In addition to analyzing
data from our research trials and developing
new domestic and international research
initiatives, Don reviews dozens of research
studies each week. He'll present the most
interesting of his findings every week on
the web site.
One of the enduring issues in the world food debate
is crop yield performance and agriculture’s ability
to feed the world. While it has been shown in numerous
studies that the world hunger problem is one of distribution
of food, and that one third of the world’s grain
goes for animal consumption, crop yields continue to
be the focus of this debate.
Enormous investments were made in fertilizer and pesticide
intensive “green revolution” approaches
to agricultural development during the 70’s and
80’s, and then, starting in the 90’s, biotechnology
and genetic engineering became the focus of investment.
Organic agriculture generally gets short shrift in this
debate, and is usually out-and-out dismissed. New evidence,
however, is showing that organic agriculture can hold
its own with the green revolution approach, even in
Asian rice, the sine qua non crop of world food production.
Two recent studies out of the Philippines are showing
that organic rice production produces yields comparable
with conventional rice, and is superior from an economic
point of view. A University of Philippines study over
four crop seasons and two sites showed rice yields in
organically managed systems to be 17% higher than conventional.
A flaw in this particular comparison is that a higher
proportion of the organic farmers owned their farms
than the conventional farmers, and farm-owners will
always get higher yields than tenant-farmed crops, all
other things being equal. Another smaller study out
of Xavier University (one site and one season) showed
conventional rice with a 22% yield advantage over organic.
The upshot of this is that organic rice yields in tropical
Asia are probably within the 90% range that has been
shown for organic vs. conventional comparisons in other
Where the organic systems really excel, however, is
in economics and profitability. In both studies the
net returns were, on the average, 70-100% higher on
the organic farms compared to the conventional, even
with occasional lower yields. With the proportion of
farm costs like chemical fertilizers and pesticides
so much higher in developing countries like the Philipinnes,
where labor costs are low, the organic alternative wins
out. And with pretty much the whole world heading away
from farm subsidies and towards a market-based agriculture
(except for the U.S., who nevertheless has been its
most vocal proponent), this bodes well for the organic
approach. And if economists would ever get their heads
out of the sand and include environmental costs of agriculture
in the equation, the organic approach will get even
more attractive. I will be discussing these issues with
respect to American farming in a later column.
Both research results were presented at the International
Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM)
conference in Victoria, British Columbia in August 2002.
Crop yields world-wide are discussed in my forthcoming
paper in the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture (February