The BiG Stink: Organic vs. Conventional, Round 2 – Land Use

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

After a bit of a hiatus owing to Bootstrap’s seemingly unbridled growth (1,600 subscribers and counting), I’m thrilled to announce the return of the BiG Stink! As you may recall, I left off in the midst of a whopper of an investigation: Is organic farming better for the environment than conventional farming? There are hundreds of angles to consider to answer that question and I will not make you read through hundreds of posts, but I did chose four specific topics to cover: soil health, land use efficiency, energy use, and chemical runoff.

Last time I defined organic and conventional farming and explored the effects of each farming method on soil health. This time around we’ll delve into crop yields. How do organic and conventional methods compare when it comes to produce per acre? Depends on what kind of food is being grown. Are we talking fruits, vegetables, legumes or grains?

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BSC co-founder Igor and Faith drop off scraps at organic farm Wright-Locke Farm.

When going head to head, organic and conventional fruit production finish in a statistical dead heat. Fruits such as melons, apples, and tomatoes (yes, tomatoes are fruit) have similar yields per acre regardless of farming techniques. In fact, organically grown tomatoes (considered separately from other fruits) were statistically indistinguishable from conventional tomatoes. Oilseeds such as sunflowers and canola performed well under either farming method. Legumes such as peas and beans also had similar yields.

So far so good for both methods when it comes to crop yield; here comes trouble though. Organic grain and vegetable yields are underwhelming when compared to conventional acres. Organic acres of grains such as corn and wheat are 26% less productive than conventional ones. Among vegetables, organic farming yields 33% less food per acre (!). When considering multiple crop types (grains, fruits, vegetables, oilseeds, and legumes), organic crops produce 25% less food per acre overall than conventional ones. That 25% gap is a big deal. One study projected that in 2014 growing all US crops organically would have required farming 109 million more acres of land, an area equivalent to all the parkland and wild-land areas in the lower 48 states.

“While conventional crops are pumped with synthetic nitrogen, organic crops are limited by the slower release of nitrogen from compost and green manure.”

What is causing the gap between organic and conventional yields? Scientists suspect organic farms produce less food per acre because of nitrogen availability, a crucial nutrient for plant growth. While conventional crops are pumped with synthetic nitrogen, organic crops are limited by the slower release of nitrogen from compost and green manure.

Don’t count out organic farming just yet! With expert knowledge and careful management, organic farming can equal or even surpass conventional yields. Well-educated organic farmers know when to apply nitrogen sources to achieve maximum growth during peak growing times as well as how to manage soil pH and other factors that could limit organic yields. After 30 years of study, the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (FST) found that organic methods can produce just as much food as conventional ones, whether it be a fruit, grain or vegetable.

Let’s go back to the original question: How do organic and conventional methods compare when it comes to produce per acre? Currently organic yields lag behind conventional ones and when it comes to output, conventional is king. That doesn’t mean we should give up on organic agriculture. With better technology and an increased understanding of soil health, nutrient availability, and plant growth, organic farming has been shown to compete with industrial methods. But organic farming still has a lot of work and research to do before it can top industrial systems. Indeed — at this very minute — conventional farming takes the cake when it comes to food per acre.

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