Monday, June 19, 2017

Sustainably Feeding the World: Organic Food and Vegetables vs Conventional Commodities

Can we feed the world sustainably using organic crop production methods? Several studies have indicated that there is a yield penalty for organic crops

The crop yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture. Agricultural Systems
Volume 108, April 2012, Pages 1-9

The above indicates ~ 20% yield penalties for organic vs conventional production

Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture. Nature 485,229–232.(10 May 2012) doi:10.1038/nature11069 

The above finds a range of differences in yield between organic and conventional agriculture, from 5-35% depending on different crops, practices, and conditions.

Alexandra N. Kravchenko, Sieglinde S. Snapp, and G. Philip Robertson. Field-scale experiments reveal persistent yield gaps in low-input and organic cropping systems
PNAS 2017 114 (5) 926-931; published ahead of print January 17, 2017, doi:10.1073/pnas.1612311114 

The above indicates much of the previous research was based on research plots, and penalties for organic vs conventional yields could actually be worse when scaled up to field size production practices.

To what extent does organic farming rely on nutrient inflows from conventional farming?
Benjamin Nowak1,2, Thomas Nesme1,2, Christophe David3 and Sylvain Pellerin1,2
Published 5 December 2013  2013 IOP Publishing Ltd
Environmental Research Letters, Volume 8, Number 4 

The above research indicates there are significant inflows of N, P, K from conventional sources. For example, many organic production systems may rely on manure from animals raised or fed conventionally. If these positive exteranalities were excluded, the increased energy and land devoted to organic production would reduce its sustainability further.

 Often in addition to some calling for increased organic food production, you will hear additional criticisms of commodity or 'monocrop' agriculture. Themes include criticisms of agricultural policies favoring 'industrial' agriculture at the expense of healthy fruits and vegetables. However, these criticisms ignore the importance of calorie density and consumption at a global level. According to the FAO rice, corn, and wheat provide 60% of the world's energy intake. Costs of production and economies of scale favor large scale production of these staples over specialty crops like broccoli and tomatoes when it terms of providing affordable calorie dense food to a growing population.

Additional References:

Greenhouse gas mitigation by agricultural intensification Jennifer A. Burneya,Steven J. Davisc, and David B. Lobella.PNAS  June 29, 2010   vol. 107  no. 26  12052-12057

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