A study published in Nature examines the role of organic and conventional agriculture in feeding a growing population. 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.
“To achieve sustainable food security we will likely need many different techniques—including organic, conventional, and possible ‘hybrid’ systems—to produce more food at affordable prices, ensure livelihoods to farmers, and reduce the environmental costs of agriculture,” the researchers concluded.
The study, which represents a comprehensive analysis of the current scientific literature on organic-to-conventional yield comparisons, shows that organic yields are 25% lower than conventional. The difference varies widely across crop types and species, however. Yields of legumes and perennials (such as soybeans and fruits), for example, are much closer to those of conventional crops. What’s more, when best management practices are used for organic crops, overall yields are just 13% lower than conventional levels. Improvements in organic management techniques, or adoption of organic agriculture under environmental conditions where it performs best, may help close the yield gap.
Yields are only part of a set of economic, social, and environmental factors that should be considered when gauging the benefits of different farming systems, the researchers note. The results point to a need to get beyond the black-and-white, ideological debates that often pit advocates of organic and local foods against proponents of conventional agriculture, said Professor Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. “By combining organic and conventional practices in a way that maximizes food production and social good while minimizing adverse environmental impact, we can create a truly sustainable food system.”