental, cultural, and heritage conservation, which
finally lead to revitalized rural areas and overall sustaina‐ bility (from the
economic, social, and environmental standpoints).
Finally, and more
urgently, special attention must be paid on the marketing strategies of organic
products (organic plus products and marketing channels) since this is the main
constraint of the sector, and it is the point where there are more possibilities for improvement
for both farm profitability and overall sustainability of the food system.
Alfredo J. Escribano
Address all correspondence to: email@example.com
Researcher and consultant. C/ Rafael Alberti, Cáceres, Spain
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