Study: Most organic crops less productive than conventionally farmed crops.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
March 10 2011 7:10 AM

Organic Crops Alone Can't Feed the World

A new study shows why.

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Savage's methodology couldn't have been simpler: He lined up and charted organic and conventional yield data for the same crop and state in which they were harvested. Although Savage was working with, as he put it, "the largest such data set on Organic that I have heard of," it wasn't without limitations. The USDA/NASS studies tracked harvested acres without differentiating between irrigated and non-irrigated acreage; it gathered data on planted vs. harvested acres for some crops but not others; it did not account for systems in which "baby vegetable" crops (usually organic) are grown in short rotations on the same plot (such as spinach, lettuce, and carrots) and thus have lower yields; and it omitted some data that would have revealed too much information about individual farmers, in cases where very few growers produce a particular crop.

But even with these qualifications, the numbers are discouraging for the organic option. The rubber really hits the road when it comes to yield. To its credit, organic does quite well in many cases: Sweet potatoes, raspberries, canola, and hay all yielded higher nationally than their conventional counterparts. At the state level, organic squash did better in Oregon than conventional squash; in Arizona and Colorado, organic apples yielded slightly higher than conventional ones; and in Washington state organic peaches beat out conventional varieties. In essence, there's a lot here for organic supporters to cherry-pick as evidence of organic's yield potential (but not cherries, which yielded much lower).

Unfortunately, there's little hope in feeding the world with higher yields of sweet potatoes, peaches, and raspberries—much less hay. What matters most is the performance of basic row-crops. As it turns out, yields were dramatically lower for these commodities: 40 percent lower for winter wheat, 29 percent lower for corn, 34 percent lower for soy, 53 percent lower for spring wheat, 41 percent lower for rice, 58 percent lower for sorghum, and 64 percent lower for millet. Canola was the only row-crop with greater yields with organic farming.

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What we might call "secondary staples" did poorly as well. The organic option yielded 28 percent lower for potatoes, 21 percent lower for sweet corn, 38 percent lower for onions, 19 percent lower for snap beans, and 52 percent lower for bell peppers. Perhaps most distressingly, some of the healthiest foods on the planet yielded comparatively poorly under organic production: 42 percent lower for blueberries, 23 percent lower for broccoli, and almost 40 percent lower for tomatoes.

Given these figures, a switch to organic agriculture would require a 43 percent increase over current U.S. cropland, according to Savage. As he puts it, "On a land-area basis, this additional area would be 97% the physical size of Spain or 71% the size of Texas." (Yes, Texas is bigger than Spain.) These are depressing figures, especially in light of the fact that global food demand is entering a 40-year upward trend. It's no wonder that Savage, who spent part of his career developing organic pest controls, concludes that organic "is too small and unproductive to ever be the 'solution' to our need to simultaneously feed the world and protect the environment," as he told me via e-mail.

So should we dismiss organic agriculture outright? Absolutely not. Organic may not be "the" solution to global food demand, but it can certainly be part of it. As Jason Clay, senior vice president of the World Wildlife Fund, writes, "I think we need a new kind of agriculture—kind of a third agriculture, between the big agribusiness, commercial approach to agriculture, and the lessons from organic and local systems." With enhanced investment in agricultural research, there's every reason to hope that organic yields will improve and that the organic model will become more prominent. The fact that we're not yet there, as Savage's study verifies, doesn't mean we should abandon the quest for agricultural systems that are both high yielding and as ecologically responsible as they can be.

James E. McWilliams is the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong

and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly
and an associate professor of history

at Texas State University.