Animal Board Invited Review: Comparing conventional and organic livestock production systems on different aspects of sustainability

C.P.A. van Wagenberg*, Y. de Haas, H. Hogeveen, M.M. van Krimpen, M.P.M. Meuwissen, C.E. van Middelaar, T.B. Rodenburg

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)


To sustainably contribute to food security of a growing and richer world population, livestock production systems are challenged to increase production levels while reducing environmental impact, being economically viable, and socially responsible. Knowledge about the sustainability performance of current livestock production systems may help to formulate strategies for future systems. Our study provides a systematic overview of differences between conventional and organic livestock production systems on a broad range of sustainability aspects and animal species available in peer-reviewed literature. Systems were compared on economy, productivity, environmental impact, animal welfare and public health. The review was limited to dairy cattle, beef cattle, pigs, broilers and laying hens, and to Europe, North America and New Zealand. Results per indicators are presented as in the articles without performing additional calculations. Out of 4171 initial search hits, 179 articles were analysed. Studies varied widely in indicators, research design, sample size and location and context. Quite some studies used small samples. No study analysed all aspects of sustainability simultaneously. Conventional systems had lower labour requirements per unit product, lower income risk per animal, higher production per animal per time unit, higher reproduction numbers, lower feed conversion ratio, lower land use, generally lower acidification and eutrophication potential per unit product, equal or better udder health for cows and equal or lower microbiological contamination. Organic systems had higher income per animal or full time employee, lower impact on biodiversity, lower eutrophication and acidification potential per unit land, equal or lower likelihood of antibiotic resistance in bacteria and higher beneficial fatty acid levels in cow milk. For most sustainability aspects, sometimes conventional and sometimes organic systems performed better, except for productivity, which was consistently higher in conventional systems. For many aspects and animal species, more data are needed to conclude on a difference between organic and conventional livestock production systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1839-1851
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • conventional
  • literature review
  • livestock production system
  • organic
  • sustainability


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