New Meta-Analysis Finds Ecological Organic Farming Can Feed the World


Dear Friends and Colleagues

New Meta-Analysis Finds Ecological Organic Farming Can Feed the World

Food production today places great strains on environmental resources. The world urgently needs farming systems that are highly productive and yet minimize harm to the environment. The debate over organic versus conventional agriculture has raged on for years. Organic farms occupy only 0.9% of the world’s arable land.

A new study by the University of California, Berkeley has found that the ‘yield gap’ between organic and conventional agriculture is smaller than previously stated, at only 19.2% on average. With agroecological practices like multi-cropping and crop rotation, this reduced to 9% and 8%, respectively. For some crops like legumes, there was no yield gap at all. (Item 1)

The study’s lead author states that “through appropriate investment in agroecological research…. the yield gap could be reduced or even eliminated for some crops or regions.” (Item 2) This is the largest meta-analysis done to date, using a new analytical framework and comprising 1,071 organic versus conventional yield comparisons from 115 studies (three times that of earlier meta-analyses) from 38 countries and 52 crop species over a span of 35 years.

The study has shed the spotlight on the importance of agroecology as opposed to simply going organic as large monocultures, in feeding the world sustainably. Agroecology is seen as “the key to yield and sustainability” through the building of biodiversity-rich and resilient food ecosystems better equipped to cope with climate change (Item 3). This is intrinsically linked to the role of small-scale farmers who produce 70% of the world’s food but occupy less than 25% of its agricultural land. Recognised as “the real inventors and tireless practitioners of agroecological methods”, their lands are, however, increasingly being taken away and they are among the poorest. The world produces food for 1.5 times its population so eradicating global hunger is more an issue of creating an equitable food system which will ensure that small farmers receive more land, access to water, and basic infrastructure, education and health services, so as to be able to feed themselves, and others, sustainably.


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Item 1

Diversification Practices Reduce Organic to Conventional Yield Gap

Lauren C.Ponisio, Leithen K.M’Gonigle, Kevi C.Mace, JennyPalomino, Perryde Valpine, ClaireKremen

Proceedings B of the Royal Society of London.


Agriculture today places great strains on biodiversity, soils, water and the atmosphere, and these strains will be exacerbated if current trends in population growth, meat and energy consumption, and food waste continue. Thus, farming systems that are both highly productive and minimize environmental harms are critically needed. How organic agriculture may contribute to world food production has been subject to vigorous debate over the past decade. Here, we revisit this topic comparing organic and conventional yields with a new meta-dataset three times larger than previously used (115 studies containing more than 1000 observations) and a new hierarchical analytical framework that can better account for the heterogeneity and structure in the data. We find organic yields are only 19.2% (±3.7%) lower than conventional yields, a smaller yield gap than previous estimates. More importantly, we find entirely different effects of crop types and management practices on the yield gap compared with previous studies. For example, we found no significant differences in yields for leguminous versus non-leguminous crops, perennials versus annuals or developed versus developing countries. Instead, we found the novel result that two agricultural diversification practices, multi-cropping and crop rotations, substantially reduce the yield gap (to 9 ± 4% and 8 ± 5%, respectively) when the methods were applied in only organic systems. These promising results, based on robust analysis of a larger meta-dataset, suggest that appropriate investment in agroecological research to improve organic management systems could greatly reduce or eliminate the yield gap for some crops or regions.

Item 2

Organic Farming Can Feed The World If Done Right, Scientists Claim

Tom Bawden

The Independent

Organic farming is much more productive than previously thought, according to a new analysis of agricultural studies that challenges the conventional “biased” view that pesticide-free agriculture cannot feed the world.

The study says that organic yields were only 19.2 per cent lower, on average, than those from conventional crops and that this gap could be reduced to just eight per cent if the pesticide-free crops were rotated more frequently.

Furthermore, in some crops – especially leguminous plants such as beans, peas and lentils – there were no significant differences in yields, the researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found.

“In terms of comparing productivity among the two techniques, this paper sets the record straight on the comparison between organic and conventional agriculture,” said Claire Kremen, professor of environmental science, policy and management at Berkeley.

The study comes amid rising concerns that intense farming practices are damaging the environment, with the widespread use of nerve agent pesticides frequently blamed for declining populations of bees and other pollinators. Meanwhile, fertilisers are producing smaller and smaller increases in yields because they are now so effective they are difficult to improve upon.

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

The researchers based their findings on a meta-analysis of 115 studies – a dataset three times greater than any previous such paper – comparing organic and conventional agriculture.

In addition to finding a smaller – 19.2 per cent – productivity difference between the two than previously calculated, the researchers also found that optimising organic productivity through different techniques could further reduce the gap.

