30-year study suggests organic is the future

Date Published: 22/09/2011

Organic farming has long suffered from a lack of comprehensive data. At OF&G we hear plenty of anecdotal reports of producers at least matching their previous non-organic yields after a few years of conversion, or of dairy producers even beating their non-organic production levels.

What we’ve always struggled with is reliable empirical data from properly scientific studies. Now though, the US-based Rodale Institute has wrapped-up its 30-year Farming System Trial with some hugely encouraging facts and figures that go a long, long way to putting paid to the jaded arguments about organic being less productive. In essence, they suggest we can’t afford to do other than ensure the benefits of organic systems are entrenched in our methods of food production for an increasingly unstable future.

The headlines of the study look like this (taken from the report précis):

  • Organic yields match conventional yields.
  • Organic outperforms conventional in years of drought.
  • Organic farming systems build rather than deplete soil organic matter, making it a more sustainable system.
  • Organic farming uses 45% less energy and is more efficient.
  • Non-organic systems produce 40% more greenhouse gases.
  • Organic farming systems are more profitable than conventional.

There are some eyebrow raisers in there, undoubtedly. But these results come from three decades of scientific comparison between organic and non-organic farms, across multiple crops.

Rather than spelling it all out here, we highly recommend you take a look at the report for yourself. There’s a handy summary on the Rodale Institute website, or you can dive straight in with this PDF download of the full, and very accessible, report.

In essence, the trial demonstrates that organic methods build long-term fertility and good structure in the soil, which then creates healthy plants with strong yields, better protected against periods of drought, which are going to be more and more of a problem in years to come.

As the costs and availability of artificial fertilisers increasingly pose a problem, you have to ask yourself for how long the planet can ignore a method that intrinsically solves the problem at, we can now say, no long-term cost to overall yield.

When you delve deeper into the full report, there are even more thought-provoking issues to be considered, such as how the Rodale Institute suggests that traditional plant breeding is offering crops with three-to-four-times higher yields than GM variants (which it also says are proving more costly to growers than non-GM).

Non-organic farmers almost invariably throw up the issue of weed management when they talk themselves and others out of going organic. It’s true, this is one issue, but it’s one that can be handled gracefully by organic farmers and increasingly they have the benefit of new machinery that’s getting smarter and smarter at dealing with weeds. Not to mention that there is clear evidence that species of herbicide resistant weeds are increasing alarmingly in GM systems. Do we really want to proceed down that road? How much evidence has to mount against it before the world sees sense (and we speak from a logical, not emotive standpoint on the issue).

The results of the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial are fascinating. No matter who you are or what you believe, they make for thought-provoking reading and are worthy of digestion by everyone working in agriculture. No trial is utterly foolproof and someone will always be able to find weaknesses, but such long-term and comprehensive trials are rare and we have to take them seriously.

The evidence continues to build (see our post on another recent, reputable trial that came to equally supportive conclusions) that, to use the hackneyed phrase, organic farming can “feed the world”. In fact, the more you look at the facts from a rational standpoint, maybe it will have to…