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Organic Farming Costs Less and Builds Healthier Soils

Results from a 21-year study that compared organic and conventional farming systems in Central Europe are now in. Researchers found that organic farm fields had better balances of nutrients, soil bacteria, earthworms and plant pest predators—all signs of healthy fields—than did the conventional farms.

They also found crop yields averaged 20% less on organic compared to conventional farms, but the cost of food production on the organic farms was still lower since input of fertilizer and energy was reduced by 34 to 53%, and pesticide input was reduced 97%. The researchers noted, “Enhanced soil fertility and higher biodiversity found in organic plots may render these systems less dependent on external inputs.”

In this comparison study, the organic and conventional farms had the same tillage, crop rotation and crop varieties. Both types of farms grew potatoes, barley, winter wheat, beets and grass cover. Unlike conventional farms, organic farms use no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Winter wheat production on organic fields was about 10% less than that of conventional farms. Cereal crops yields were 60 to 70% less, and potato yields ranged from 58 to 66% less—reductions the researchers attributed to a low potassium supply and to an infestation of insect pests.

A detailed comparison of the soils showed that the organic fields had more biological activity and biomass, both signs of soil health, than did the conventional fields. Researchers reported that:

  • Biomass and abundance of earthworms were higher by a factor of 1.3 to 3.2 in the organic plots as compared with conventional.
  • The organic plots had a much higher level of bacteria and fungi that help process soil nutrients and aid in their absorption by the roots of plants.
  • Organic fields also had a higher ratio of spiders and beetles that feed on plant pests. (In conventional farming, chemicals designed to kill pests also kill beneficial insects.)

The study, conducted by researchers at the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Frick, Switzerland, and at the Swiss Federal Research Station for Agroecology and Agriculture in Zurich, was published May 31, 2002 in the journal Science.

Reference: Mader P, Fliessbach A, Dubois D, Gunst L, Fried P, Niggli U. Soil fertility and biodiversity in organic farming. Science 2002 May 31;296(5573):1694-7.

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