DR. Don's Research Updates
December 18, 2002: Rice yields in Asia: organic farming performs well

By Don Lotter, Ph.D., Rodale Institute

Editor's NOTE

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 crops.

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 2003 issue).