Organic food versus conventional food: The case of bread-making wheat in Wallonia (Belgium)

Astrid Loriers, Walloon Agricultural Centre of Wallonia
Florence Van Stappen, Walloon Agricultural Research Centre
Michaël Mathot, Walloon Agricultural Research Centre
Alice Delcour, CRA-W
Viviane Planchon, Walloon Agricultural Research Centre
Didier Stilmant, Walloon Agricultural Research Centre
Frédéric Debode, CRA-W

Organic products demand is increasing in Europe. From 2005 to 2011, in Wallonia (southern Belgium), the number of organic farms increased of about 49% (DGSIE 2010) and represents 7% of the Utilized Agricultural Area (UAA) (Debode et al. 2013). It is usually assumed that organic products have a lower environmental pressure but does this supposition valid if geographic localization of production sites is included in final environmental costs? Besides European consumers request more data about environmental impacts of food products (European Commission 2013). This explains why European countries want to promote environmental and sustainable product labeling. Some labels already exist but as there is no consensus on how they have to be calculated and displayed, consumers are lost among unclear information.

In these past years, food scandals have appeared in Europe showing the importance to check the product origin and quality, especially when it comes to differentiated quality product like organic food. The project “BioGeoCarbo” studies environmental impacts of wheat products and develops analytic ways of authentication allowing distinguishing organic food from non organic food or local food from non local food.

Environmental impact of bread-making wheat production and processing into flour were assessed through Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Local data were collected to establish specific Walloon conventional and organic wheat production systems accounting for rotation effects. Several organic and conventional mills provided information on flour processing. Generic data are based on (Nemecek et al. 2007). Life Cycle Impact Assessment is supported by a composite mid-point method based on (European Commission et al. 2011). The functional unit is 1 kg of bread-making wheat grains at 15% humidity.

First results (Figure 1) show that conventional wheat has lower impacts for most categories. Uncertainty analysis (Monte Carlo) shows extremely significant differences (p<0.001) for human toxicity non-carcinogens, terrestrial acidification, terrestrial eutrophication, freshwater eutrophication, and highly significant differences (p<0.01) for human toxicity carcinogens and agricultural land occupation. However the organic bread-making wheat has significant (p<0.05) better results for ecotoxicity and water depletion. Global warming, ozone layer and abiotic depletion seem to have (p>0.05) similar environmental costs for the two production systems.

These differences are partly due to yield loss between conventional and organic wheat in Wallonia (10 t.ha-1 at 15% humidity for conventional (DGSIE, 2010) versus 4.5 t.ha-1 for organic wheat (Montignies et al. 2013)). The impact of organic wheat on human toxicity can be explained by the use of farmyard manure which contains larger amounts of heavy metals than synthetic fertilizers.

As LCA is an iterative process, these results could be improved. As no information on organic farmyard manure composition was available, conventional manure composition was used. Furthermore, depending on the geographic origin, the impact of transport of wheat before processing still needs to be added. These data could also have a significant environmental impact. This research also constitutes a base for LCA of other food products.


References

Debode F., Schiepers H, Burny Ph, Lopes T, Bodson B, Francis F (2013) La production céréalière biologique en Wallonie. In: Livre Blanc Céréales, G.A.B. Tech, Gembloux. p. 1-12.

DGSIE Recensements agricoles de 1995, 2000, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2010, SPF Economie - Direction générale Statistique et information économique.

European Commission (2013) Attitudes of Europeans towards building the single market for green products. In: Flash Eurobarometer 3672013, Brussels, p. 174.

European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Institute for Environment and Sustainability (2011) International Reference Life Cycle Data System (ILCD) Handbook - Recommendations for Life Cycle Impact Assessment in the European context. Publications Office of the European Union Luxembourg.

Montignies E, Debode. F (2011) Exemple d’une marge brute en froment d’hiver bio (cas d’une exploitation sans bétail) et comparaison avec l’agriculture conventionnelle, CEB and Walloon Agricultural Research Centre, Gembloux.

Nemecek T, Kägi T (2007) Life Cycle Inventories of Swiss and European Agricultural Production Systems. Final report ecoinvent V2.0 No. 15a., Agroscope Reckenholz-Taenikon Research Station Swiss Centre for Life Cycle Inventories, Zurich and Dübendorf, 360 p