Commercial Crop Yields Reveal Strengths and Weaknesses for Organic Agriculture in the United States

Andrew R. Kniss , Steven D. Savage, Randa Jabbour - PLoS ONE 11

Type: Research Paper
Knowledge level: Advanced

Farm Table says:

This article is more likely to help support research and development funding which is relatively of high importance in improving US agriculture together with its farmers.

Land area devoted to organic agriculture has increased steadily over the last 20 years in the United States, and elsewhere around the world. A primary criticism of organic agriculture is lower yield compared to non-organic systems.

The analysis presented here offers a new perspective, based on organic yield data collected from over 10,000 organic farmers representing nearly 800,000 hectares of organic farmland. publicly available data from the United States Department of Agriculture were used to estimate yield differences between organic and conventional production methods for the 2014 production year.

Averaged across all crops, organic yield averaged 80% of conventional yield. However, several crops had no significant difference in yields between organic and conventional production, and organic yields surpassed conventional yields for some hay crops. The organic to conventional yield ratio varied widely among crops, and in some cases, among locations within a crop. For soybean (Glycine max) and potato (Solanum tuberosum), organic yield was more similar to conventional yield in states where conventional yield was greatest. The opposite trend was observed for barley (Hordeum vulgare), wheat (Triticum aestevum), and hay crops, however, suggesting the geographical yield potential has an inconsistent effect on the organic yield gap.

The biggest production challenges organic farmers face relative to conventional farmers are with respect to fertility (especially nitrogen) due to a lack of synthetic fertilizers, and pest management (weeds, insects, and pathogens) due to a lack of synthetic pesticides. These production challenges are likely responsible for the organic yield gap in most of the crops we analyzed, though the relative contribution of each may differ. The authors have refrained from delving too deeply into any specific crop in their analysis and instead focus on broader trends. Their findings support the importance of research funding at the federal level to facilitate such collaborations which may be otherwise difficult to execute but which are crucial to improving the sustainability of US agriculture.

 

2016 - United States - Andrew R. Kniss , Steven D. Savage, Randa Jabbour - PLoS ONE 11
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