Organic vs. Conventional Farming

by Bill Chameides | May 3rd, 2012
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 3 comments

We need food and lots of it to feed the world. But we want and need that food to be free of harmful chemicals. Is the answer organic farming, like that shown here to grow these hydroponic tomatoes? A new study finds the answer to be no and yes. (NREL)

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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  1. Jack
    May 7, 2012

    I am really keen on organic food and I consider it is vital for us to encourage the development of organic farming. It definitely offers plenty of advantages.

  2. Maggie Clary Monast
    May 3, 2012

    Studies comparing the productivity of organic and conventional agriculture present a narrow view of the choices facing the global food system. Of course conventional agriculture is more productive in the short term – it distills plants’ key needs into easily-applied chemicals! But the environmental problems caused by conventional agriculture and its dependence on nonrenewable energy resources mean it cannot continue as it is forever. Organic agriculture builds up the natural resource base instead of depleting it. Thank you also for adding your last point, although I fear its importance may be lost since it appears to be added as an afterthought. Meat production is the most energy- and pollution-intensive agricultural endeavor. It would be much easier to feed our growing population if the plains of the Midwest were devoted to fruits and vegetables instead of animal feed. Another column addressing how to change consumer behavior to a plant-based diet would be welcome. In sum, we need to break the paradigm of “feed the world” vs. “save the environment.” The only sustainable solution requires that we do both.

  3. Juan Miguel Ruiz
    May 4, 2012

    Great article, it explores the hard truth we’re facing right now: increasing food production to feed the evergrowing population without taxing the planet into submission. One thing that conventional farming might take away from organic farming, is using more natural methods of fertilization. Maybe they can explore vermiculture and composting in unison to produce fertilizer from their own waste? Cheers. Juan Miguel Ruiz

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