New study sheds light on debate over organic vs. conventional agriculture

Read the full story from the University of Minnesota.

Can organic agriculture feed the world?

Although organic techniques may not be able to do the job alone, they do have an important role to play in feeding a growing global population while minimizing environmental damage, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and McGill University.

A new study published in Nature concludes that crop yields from organic farming are generally lower than from conventional agriculture. That is particularly true for cereals, which are staples of the human diet – yet the yield gap is much less significant for certain crops, and under certain growing conditions, according to the researchers.

The study, which represents a comprehensive analysis of the current scientific literature on organic-to-conventional yield comparisons, aims to shed light on the often-heated debate over organic versus conventional farming. Some people point to conventional agriculture as a big environmental threat that undercuts biodiversity and water resources, while releasing greenhouse gases. Others argue that large-scale organic farming would take up more land and make food unaffordable for most of the world’s poor and hungry.

Full citation for the article:Verena Seufert,Navin Ramankutty, & Jonathan A. Foley (2012). “Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture.” Nature Published online 25 April 2012. DOI: 10.1038/nature11069.

Abstract: Numerous reports have emphasized the need for major changes in the global food system: agriculture must meet the twin challenge of feeding a growing population, with rising demand for meat and high-calorie diets, while simultaneously minimizing its global environmental impacts1, 2. Organic farming — a system aimed at producing food with minimal harm to ecosystems, animals or humans — is often proposed as a solution3, 4. However, critics argue that organic agriculture may have lower yields and would therefore need more land to produce the same amount of food as conventional farms, resulting in more widespread deforestation and biodiversity loss, and thus undermining the environmental benefits of organic practices5. Here we use a comprehensive meta-analysis to examine the relative yield performance of organic and conventional farming systems globally. Our analysis of available data shows that, overall, organic yields are typically lower than conventional yields. But these yield differences are highly contextual, depending on system and site characteristics, and range from 5% lower organic yields (rain-fed legumes and perennials on weak-acidic to weak-alkaline soils), 13% lower yields (when best organic practices are used), to 34% lower yields (when the conventional and organic systems are most comparable). Under certain conditions—that is, with good management practices, particular crop types and growing conditions—organic systems can thus nearly match conventional yields, whereas under others it at present cannot. To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems.

Author: Laura B.

I'm the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center's Sustainability Information Curator, which is a fancy way of saying embedded librarian. I'm also Executive Director of the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable. When not writing for Environmental News Bits, I'm an avid reader. Visit Laura's Reads to see what I'm currently reading.

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