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7 Ways Organic Farms Outperform Conventional Farms

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Sustainable, organic farming practices are the best way to feed the future…

By Greg Seaman Posted Oct 24, 2011

organic farm Just a few generations ago, in the 1930’s, approximately 45% of Americans lived on farms. This demographic gradually but steadily declined as people migrated to urban centers, and over time, to suburbs. Today, only about 960,000 people claim farming as their principal occupation, which represents less than 1% of the US population.

During the same period of time the US population has more than doubled, and demand for agricultural products has increased accordingly.

It is a testament to human ingenuity that the mechanics of farming has managed to keep pace with an ever-expanding demand even as the number of farms has declined. Farm machinery has become larger, more efficient and more productive. New crop varieties have been developed which resist common pests and diseases while producing larger yields. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides have become increasingly effective, allowing farmers to produce larger crops without the need for additional human labor.

Farmlands have become increasingly dependent on chemical fertilizers which have short-term benefits but contribute to soil depletion over time.

But while today’s large scale food producers continue to profit and consumers see supermarket shelves overflowing with farm products, the unseen costs of our dependence on agribusiness exert a mounting toll. Farmlands have become increasingly dependent on chemical fertilizers which have short-term benefits but contribute to soil depletion over time. Water retention is diminished in non-organic farmland, resulting in erosion of topsoil with chemical residues entering watersheds. We consumers have quietly accepted these changes in farming practices as the cost of feeding a growing nation, and because there seem to be no practical alternatives.

Recent experiments in small organic farming practices, and the release of a 30-year side-by-side farming study by the Rodale Institute, have shown this reasoning to be fundamentally flawed. Organic farming, both large and small scale, is more productive than ‘conventional’ chemical-dependent farming. Organic farming is not only the best way to feed the world – it is the only way to feed the world in a sustainable way.

Organic farms, contrary to conventional wisdom, outperform conventional farms in these ways:

1. Organic farms are more profitable than conventional farms

The bottom line for farmers, regardless of the practices used, is income. The 30-year side-by-side Rodale study showed that organic systems were almost three times as profitable as conventional systems. The average net return for the organic systems was $558/acre/ year versus just $190/acre/year for the conventional systems. This figure is skewed because of the higher price organic farmers receive for their produce and meat, but the higher food costs alone cannot account for the difference in profitability. Lower input costs for organic farm systems are credited with significant cost savings for the farmer.

The relatively poor showing of GM crops in the Rodale study echoed a study from the University of Minnesota that found farmers who cultivated GM varieties earned less money over a 14-year period than those who continued to grow non-GM crops.

2. Organic yields equal or surpass conventional and GM yields

The Rodale 30-year study found that after a three-year transition period, organic yields equalled conventional yields. Contrary to fears that there are insufficient quantities of organically acceptable fertilizers, the data suggest that leguminous cover crops could fix enough nitrogen to replace the amount of synthetic fertilizer currently in use.

In a review of 286 projects in 57 countries, farmers were found to have increased agricultural productivity by an average of 79%, by adopting “resource-conserving” or ecological agriculture (Pretty et al., 2006).

3. Organic crops are more resilient than conventionally grown and GM crops

Organic corn yields were 31 per cent higher than conventional yields in years of drought. These drought yields are remarkable when compared to genetically modified (GM) “drought tolerant” varieties, which showed increases of only 6.7 per cent to 13.3 per cent over conventional (non-drought resistant) varieties.

The effects of climate change bring more uncertainty to farming, with increased drought predicted for some parts of the country. It has become obvious that weather patterns are changing, and looking to the future, food crops will need the resilience to adapt.

4. Organic farming is more efficient than conventional farming

Conventional agriculture requires large amounts of oil to produce, transport and apply fertilizers and pesticides. Nitrogen fertilizer is the single biggest energy cost for conventional farming, representing 41% of overall energy costs. Organic systems used 45% less energy overall than conventional systems. Production efficiency was 28% higher in the organic systems, with the conventional no-till system being the least efficient in terms of energy usage.

The extra energy required for fertilizer production and farm fuel use in conventional systems also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Conventional systems emit almost 40% more GHG per pound of crop production in comparison to the organic systems.

5. Organic farming builds healthier soil

While short-term benefits are realized with the use of chemical fertilizers and mechanized production methods, every gardener knows that soil health cannot be compromised in the long term. Eventually, soil-depleting practices take their toll as soil structure weakens, microbial life declines and erosion removes valuable topsoil from farmland.

The Rodale study found that overall soil health is maintained with conventional systems, but soil health is improved when using organic farming practices. Organic farming practices improve moisture retention which creates water ‘stores’ which plants can draw on during times of stress due to drought and high winds.

According to the Environmental Working Group and soil scientists at Iowa State University, America’s “Corn Belt” is losing precious topsoil up to 12 times faster than government estimates.

6. Organic farming keeps toxic chemicals out of the environment

Conventional systems rely heavily on pesticides (herbicides, insecticides, fungicides) many of which are toxic to humans and animals. With more than 17,000 pesticide products (agricultural and non-agricultural) on the market today, the EPA is unable to keep up with adequate safety testing. In fact, the EPA has required testing of less than 1% of chemicals in commerce today.

