Organic Production - Even Better Than We Thought


Earning media coverage with idealistic titles like “Organic Can Feed the World,” a new study out of the University of California, Berkeley, has heartening findings that organic farming is more efficient than previously thought when compared to conventional farming. Researchers performed a meta-analysis on 115 previously conducted studies (with over 1,000 observations) and concluded that, on average, yields for organic systems are 19.2% (±3.7%) lower than conventional. This may sound like bad news for organic proponents, but two previous meta-analyses put that number much higher. The UCB researchers used a larger data set and a more rigorous analysis than previous meta-analyses.

Uncovering new trends, the researchers also found that some sustainable management practices, namely multi-cropping and crop rotation, can significantly increase yields in organic production, reducing yield gaps to 9 ± 4% and 8 ± 5%, respectively. These practices are not a necessity for organic production, but agro-ecological production systems like them are much more likely to be adopted on organic farms than conventional.

This study could be big news for the organic industry because it significantly challenges the former notion that organic production categorically must beget major yield losses. Offering commentary and advice on moving organics forward based on the UCB study, Doug Gurian-Sherman, Director of Sustainable Agriculture at the Center for Food Safety, writes on Civil Eats...

When the huge efforts to improve the productivity of a few grain and other commodity crops is accounted for, the yield gap between organic and conventional may be further reduced. This is in part because there is a bias—i.e., more available studies—toward grain crops, compared to other crops such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The yield gap was larger for grain crops than the other crops and that’s precisely where the research disparity to improve them has been greatest.

The new paper discusses ways to further reduce this gap through research. One opportunity to do this is to breed crops specifically adapted to organic systems, crops that would, say, use organic sources of nutrients more efficiently. Another is to breed crops to suppress weeds without herbicides, since the larger yield differences between organic and conventional grain production have often been attributed to weeds that out-compete the crops."

Gurian-Sherman is also quick to point out that yield is certainly not the only way to measure the effectiveness of agriculture. Organic farming provides a host of other benefits that are much more conducive to sustainable development and food security. Emily Cassidy of Environmental Working Group echoes these sentiments:

The fact of the matter is, focusing on yields will not cure global hunger or obesity, two of the biggest problems facing modern societies. When American agriculture focuses on boosting yields, as it has done with corn, it ends up feeding cows and cars, not people. In fact, more than three-quarters of the calories grown on American farms go to animal feed and biofuels. Do we really need more high yielding corn fields that destroy the soil, runoff into our waterways, and provide only small amounts of edible food?"

Researchers agree that more research and efforts to optimize sustainable management practices such as intercropping, cover cropping, crop rotations, and biological pest management in organic systems could significantly improve organic farming to make it even more competitive. Organic production systems could be just as productive, if not more, than conventional systems, while providing a host of associated environmental benefits. From the study:

Finally, reducing the yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture (or, more accurately, between biologically diversified versus chemically intensive farming systems) has the potential benefit of reducing the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services often associated with conventional agricultural methods [1,2], and thus promoting a high-yielding agriculture that is relatively environmentally beneficial and wildlife-friendly compared with conventional systems [21,28,57,58]."

The organic industry is continuing to grow and and pit itself against conventional practices (what Dan Charles of NPR calls the “Organic Civil War”). Continued research, adoption, and consumer support will only increase its foothold in the agricultural landscape.

PHOTO: via flickr


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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