Organic farming more profitable than conventional agriculture


Workers harvest organic crops in a New England farm. While yields are lower than on conventional farms, profit margins are higher.
JOHN BURKE/GETTY IMAGES

Organic agriculture is more profitable for farmers than conventional agriculture, despite the lower yields, according to a global survey published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Profit margins for organic agriculture were significantly higher and the sector, responsible for just 1% of global agricultural output, had considerable scope for expansion, the study discovered.

Washington State University scientists David Crowder and John Reganold analysed dozens of studies comparing the financial performance of organic and conventional farming.

"The reason we wanted to look at the economics is that more than anything, that is what really drives the expansion and contraction of organic farming – whether or not farmers can make money. It was kind of surprising that no one had looked at this in a broad sense," said Crowder.

Prices paid to organic farmers ranged from 29% to 32% more than to conventional farmers, more than compensating for crop yields that were as much as 18% lower.

"That was a big surprise to me," said Reganold, a soil scientist and organic agriculture specialist. "It means that organic agriculture has room to grow, there's room for premiums to go down over time. But what we've found is that the premiums have held pretty steady over the 40 years represented in the study."

James Mitchell Crow, writing in Cosmos last year, discovered a similarly complex picture. As he wrote

It would be easy to dismiss organic food production as insignificant, especially at a time when the population is rocketing and climate change is adding to the challenge. Yields drop when switching to organic, and there isn’t enough organic fertiliser to go around anyway. But dig a little deeper and it seems that organic farming’s roots have been spreading.

His article, Is there room for organics? won the Crawford Fund journalism award.

He recently travelled to India with the Fun to investigate a potential new biofuel crop, called sweet sourgum, that won¹t compete for land with food crops because the plant does both: it produces a source of biofuel in its stem, as well as ears of grain that can be eaten. His report will appear in Cosmos soon.

  1. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/05/27/1423674112.abstract
  2. https://cosmosmagazine.com/james-mitchell-crow
  3. https://cosmosmagazine.com/life-sciences/there-room-organics
  4. http://www.crawfordfund.org/awards/journalism-award-page/
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