Organic agriculture’s low yields aren’t sustainable

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The United Nations has estimated that food production will need to nearly double from 2008 levels by the year 2050 to feed the world’s growing population (nearly all from the least developed nations) and make up for shrinking agricultural land. That means that to boost yields and combat pests, farmers will need to increasingly rely on technology ranging from high-yield seeds to agricultural biotechnology to even the Internet of Things.

While progress is being made, consumers in many wealthy nations are demanding that their food be grown using organic farming principles. At a time when the world cannot falter on the path to increasing its food production, these habits can have severe consequences.

Is organic farming really the most sustainable form of agriculture?

To use land and derivative natural resources as sustainably as possible requires using the least input to produce the most food. So, how does organic farming stack up?

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Not so well, according to numbers from the USDA. When the department logged yield data (food produced per acre) from various crops grown organically, government researchers found that they severely underperformed the same crops grown with more traditional farming methods.

Will the world really be better off with organic farming if it requires substantially more land to produce the same amount of food?

Read full, original article: These Shocking Numbers Show Organic Farming’s Biggest Downfall

  • Yikes, the comments on that original article hurt my brain.

  • Eskil Jonsson

    This is primarily what seems to be putting such a grey area between conventional and organic. I just spent half an hour trying to find as many meta-analyses on the subject as I can and thus far it’s mostly just grey area. My overall opinion is that it all depends on the product and what is more important is what we eat rather than how we eat (like filtering nutrients through other animals which is an extremely inefficient practice).

    Thus far what I’ve found on the topic:

    “Our review and meta-analysis of yield data comparing organic and
    conventional agriculture showed that currently organic yields of
    individual crops are on average 80% of conventional yields.”

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X1100182X

    “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).”

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v485/n7397/full/nature11069.html

    Higher NOx emissions from Organic when yield is taken into account.

    “There is scientific evidence for lower nitrous oxide emissions from
    organically managed soils when scaled to the area of cultivated land but higher emissions when crop yield-scaled. This discrepancy is due to the observed yield gap of 26% less crop yield under organic management. For equalizing the nitrous oxide emissions per yield a yield increase in the organic systems of 9% would be necessary.”

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969713010255

    Lower NOx emissions from Organic per unit of area but not necessarily when yields are taken into account.

    “This meta-analysis has showed that organic farming in Europe has generally lower environmental impacts per unit of area than conventional farming, but due to lower yields and the requirement to build the fertility of land, not always per product unit. There is not a single organic or conventional farming system, but a range of different systems, and thus, the level of many environmental impacts depend more on farmers’ management choices than on the general farming systems.”

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301479712004264

    Organic farming can reduce erosion risk but low yields increase erosion rate enough for it to be either insignificant or more environmentally damaging than conventional systems.

    “These results demonstrate that the absence of agricultural chemicals, especially herbicides, in organic farming systems can reduce soil erosion for row crops due to the development of weeds in the furrows. However, our results also show that a reduced crop yield associated with crop–weed competition or herbivory outbalances the positive effects of weeds, and can therefore produce higher erosion rates in organic farming systems.”

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016706114000020

    Higher biodiversity rates on organic farms compared to conventional.

    “The majority of the 76 studies reviewed in this paper clearly demonstrate
    that species abundance and/or richness, across a wide-range of taxa, tend to be higher on organic farms than on locally representative conventional farms (Table 1).”

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320704003246

    Biodiversity is more of a grey area in other meta-analyses.

    “Grain production per unit area was 54% lower in organic compared with conventional fields. When controlling for yield, diversity of
    bumblebees, butterflies, hoverflies and epigeal arthropods did not
    differ between farming systems, indicating that observed differences in biodiversity between organic and conventional fields are explained by lower yields in organic fields and not by different management practices per se.”

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2664.12035/abstract

    “Our updated meta-analysis shows that organic farming on average increases biodiversity (measured as species richness) by about one-third relative to conventional farming.”

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4299503/

    More evidence of grey areas between conventional and organic on envrionmental issues.

    “However, from the 34 reviewed LCA studies, which compared products from organic and conventional farming systems, it is not yet possible to draw a conclusive picture on the general environmental performance of the different farming systems.”

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301479714004964

    etc. etc. etc.

    • doowleb

      Do you know what the difference between a regular farmer and an organic farmer is?

      A ponytail.

      • Eskil Jonsson

        I don’t follow the joke, but organic just puts a false dichotomy between “synthethic” and “natural”. There’s little difference other than that one of the systems allows for more innovation like with GE technology, etc. (One might argue greater risks as well but as far as the science shows that’s just an appeal to nature with little evidence to back it up)

  • KenPetkau

    I have grain farmed for over thirty years and from what I have seen with organic crop yields in our neck of the woods I would have to agree with the yield percentage comparisons. Furthermore, the weedy organic fields tend to facilitate the spread of crop reducing weeds even more.

  • Susan Linkletter

    There is a price premium on organic produce, a farmer growing organically with an 80 percent yeild still makes more money per acre than a conventional farmer. Also, most organic produce is sold locally, pumps money into the local economy and depends less on fossil fuels to produce. I still think organic is the better choice.