Organic farming yields higher than previous estimates, claims study

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Difference between conventional and organic yields less than previously thought, claims University of California study

Organic farming can produce yields higher than previously thought, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, analysed 115 existing studies – a dataset three times greater than any previously published work – and  found that, typically, organic yields are 19.2% lower than those of conventional farming.

This a smaller difference than previous estimates have suggested, but the authors said that - because many available studies were biased in favour of conventional practices - the gap was likely to be overstated.

They highlighted two agricultural practices that could further reduce the difference in yield; multi-cropping (growing multiple crops in the same field) and crop rotation could shrink the gap to 9% and 8% respectively, they reported.

The paper’s senior author, Professor Claire Kremen, said it “set the record straight” on the comparison between conventional and organic farming.

“With global food needs predicted to greatly increase in the next 50 years, it’s critical to look more closely at organic farming,” she said. “Aside from the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, the ability of synthetic fertilizers to increase crop yields has been declining.”

Catherine Fookes, campaign manager for the Organic Trade Board, welcomed the findings and said they reflected “a global trend in the growth of organic”.

“Long term growth in the UK is set to continue as consumers seek food that contains fewer pesticide residues and embraces higher animal welfare standards,” she added. “The latest findings from our campaign research confirms that pesticides are the number one reason why consumers buy organic.”

Soil Association chief executive Helen Browning said  the report was a “helpful contribution to showing that organic farming can meet the challenge of feeding a growing world population healthily, and with a much lower impact on our environment.” She added: “Of course, we still need to reduce waste, and encourage moderation in meat consumption.”

But Nick von Westenholz, CEO of the Crop Protection Association, said the study was “ideological” and called for a sense of balance.

“With 200,000 extra mouths to feed worldwide every day, an eight per cent fall in yields could have devastating consequences, particularly in environmentally fragile areas of the world where bringing more land into agricultural production would have a disproportionately negative impact,” he said.

“Rather than ideological arguments about which system of farming is best, we should be focusing instead on improving productivity and efficiency on the land already in use for food production. While organic farming can demonstrate useful techniques in controlling pests, the global food production industry needs to use all the tools in the box, including the controlled use of pesticides, as part of the solution to long term food security.”

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