Every day, it seems, there’s a new food trend. Low fat, gluten free, sugar free, organic. That last one probably conjures up images of a quaint country farm, with orderly rows of leafy vegetables and free-range chickens pecking away in the furrows. Pleasant enough, and good for the environment, but not a way to feed the world, right? That’s what critics have always said, at least. But is it true? What does the science say?
Last week, a pair of researchers from Washington State University published a report that tries to answer this question. They compiled the results of dozens of scientific studies to assess how organic farming techniques stack up against the methods most farmers have been using for the last century or so. The results, published in the journal Nature Plants, suggest that organic farming may be more than a fad; it could play an important role in helping us feed the world sustainably.
The researchers started out by investigating the most common criticism of organic farming: that it requires more labor and land to produce the same amount of food, and is therefore too inefficient to support Earth’s fast-growing population. The new study found that there seems to be some truth to that idea. On average, organic farms yield 8 to 25% less than conventional farms of the same size.
However, the data suggest that this isn’t true for all crops or situations. For instance, during droughts, which are likely to become more common due to climate change, organic farms actually out-performed their conventional counterparts because their rich soils retain water better. The researchers also found that organic farms may yield more nutritious food. The majority of studies they reviewed suggested that organically produced foods may have more vitamins, antioxidants, and healthy fatty acids like Omega-3s — and lower pesticide residues — than conventionally raised varieties, although the authors note that scientists are still debating whether these differences are significant.
But the quantity and quality of food aren’t the only things to consider. The National Academy of Sciences has determined that a sustainable agricultural system is one that produces plenty of food, but also one that benefits the environment, makes money, and improves the wellbeing of farmers and rural communities. When the researchers compared organic and conventional farming methods on these other criteria, they found that organic agriculture often produced better results.
For instance, organic farms are better for the environment because they typically use less energy, foster healthier soils, and host more diverse plant, insect, and animal populations. Because organic farms can’t use regular fertilizers, the study found that they usually leak fewer nutrients into the surrounding environment — which can have negative downstream effects, like causing harmful algae blooms and killing fish.
The fact that people are willing to pay more for organic foods means it can also be a more profitable business. The researchers found that organic farms made about 30% more profit than conventional ones when their products are sold at a premium. If farmers sold organic food at the same price as conventional food, they would make about 25% less.
However, the researchers point out that there are other costs of growing food using conventional methods that aren’t included in the price you pay at the grocery store. Economists call these “externalities,” and they include things like the cost of soil being eroded over years of cultivation or the cost of nitrogen pollution in nearby waterways. One big and hard to quantify externality is the cost of converting a natural ecosystem, like a forest, into a farm, and losing the services that ecosystem used to provide to humans, like storing water and carbon, and providing habitat for pollinators such as bees. When these factors are included, organic agriculture is an even better bet.
Last, the researchers found that there haven’t been many studies on whether organic agriculture benefits farmers more than conventional methods. However, they found some indications that organic agriculture has perks for rural communities, like employing more people and fostering greater cooperation among farmers. One clear benefit is that organic methods limit farm workers’ exposure to harmful chemicals, which is often a problem in developing countries where proper safety equipment isn’t always available.
Based on their review, the researchers argue that we should not be so quick to dismiss the benefits of organic agriculture just because it can be less productive than conventional farming methods. As they explain in the article, this drawback must be weighed against the many advantages of organic farming for consumers and the environment. The scientists also note that we already produce enough calories to feed everyone on Earth — but those calories are unevenly distributed and about a third go to waste.
However, that’s not to say conventional farming doesn’t have a place. The researchers suggest that we should blend the the two approaches and come up with new ones to take a diverse approach to feeding the planet. “The challenge facing policymakers,” the authors write, “is to create an enabling environment for scaling up organic and other innovative farming systems to move towards truly sustainable production systems.”
Find out what organic farming means from the US Department of Agriculture.
Learn more about the link between soils and climate from OnEarth.
Written by Julia Rosen
Julia Rosen is a freelance science writer and PhD student at Oregon State University. She received a Bachelors degree in Geological and Environmental Sciences from Stanford University before beginning her doctoral research on polar ice cores and climate change. In between, she did her Master's in backpacking around the world and skiing. Julia is a periodic contributor to Oregon States research magazine, Terra, and helps write blog content and develop learning modules for Visionlearning.