USDA data confirm organic yields significantly lower than with conventional farming

The productivity of organic farming is typically lower than that of comparable “conventional” farms. This difference is sometimes debated, but a USDA survey of organic agriculture demonstrates that commercial organic in the U.S. has a significant yield gap.

I compared 2014 survey data from organic growers with overall agricultural yield statistics for that year on a crop by crop, state by state basis. The picture that emerges is clear–organic yields are mostly lower. To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of one hundred nine million more acres of land. That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states or 1.8 times as much as all the urban land in the nation. As of 2014 the reported acreage of organic cropland only represented 0.44 percent of the total, but if organic were to expand significantly, its lower land-use-efficiency would become problematic. This is one of several reasons to question the assertion that organic farming is better for the environment.

The USDA conducted a detailed survey of organics in 2008 and then again in 2014. Information is collected about the number of farms, the acres of crops harvested, the production from those acres, and the value of what is sold. The USDA also collects similar data every year for agriculture in general and makes it very accessible via Quick Stats. It is interesting that they don’t publish any comparisons of these two data sets as they would be able to make comparisons on a county basis. By working with both USDA data resources I was able to find 370 good comparisons of organic and total data for the same crop in the same state and where the organic represented at least 20 acres. That comparison set covers 80 percent of U.S. crop acreage.

Summary of the comparison of organic and conventional statistics for 2014
Summary of the comparison of organic and conventional statistics for 2014 (click image to enlarge)

For 292 of those comparisons, the organic yields were lower (84 percent on an area basis). There were 55 comparisons where organic yield was higher, but 89 percent of the higher yielding organic examples involved hay and silage crops rather than food crops. The organic yield gap is predominant for row crops, fruit crops and vegetables as can be seen in the graphs below.

The reasons for the gap vary with crop and geography. In some cases the issue is the ability to meet periods of peak nutrient demand using only organic sources. The issue can be competition from weeds because herbicides are generally lacking for organic. In some cases its reflects higher yield loss to diseases and insects. Although organic farmers definitely use pesticides, the restriction to natural options can leave crops vulnerable to damage. I’ve posted a much more detailed summary of this information on SCRIBD with the data at the state level.

Organic yields are substantially lower for many major row crops
Organic yields are substantially lower for many major row crops
Organic fruit and nut yields are mostly substantially lower than conventional
Organic fruit and nut yields are mostly substantially lower than conventional
Yield gaps vary widely among vegetable crops
Yield gaps vary widely among vegetable crops

There is some potential for artifacts within this data set. If the proportion of irrigated and non-irrigated land differs between organic and conventional that would skew the data. With lettuce and spinach it is likely that the organic is proportionally more in the “baby” category making yields appear dramatically lower. But overall this window on farming is useful for understanding the current state of commercial organic production. Since the supply of prime farmland is finite, and water is in short supply in places like California, resource-use-efficiency is an issue even at the current scale of organic (1.5 million cropland acres, 3.6 million including pasture and rangeland).

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at [email protected] I’d be happy to share a data file with interested parties and to get feedback about where particular yield comparisons might be misleading. A more detailed presentation is available here.

This article originally appeared at Forbes as “The Lower Productivity Of Organic Farming: A New Analysis And Its Big Implications” and has been republished here with permission.

Related article:  Viewpoint: The faulty logic behind popular anti-GMO meme 'it just feels right'

Steve Savage is an agricultural scientist (plant pathology) who has worked for Colorado State University, DuPont (fungicide development), Mycogen (biocontrol development), and for the past 13 years as an independent consultant. His blogging website is Applied Mythology. You can follow him on Twitter @grapedoc

16 thoughts on “USDA data confirm organic yields significantly lower than with conventional farming

  1. It struck my eye that Organic yields for corn for grain are 35% lower but for sweet corn they are 16% higher. With that in mind i looked at the bar graphs Dr. Savage had set up for Sweet Corn for different areas. Surprisingly, all but two show Conventional sweet corn beating out Organic and, for those 2 areas where Organic won out (Vermont & Washington), it didn’t seem enough to swing it back to a positive gain, much less 16%.

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/283996769/The-Yield-Gap-For-Organic-Farming Page 80

    Is the bar graph in error or does Organic really have a lower, not higher yield for sweet corn ?

  2. I suspect that in all the cases where organic out-yielded conventional, there were other, more limiting factors than just the difference between organic and conventional. There is no reason why organic would out-yield conventional unless there are factors like greater N application and not controlling for soil type, climate, variety, irrigation, etc. I have yet to see a fair comparison in a properly controlled trial where organic has ever come out on top.

    Also, many organic practices are not just organic practices, they are good “farming” practices that have been around for a very long time and which have been coopted by organic growers in a way to suggest that they are unique to organic production. For instance, conventional growers often use cover crops and add organic matter to the soil. I have seen studies where organic and conventional production was compared, but the conventional plots were an organic growers caricature of what conventional farming is like, not what it actually is.

  3. I would suggest that a very important variable has been omitted from this analysis. As the author of this essay has discussed elsewhere, there are economic disincentives in some cases to improving the soil nutrient content. In light of that situation, I would suggest that crops on rented land and crops on owned land be considered separately to see if there is any difference in yield. The other variable that the rent vs. own dichotomy suggests is length of time the field has been cultivated by the same person. Still another variable has to do with the technology applied, in terms of water application, precision fertilization, and so on.
    I have no idea how such an analysis would turn out, but it might be informative for all parties involved.
    I would like to see an additional essay from the author that explores some of these other variables.

  4. I’m all for organics. I now take my car to an organic mechanic. He works slower, charges more but tells me he is good for the environment. His mate wrote him a certificate as well. Feels really good.

  5. The discrepencies are easily explained by harvesting method. A much higher percentage of organic is hand harvested or gets a 2nd pass (hand or machine) because the markup is so outrageous. Some farmers do crop dropping due to contracts or other factors, this disproportionately hurts conventional for the same reason. 20 acres is also really in the hobby-farm range. Not fair to compare them to even family farm size growers. Also should have been done by climate zone/state aggregate to snuff those outliers.

  6. I see such “studies” all the time and while I don’t dispute their findings, I don’t understand WHY organic yields are lower than conventional, unless organic farmers are using lower levels of inputs. My customers grow as much if not more than conventional growers, using MightyGrow Organic fertilizers. Maybe conventional farmers are better at farming than organic farmers? Something doesn’t add up.

    • The arithmetic is straight forward, it’s no mystery at all. USDA surveys commercial crops. No commercial scale organic producer could afford home garden fertilizers and such, nor the intensive labor to coddle plants as home gardeners do — it’s not practical or cost effective. Organic crops are reduced by excessive insect infestations, weed pressure, soil nutrient deficiencies overall and especially at critical times during the growth cycle, not to mention contemporary commercial seed genetics benefit from aggressive research & development and tend to be more productive than traditional organic varietals. Bottom line is science and technology have modern agriculture continually evolving whereas organic production is shackled by capricious NOP restrictions and a culture that values stagnation of method — organic.has little prospect of advancing yields.

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