New Study: Organic Agriculture Key to Helping Feed the World Sustainably


Washington State University researchers, John Reganold and Jonathan Wachter reviewed 40 years of science comparing the long-term prospects of organic and conventional farming. Hundreds of scientific studies later, their review provides evidence that organic farming can produce sufficient yields, be profitable for farmers, protect and improve the environment, and be safer for farm workers.

In the review study, "Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century," the authors compare organic and conventional agriculture across the four goals of sustainability identified by the National Academy of Sciences.

1.  Productivity: While organic farming may produce lower yields, averaging 10 to 20 percent less than conventional, the environmental advantages of organic agriculture far outweigh the lower yields. Increasing research and breeding resources for organic systems would reduce the yield gap. In some cases, organic yields can be higher than conventional. In severe drought conditions, for example, organic farms can produce as good or better yields because of the higher water-holding capacity of organically farmed soils.

2.  Environment: When compared to conventional farms, organic farms tend to store more soil carbon, have better soil quality, and reduce soil erosion. Organic agriculture also creates less soil and water pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions. It’s more energy-efficient because it doesn’t rely on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Organic agriculture is also associated with greater biodiversity of plants, animals, insects and microbes as well as genetic diversity. Biodiversity increase the services that nature provides, like pollination, and improves the ability of farming systems to adapt to changing conditions.

3.  Economics: Despite lower yields, organic agriculture is more profitable for farmers because consumers are willing to pay more. Premium prices can be justified as a way to compensate farmers for providing ecosystem services and avoiding environmental damage or external costs.

4.  Social wellbeing: Although there are few studies in this area, organic farming comes out ahead when it comes to providing jobs for workers and reducing farmworkers’ exposure to pesticides and other chemicals.

Reganold cites several significant barriers to farmers adopting organic agriculture: existing policies, costs of transitioning to organic certification, lack of access to labor and markets, and lack of appropriate infrastructure for storing and transporting food. He suggests governments focus on creating policies that help develop not just organic but also other innovative and more sustainable farming systems. Specifically, agricultural policies should:

•  Offer greater financial incentives for farmers to adopt conservation measures and scientifically sound sustainable, organic, and integrated crop or livestock production practices.

•  Expand outreach and technical assistance that will provide farmers with better information about these transformative practices.

•  Increase publicly funded research to improve and expand modern sustainable farming.

For a copy of the study, please email John Reganold

OFRF works to foster the improvement and widespread adoption of organic farming systems through scientific research, education, and advocacy to bring more farmers and acreage into organic production. All of the research results from OFRF-funded projects are freely available at