Organic vs. Conventional Farming

Is organic farming the answer to our agricultural ills?

Pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics — the triadic mainstay of the conventional farmer/rancher but anathema to many concerned about how these modern farming “tools” affect our food and environment. The answer? Some say organic farming.

But is it really the answer? While the organic food movement is alive and well in the United States, there are those who argue that it can never be more than a niche market. Why? Because organic farming’s crop yields (the amount of crops produced per acre of farmland) are less than those from conventional farming. And, if you want to feed the world — a necessary priority, wouldn’t you say? — you need high agriculture yields.

And there’s even an environmental argument to be made for industrial farming: high-yield agriculture limits both the amount of land needed to grow food and the amount of habitat that farms by their very existence destroy.

Do such arguments against going and growing organic hold? Are organic farming yields really less than those from conventional farming? To find out, Verena Seufert of McGill University and colleagues looked at 66 previous studies, conducted internationally, comparing organic and conventional crop yields that met certain criteria designed to put the comparisons on equal footing.* Their results, published last week in the journal Nature, are mixed and a bit (but not too) discouraging for the organic foodies among you. Here are some of the findings:.

  • On average organic yields were 25 percent lower than conventional yields.
  • Best-practice organic yields were only 13 percent lower.
  • Under certain conditions based on crop type (legumes or perennials crops like fruit), soil type (weak-acidic to weak-alkaline), and water source (rain-fed), organic yields were only 5 percent lower.

Bottom line: Organic farming yields are generally lower than conventional farming, but, depending on the management practices, the types of crops being grown and the growing conditions, the difference can be quite small.

OK, not exactly the stuff that proponents of organic farming want to hear, but before we conclude that organic farming isn’t up to snuff in toto, let’s keep in mind that these data reflect practices to date. Also, the larger yields from conventional farming come primarily from using vast quantities of nitrogen, a practice that, it’s increasingly becoming apparent, is not sustainable (for example, think of dead zones in the ocean). So maybe the time has come for the agro-business industry to start figuring out how to get high yields from crops without all those synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

And there’s another aspect to consider here: us. The farmers don’t hold all the power. We possess — through our own appetites — the power to mitigate much of the need for high-yield agriculture. How? Simple: just eat less meat.

End Note

* A previous meta-analysis study that found little difference in yields globally has been criticized for its methodology.

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