Organic agriculture has benefits but it is not a silver bullet for global food security, a new study says.
Too much scientific uncertainty exists for organic agriculture to be considered a better alternative to conventional farming, says the study by two University of British Columbia researchers.
“(O)rganic agriculture cannot be the Holy Grail for our sustainable food security challenges,” the study, published March 10 in the U.S. peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, concludes.
Titled “Many Shades of Gray: The Context-Dependent Performance of Organic Agriculture,” the study takes a hard look at where organic agriculture performs well and where it does not.
It casts a wide net in assessing the benefits and drawbacks of organic farming besides just yields and costs.
The study also examines other factors, including: biodiversity, soil quality, climate change mitigation, water quality, farm livelihood and consumer health.
It concludes organic agriculture has some clear advantages but there are too many uncertainties and concerns for it to be seen as the way to achieve food security.
The study acknowledges that yields under organic farming average 19 to 25 per cent lower than from conventional systems. But that depends. Cereal crops show a high yield gap while forage crops such as hay sometimes actually yield better under organic management.
Organic farming does appear to have a positive effect on biodiversity. Organic management can increase “organism abundance” by 40 to 50 per cent. Plants and bees benefit the most; invertebrate animals and birds less so.
The study recognizes financial returns are higher from organically grown crops than from conventional ones. For that reason, organic farming might provide producers with a better livelihood.
But one of the main claims made for organic food — better nutritional value — is hard to prove.
“The quantitative reviews and meta-analyses greatly disagree; some found a significant difference in nutrient content between organic and conventional crops but others did not,” says the study.
This points to one of the biggest problems in assessing organic agriculture. Supporters and opponents of organic farming are so far apart in their opinions that it’s hard to reach conclusions.
“Critics and advocates often seem to describe different realities. Although there is some evidence supporting arguments from both sides, neither side is entirely right and there is great uncertainty in many dimensions,” the study says.
Martin Entz, a University of Manitoba plant scientist, called the study “an important contribution to understanding the future needs and the future potential of organic farming,” although he wished the authors had used more Canadian scientific references.
“I think it provides a really good in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of organic agriculture based on some really wise criteria.”
Entz, who specializes in organic research, said supporters of organic and conventional farming often talk past each other and need to have “a better conversation” about the strengths and weaknesses of both systems.
But Entz said the tension that used to exist between the two sides seems to be softening. He noted conventional Manitoba farmers are starting to have a little organic agriculture on the side, creating two separate business units on the same farm.
“That actually is a very healthy way to diffuse the tension between the two systems. Organic becomes just another form of on-farm diversification.”