Multi-cropping, or growing several crops together on the same field, would cut the yield difference to nine per cent, with crop rotation reducing the gap to eight per cent.

The study, published in the journal Royal Society B, suggested that the gaps could be even smaller than they have calculated because existing studies were “often biased in favour of conventional agriculture”.

“Our study suggests that through appropriate investment in agroecological research to improve organic management and in breeding cultivars for organic farming systems, the yield gap could be reduced or even eliminated for some crops or regions,” said the study’s lead author, Lauren Ponisio, a graduate student in environmental science, policy and management.

The researchers suggest that organic farming can be a very competitive alternative to industrial agriculture when it comes to food production.

“It’s important to remember that our current agricultural system produces far more food than is needed to provide for everyone on the planet,” said Prof Kremen.

“Eradicating world hunger requires increasing the access to food, not simply the production. Also, increasing the proportion of agriculture that uses sustainable, organic methods of farming is not a choice, it’s a necessity. We simply can’t continue to produce food far into the future without taking care of our soils, water and biodiversity,” she added.

Item 3

Agroecology and the Disappearing Yield Gap

Eric Holt Gimenez

Executive Director, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy

The more scientists actually study agroecology, the better it looks.

The largest meta-analysis to date comparing yields of organic and conventional agriculture concluded that the "yield gap" between the two is much smaller than previously claimed and for some crops, doesn’t exist at all.

In a new study released in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London entitled Diversification Practices Reduce Organic to Conventional Yield Gap, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found that when organic farms employ agroecological practices like inter-cropping and crop rotations, the organic-conventional yield gap all but disappears. For legumes, there is no yield difference. The study used three times the number of farms and a more discerning, fine-grained statistical procedure than a previous study published in Nature by Seufert, Tamankutty and Foley in 2012 that due to a statistical bias erroneously concluded organic yielded 25 percent less than conventional agriculture.

Great! But after the celebrating among organic farming enthusiasts is over, what are we to make of this?

First of all, agroecology — the science of sustainable agriculture –must be taken seriously by policy makers, land grant universities, the National Science Foundation and big philanthropy, all of whom have preferred to invest in high-input, industrial agriculture for the past 50 years. This bias is deeply engrained in our scientific and political institutions; Nature refused even to look at the new study that called the results of the 2012 research into question… Less than two percent of the USDA’s research budget currently goes to organic systems. In places where there is significant research money spent on organics (e.g., University of Washington in wheat,) or on agroecology (e.g. Cuba) the highly touted "yield gap" disappears. Agroecology will not only get the yields we need without chemical inputs, genetically engineered seeds and expensive precision farming, it will bring us resiliency.

Agroecologically-managed farms in all of their biodiversity richness are usually organic or become organic over time. Their diversity of crops, rotations agroforestry and mixed livestock-cultivar-forest landscapes builds environmental resilience into the farm system. This is as been shown to be essential for confronting the extreme weather events associated with global warming, like drought, flood, heat waves and freezes, all of which can wreak havoc with a crop within a single season. Unlike genetically-engineered crops (GMOs) that attempt to build resilience into the genomes of specific cultivars one trait at a time, agroecology strengthens the resilience of the entire agroecosystem. Not all organic farms are agroecological, of course. Some are vast industrial monocultures that are as climate-vulnerable as their conventional counterparts.

What this new study shows is that agroecology — not organic agriculture per se — is the key to yield and sustainability.

Refreshingly, the authors of this research recognize that simply increasing yields will not end hunger in a world that already produces 1 ½ times more than enough food for everyone. They also recognize that the way this food is produced makes a difference.

What the study does not address, is that who is producing the food also makes a difference. The real inventors and tireless practitioners of agroecological methods — innovative smallholder farmers like those in the Campesino a Campesino Movement(farmer to farmer) — need to be recognized and supported in their contribution to productive, sustainable food systems.

In fact, the key to ending global hunger is not to produce food for hungry people (who aren’t able to afford), but to allow people to feed themselves.

Globally, the world’s smallholders produce 70 percent of the world’s food on 25 percent of the land. Tragically, because they don’t have enough land (or market power), they are also among the world’s poorest people and so make up 70 percent of the world’s hungry. We don’t need to produce more food to end world hunger. We need to create an equitable food system for the people who actually produce the world’s food. Smallholders need more land, access to water, and basic infrastructure, education and health services — not GMOs, precision agriculture or global markets. They do also need more agroecology and are especially suited to this practice.

Many thanks to the authors of Diversification Practices Reduce Organic to Conventional Yield Gap for revealing the importance of agroecology. Now let’s spread the practice by supporting the farmers who know how to do it.

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