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Sustainable water management as part of resilient organic agriculture

As climate change progresses, the issue of sustainable water management is increasingly coming into focus. The cooperation between Naturland and BioSuisse will make it easier for organic farmers to manage water in the future. Anna Lochmann (BioSuisse) and Alexander Koch (Naturland) explain in an interview what this is all about. 

Anna Lochmann (BioSuisse), Alexander Koch (Naturland)

Naturland and Bio Suisse recently agreed on a cooperation that focuses, among other things, on the topic of sustainable water management. How did this come about?

Anna Lochmann: Bio Suisse has had extended standards for water use since 2015 and Naturland since 2016. We have been in close exchange from the beginning. After a good five years, in which both associations were able to gain experience with the implementation of their respective water standards, now was a good time to take stock and continue to advance the topic together. Global challenges can best be tackled together. 

What does the cooperation consist of in concrete terms?

Alexander Koch: First of all, we are aligning our existing standards and certification procedures with regard to water use. Internationally, there are quite a number of farms that are certified by both Bio Suisse and Naturland. Mutual recognition of certification should save effort and costs in the future. Already now, the farms only have to fill out a water management plan. In addition, we have jointly developed a guideline for sustainable water management as a practical aid for the farms. And we also work very closely together on the further development of specialised topics in the field of water.

What does the guide to sustainable water use contain?

Lochmann: First of all, there are general requirements, such as that water quality must not be negatively affected by agriculture. The real core of the standard, however, are the extended requirements for farms in regions with scarce water resources. The affected regions are determined by their classification in the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas. Farms in affected regions must, for example, prepare a water management plan with a risk analysis and a plan of measures to avoid or reduce water risks. This includes the use of water saving irrigation methods. And very importantly, the farms must prove the legality of their water use. Checking this is often the most difficult part of certification, especially in an international context.   

The Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas shows regions with scarce water resources. 

Info: Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas

The Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas with the Water depletion indicator serves as a scientific basis for the classification of regions with scarce water resources. Naturland and BioSuisse classify areas with levels 4 (High) and 5 (Extremely high) as well as the level "drought and low water use" as areas with scarce water resources.   

The certification requirements are one thing. What else is important beyond that? What role does the guideline play?

Koch: It is about adapting farms as much as possible to the challenges of water and climate change. As far as water is concerned, agriculture faces two opposing challenges here. On the one hand, water scarcity is becoming more and more of a limiting factor, and on the other hand, major floods are becoming more frequent. We therefore need resilient farming systems, and for this we must support farms through advisory services and training.

Lochmann: This is precisely the reason why Bio Suisse and Naturland have developed the joint guide to sustainable water management, in five languages. It supports farms in drawing up a water management plan and is also the basis for further training measures. The guide is freely accessible on the Bio Suisse and Naturland websites so that other farms can also refer to it.   

Info: Resilient organic agriculture:

The term resilient agriculture is often used in the connection with sustainability. To emphasise the adaptability required to achieve sustainability, the following definition of resilience helps: “Resilience describes the degree of disturbance a system can suffer before it transitions to another state with different control mechanisms. Resilience has three defining characteristics: the extent of change the system can undergo while maintaining its functions and structures, the degree of self-organization, and the capacity to learn and adapt. In order to assess the resilience of an agricultural system, different elements that can promote resilience are identified". (Milestad & Darnhofer. 2003)

What is sustainable water management essentially about?

Koch: In addition to technical measures such as water-saving irrigation systems, sustainable water management relies heavily on agro-ecological measures. Three aspects are of utmost importance: keeping water in the landscape, the importance of vegetation and the role of soil. In the past, people have tried to drain water from the landscape as quickly as possible: Rivers were straightened, swamps and meadows drained, etc. The result is that today we have too few water reserves and natural water reservoirs in the landscape, which becomes a problem during longer dry periods and extreme precipitation. For reasons of climate protection and water balance, some of the "wetlands" should therefore be renaturalised in order to have more water (reserves) in the landscape again.

Vegetation plays a key role in the water cycle. Less bare land in the landscape, less sealed surfaces in cities, more vegetation and more trees mean more evaporation and cooling and thus more of rain formation. This includes all measures of greening agricultural land throughout the year if possible, but also that we bring more trees back into the agricultural landscape. And last but not least, so-called "water harvesting" is also important, for example the construction of rainwater retention basins or infiltration trenches.

Moreover, sustainability begins with the soil, and this is especially true for water! A healthy and fertile soil acts like a sponge and is of enormous importance as a water reservoir, both for flood protection and in dry periods. Therefore, all measures that promote soil fertility, a good soil structure and high biological activity of the soil are of utmost importance, as they improve infiltration, water storage capacity, but also water quality. Here, organic farming with its focus on soil fertility definitely has a system advantage.

Lochmann: Furthermore, sustainable water management should go beyond the individual farm and include the entire watershed. Internationally, there are examples of "water stewardship", i.e. the cooperation of different water users in a catchment area.

A dried up reservoir in Malaga, Spain at the end of December (Ulf Struve)


The sustainable use of water as a resource is increasingly becoming a challenge for agriculture worldwide in the face of advancing climate change. Sustainable water management is based on a combination of technical and agro-ecological measures, all aimed at increasing the resilience of the agricultural system. To this end, Naturland and Bio Suisse have developed a guide to help farms adapt. The Naturland and Bio Suisse guide on sustainable water management can be found here:

The Interview Parners:

Alexander Koch is responsible for Naturland's European members, including those in the vegetable-growing regions of southern Spain. He plays a leading role in the development of the issue of water at Naturland.

Anna Lochmann has been responsible for the revision and development of the standards for international farms at Bio Suisse since 2017. The focus in recent years has been on the topic of water, which she supervises on behalf of Bio Suisse.

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