Future of organic animal husbandry in Europe

The IFOAM International Animal Husbandry Alliance's (IAHA) recently released the proceedings of its online conference held in September this year. The proceedings show the potentials, challenges and visions for future European organic animal husbandry.


Image from the proceedings paper of the IAHA video conference on organic animal husbandry.

There is a serious need for significant and fundamental changes to the way food is produced and consumed. Facing the current global environmental challenges, animal husbandry needs to  find new balances for a positive and sustainable contribution.

Coordinators and participants of several different CORE Organic projects (Coordination of European Transnational Research in Organic Food and Farming Systems) and other European research projects contributed to the virtual IAHA conference held on the 21st and 22nd of September 2020.

Mette Vaarst from Aarhus university in Denmark, an editor of a recently published book on organic animal farming, presented keynote lecture, giving an overview on challenges and research in organic animal husbandry. Twenty papers and posters were presented. The conference proceedings cover experiences from projects, covering multiple animal species and providing some future perspectives and thoughts on current challenges.

Identification of strategies for the future development of European organic animal husbandry

In organic agriculture animals are considered as living sentient beings, and a key aim should be to enable, from the animal’s perspective, a life that is worth living. The 'Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union' (TFEU) 2009 introduced the recognition that animals are sentient beings (Article 13 of Title II).

This implies that humans should provide the necessary conditions that allow farm animal's to meet their natural needs. However, achieving this aspiration has the potential of conflicting with what is considered the overarching goal: efficiently providing food for humans whilst trying to meet wider sustainability objectives, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting biodiversity. Nevertheless, with reference to the organic principles, we are strongly guided towards finding solutions and synergies that have multiple aims. Values that are adaptable and relevant to different contexts and embrace diversity and resilience can guide developments towards husbandry practices that break the 'one-size-fits-all' conventional intensification of farming that places undue pressure on animals as well as humans.

Here a short outline of the six suggested strategies for future European organic animal farming, which were discussed in the IAHA conference, is presented. Each applies differently to each animal species but are highlighted because they support innovative ways of thinking about integrating animals into farms and landscapes, compared to the last half century's increasing specialisation and industrialisation.

1) Integrating diversified multi-species systems

Diversity at the farm level, in terms of breeding two or more animal species on the same farm, has the potential to improve three dimensions of sustainability: environmental soundness, economic viability for farmers and social acceptability by being respectful of animals. This is in focus in the project MixEnable (linked below in: More information – Links), which show, for example, interesting aspects of how guardian animals co-grazing with vulnerable species can support a significant reduction of predation. 

2) Pastoralism, agroforestry and sustainable foraging which can integrate pigs, pasture and trees

Natural, pasture-based and more extensive production systems are sometimes viewed and criticised as inefficient. More and more evidence and recognition points to these systems as representing a form of food production that is not dependent on excessive fossil fuel usage and offers a vast carbon storage capacity. Several perspectives on these issues are investigated for different animal species in the current CORE Organic projects, and the book 'Improving organic animal farming' (linked below) explores perspectives for different range and pastoral systems.  

3) Finding new potentials for home grown protein feeds

The issue of home-grown protein feed crops is relevant for all animal species in organic production, and many organic farms rely on imported sources even though there are many good possibilities to grow protein feeds, even under Nordic conditions. We highlight the potential for improvements of organic animal farming with regard to, for example, balancing the protein and energy component of animals' diets to ensure the lowest possible emissions, supported by appropriate breeding and efficient grassland management. 

4) Adopting resilience as a core of health principle and developing strategies to significantly lower or phase out the use of antibiotics

Resilience is a core concept in organic farming at all levels, including the farm, system, herd and individual level. The relative resilience of an individual or group of animals will influence the occurrence and impact of disease. While the EU organic regulations allow antibiotics to be used in animal production, their prophylactic use is banned and reducing dependence on therapeutic use is encouraged along with a strong emphasis on health and welfare promotion. The actual use of antibiotic drugs in European organic animal farming compared to conventional animal husbandry is not comprehensively documented, but various aspects of health-promoting and/or prudent medicine uses are emphasised in all CORE Organic projects.

5) Emphasising appropriate breeding and breeds, including multipurpose and local breeds

In Northern Europe, it is common practice to use the same high-yielding breeds in organic production as in conventional animal production. This can provide a key challenge given the priority placed on natural elements of life, including outdoor living, longevity, natural behaviour and species-specific feeding. Some of these challenges can be met through more appropriate breeding strategies, including broadening the breeding goals to fit organic objectives and the use of cross-breeding, as well as breed diversity and the use and conservation of endangered breeds. 

6)  Enabling enhanced mother-infant contact

Two CORE Organic Cofund projects research cow-calf contact systems, which represents a fundamental shift from a common understanding of dairy herds focused entirely on milk production for consumers. However, the issue is not restricted to milk production and the fundamental ethological and economic issues apply to other animal species, including small ruminants, pigs and poultry. 

Future perspectives

Many of the key challenges of global agriculture are also organic farming aspirations. Placing emphasis on four broad strategic categories, diversity, integration, resilience and communication, could contribute significantly to solving the current problems in our food and farming systems. It is also necessary to have frank and open discussions about the circumstances under which we involve animals in farming in a way that allows us and them to make positive contributions to the health of the planet.

The IAHA conference proceedings put emphasis on dairy cows, pigs and chickens because the CORE Organic research projects mainly focus on these species. Still, the same perspectives and opportunities could be equally applicable to other species, including, e.g. fish and honeybees. Although not necessarily unique to organic farming, diversity is emphasised as a key to future development. All of these perspectives can only be taken into account if they are supported by relevant policies and the wider society, undergoing fundamental changes in the way we demand, consume and waste food.

For the full proceedings of the IAHA video conference on organic animal husbandry held on the 21st and 22nd of September 2020, follow the link below to the Organic Eprints entry.

The IFOAM Animal Husbandry Alliance, IAHA, is organising on the 6th and 7th of September 2021 a Pre-Conference in Rennes, France (if the Corona regulations allow) before the main Organic World Congress. Again there will be contributions from Core Organic projects. See IAHA website below for more information.

More information









Mette Vaarst, Aarhus University: Mette.Vaarst(at)anis.au.dk 

Stephen Roderick, Duchy College: s.roderick(at)cornwall.ac.uk

Guillaume Martin, INRA: guillaume.martin(at)inrae.fr

Stefan Gunnarson, SLU: Stefan.Gunnarsson(at)slu.se

Anet Spengler Neff, FIBL: anet.spengler(at)fibl.org

Anna Bieber, FiBL: Anna.Bieber(at)Fibl.org

Anne Grete Kongsted, Aarhus University: anneg.kongsted(at)agro.au.dk