In MDPI journal, section “Sustainability” - Land-use extensification by shifting from conventional to organic arable farming is often discussed as a measure for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agricultural land. Doubts about the benefits arise when emissions are calculated per product unit, particularly where high yields are possible under conventional management. Among the non-CO 2 GHG emissions, nitrous oxide (N 2 O) is the main contributor from arable land and is controlled by soil type, environmental conditions and management. In order to investigate how land-use change from conventional to organic farming would perform under highly productive site conditions in northwest Germany, and how this would affect the important greenhouse gases N 2 O and methane (CH 4 ), an on-farm field research was conducted over two experimental years. Two site-specific organic crop rotations, (i) with 25% legumes (grass + clover - winter wheat – winter rye – oats) and (ii) with 40% legumes (grass + clover – winter wheat – winter rye – spring field peas – winter rye), were compared with (iii) a conventional arable rotation (winter oilseed rape – winter wheat – winter wheat – sugar beet – winter wheat) and two reference systems, (iv) extensive grassland and (v) a beech forest), which were chosen as the baseline.

The results showed that organic farming had lower N 2 O emissions of 0.7 N 2 O–N ha −1 year −1 than the conventional rotation, with 2.1 kg N 2 O–N ha −1 year −1 (p < 0.05), but higher emissions than the extensive grassland (0.3 kg N 2 O ha −1 year −1) and beech forest (0.4 kg N 2 O ha −1 year −1 ). CH 4 emissions were a negligible part of total GHG emissions (as CO 2 equivalents) in the two arable systems, and considerable uptake of CH 4 from the forest soils showed this was a GHG sink in the first experimental year. Organic systems produced up to 40% lower crop yields, but the emissions per product unit in rotation (iii) was not superior to (ii) during the two experimental years. Thus, arable organic farming showed the ability to produce agricultural commodities with low N 2 O emissions per unit area, and no differences in product-related emissions compared with conventional farming. Conventional and organic systems both showed potential for further mitigation of N 2 O emissions by controlling the field level nitrogen surplus to a minimum, and by the optimized timing of the removal of the grass–clover ley phase.

Lars Biernat, Friedhelm Taube, Ralf Loges, Christof Kluß, and Thorsten Reinsch