Many studies link low level exposure of pesticides to human health problems, and chemical residue from pesticides used in farming can be commonly found in air and water samples as well as in the food we eat.

Inactive ingredients in pesticide and herbicide formulations have been found to be as toxic as active ingredients, but are not tested for human health impacts.

7. Organic farming creates more jobs

Industrial agriculture has replaced human hands with machines and chemical inputs. According to the EPA, in the last century agricultural labor efficiency increased from 27.5 acres/worker to 740 acres/worker. Joel Salatin, organic farmer and author of best-selling books on sustainable farming, views these statistics as another reason for us to return to our farming roots. “People say our system can’t feed the world, but they’re absolutely wrong,” he says, “Yes, it will take more hands, but we’ve got plenty of them around.”

One important aspect to consumer support of conventional farming practices is the cost of food. Organic produce and meat is higher priced than non-organic counterparts. But, according to Joel Salatin, we get what we pay for. “We spend around 10% of our income on food and some 16% on health care, and it used to be the reverse.”

Our current food production system is in need of repair. We need to promote organic systems which respect the integrity of soil health and sustainable systems. Until recently it was thought that our national and global food needs were too big to be met with natural, organic food production systems. Recent studies confirm, however, that organic farming is the way of the future. We need, both collectively and as individuals, to support the organic food movement to enable the process to move forward with the research, seed development and farming practices needed to feed a hungry world.

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  • It seems like "Big Food" is going to squeeze out these little farms no matter how good they are.

  • Vote With It

    Great article. There are many benefits to organic farming and it is much more sustainable. The good news is thanks to more people demanding change there has been an increase in the amount of organic farms and free range animals in the market place. A lot of the problems with farming are not only because of big business but also government policies. If you are interested in learning more about our food culture I highly recommend Food Inc. and The Omnivores Dilemma.
    Vote With It: The Movement
    Every dollar you spend says what is important to you. Let governments and companies know what you believe in. Vote with your money. Vote for what you believe in. Help spread the word.

  • Over the long run, I think if you factor in healthcare related costs, organic foods cost our society less.

  • Organic farming is one of the few ways the small farmer can compete with the large agribusinesses. Go organic!

  • Organic self-sufficient farming should be integrated in every city and living community. With a little help from everybody it’s not that hard to accomplish.

  • The earth grows things. That's what it does. It doesn't need all the chemicals and unnatural treatments of conventional wisdom. The best way grow organic food is to just let the earth do its job

  • Matt

    This is such a no-brainer for me. I am amazed that we are even having this debate in society. Organic farming just has to be better on so many levels.

  • Rob Nunally, Onomea Tea Co.

    Thank you for providing this information. I am a tea farmer/processor in Hawaii. We are certified organic and do our best to encourage sustainable practices. We naturally feed our soil with mulch and organic amendments. Our plants respond with wonderful healthy growth. I’m glad to see some research about improved yields in organic farming. Great news!

  • It is inorganic (chemical based) farming that is unsustainable.

    Every gardener and farmer knows that replacing nutrients is key to successful crops year after year, so you and your lecturer are correct to focus on this.
    We have used organic practices in our garden for many years, and our crop yields increase each year (for the most part). Last year was our best ever, and today as I look out across the garden, this year will also be successful. We have never put a drop of chemical fertilizer into the soil. Nutrients are restored by several methods – the use of mulch which conditions the soil and adds nutrients as it breaks down, the addition of manure when available, some use of canola meal, and most importantly, using green manure between crop rotations. One fourth of our garden is planted in green manure at any given time.

    Phosphorus is mined and shipped in the form of rock phosphate, which is essential to plant growth. The global supply of phosphorus is diminishing, and some farmers are looking for alternatives. In Germany there is a movement to process urine for its phosphorus content. We use rock phosphorus, but we also keep a pee bucket and dilute the urine 50/50 with water, then add it to our beds. This provides additional phosphorus.

  • Andrew

    For individuals, organic food also has benefits. Eating organic means avoiding the pesticide residue left on foods, and it may even mean more nutritious varietals, though research into that subject has yielded mixed results.

  • Aimee H

    I have a friend who owns an organic farm. Says he’d rather farm organic because he makes more money doing so. Isn’t it wonderful, how the high cost of organic food is extended to people who are ignorant to how much money is being made, and thanks to this article, it shows more proof that organic farms are just as money hungry as the large GMO farms.

    • Phil Anderson

      Organic farms by definition require far higher labor input, which justifies the higher end cost. It doesn’t make us as money hungry… anyone who works hard should expect to be paid fairly for their hard work and investment, it isn’t easy and is not for everyone, even most farmers. In your words “isn’t it wonderful” that there are people willing to produce food with renewable resources, without chemicals, for the (in your words) “ignorant” people.

      I don’t look down my nose at conventional farmers one bit. They have to make a living and feed the masses. But at some point the chemical resources will become depleted or become cost prohibitive due to their scarcity. It is at that point organic farming will become mainstream due to the lower comparative input costs. It may take 50 or 500 years to get to that tipping point. Regardless of that fact, my farm is already on the right side of history. Besides I eat what I grow and I have no desire to eat produce that has bathed in chemicals.

  • Roland Gilmore

    Thanks for the myth buster.

  • Thanks for your interesting comment.

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