Can organic farming feed the world and curb the climate crisis? The nonprofit Rodale Institute (m) , located in Kutztown, PA, has one of the longest-running field trials showing that it can.
The Institute was founded in 1947 by J.I. Rodale, one of the first people to embrace the idea of a return to organic farming—he’s widely credited with popularizing the term “organic agriculture”.
Rodale, inspired by the ideas of British organics pioneer Sir Albert Howard, came to the conclusion that “healthy soil = healthy food = healthy people.” Through his institute—and its publishing arm Rodale, Inc.(m)—he set out to prove just that. Today, Rodale Institute scientists have put more than 60 years into researching best practices of organic agriculture, advocating for policies that support farmers, and educating consumers about “how going organic is the healthiest option for people and the planet.”
Rodale’s Farming Systems Trial® (FST), in its 35th year, is the longest-running side-by-side US study comparing conventional chemical agriculture with organic methods. The study looks at a variety of crops, including corn and soy (49 percent), other grains (21 percent), forages (22 percent), and vegetables (1.5 percent).
The FST compares the outputs of three main farming systems: manure-based organic (fertility provided by leguminous cover crops and periodic applications of composted manure); legume-based organic (fertility provided by leguminous cover crops and crop rotation), and conventional synthetic (relies on chemical fertilizer for fertility, with chemical herbicides for weed control). In the past eight years of the trial, Rodale has also incorporated genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and no-till treatments.
Green America associate editor André Floyd talked to Dr. Emmanuel Omondi, research director for Rodale Institute’s FST, and Aaron Kinsman, the Institute’s media relations specialist, about the Farming Systems Trial, why healthy soils can help curb climate change, and why regenerative organic agriculture really can feed the world.
Green America/André Floyd: Can you tell our readers about this idea that organic farming fosters “living” soil and conventional farming creates “dead” soil? Why is living soil so important?
Dr. Emmanuel Omondi: The USDA defines soil health as “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.” Soil is not an inert growing medium, but rather is teaming with billions of beneficial bacteria, fungi, earthworms, and other micro- and macroorganisms that are fundamental to the proper functioning of the soil.
These organisms work symbiotically to break down and/or recycle materials that build up soil organic matter, humus, and other soil components that generally define soil fertility.
Photo from the Rodale Institute
Dr. Emmanuel Omondi is the research director for the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (FST).
Aaron Kinsman: Conventional agriculture has replaced biological methods of farming with chemical inputs. There’s a war-like mentality where you determine your enemy and you kill it: whether with a fungicide, pesticide, herbicide, etc. Any chemical that ends in the letters c-i-d-e is meant to kill carbon-based organisms.
A pesticide might be better at killing one insect than another, but pesticides overall are not discriminating. If it kills something half an inch long, it will certainly kill something that is a microorganism. It’s collateral damage.
Rodale Comparison of Organic and Conventional Farming Systems
In addition to fostering healthier soil, the organic systems in Rodale’s Farming Systems Trial outperformed the conventional systems over 30 years in terms of producing fewer greenhouse gases, generating more profit, and producing higher yields in drought years. Overall, organic yields matched conventional.
Dr. Emmanuel Omondi: Agrochemicals utilized in conventional farming progressively kill those life forms, gradually converting soil into a lifeless growing medium, spiraling into a vicious cycle that demands more agro-chemicals to support crops.
Organic farming, on the other hand, does not use chemicals, but instead feeds those life forms in the soil with compost, plant residues, and a large diversity of crops (equivalent to a complete diet). We refer to this type of farming as “regenerative”, as it not only maintains soil in good health, but actually regenerates it.
Such a living soil sustains healthier plants, as it provides them with a more complete suite of nutrients they need to develop, produce, and reproduce. Healthy plants, in turn, sustain healthy people. This by itself is good for the environment.
Beyond that, however, greater organic matter in the soil increases soil aggregation [Editor’s note: When soil particles bind to each other.], thereby creating greater amounts of micro- and macro-pores in the soil that facilitate water percolation, rather than run-off and erosion that chemical farming promotes.
Nutrients supplied to plants by agro-chemical fertilizers are generally the same as those supplied by organic sources. But the latter supplies those nutrients in slow-release organic forms that are mostly retained (immobilized) within the soil-plant ecosystem.
Synthetic agro-chemicals, on the other hand, are rapidly broken down—a process
called mineralization—into products that plants can use as well as by-products that pollute the environment, such as greenhouse gases, excess nitrates, phosphates, herbicides, etc., which either get in the atmosphere or find their way into ground and surface water, often with devastating effects.
Green America/André Floyd: How does healthy soil act as a carbon sink?
Dr. Emmanuel Omondi: Healthy soil regulates water, sustains plant and animal life, filters and buffers potential pollutants, provides physical stability and support to plants (anchors plant roots), and cycles nutrients (carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and many others).
The microorganisms in healthy soil convert organic waste into humus, which
stores carbon rather than releasing it. They also store carbon themselves, because they consume plant sugars, which are made with carbon through photosynthesis.
Because more soil organic matter is returned to, retained in, or available in healthy soil, the rate of immobilization of carbon is greater than the rate of mineralization, or the breakdown of organic materials into gaseous by-products or easily leached simpler compounds.
The reverse is true of the more inert soil prevalent in conventional systems.
Aaron Kinsman: [Rodale has] done a model, and the model looks like this: What if we had an organic planet? What if we had already accomplished a global transition to organic by January 1, 2012—how would that affect climate change and the greenhouse effect? How capable are organic soils at sequestering carbon?
We created a model of a global carbon sink around the world through a 100
percent transition to organic agriculture. Then we compared that to the emissions that we had in 2012 globally. Living Soil = Hardier Plants
What we found is that the soil would have been able to sequester 111 percent of 2012 emissions. That’s reversing the greenhouse effect.
Of course, we need to reduce, recycle, compost, and all those other very important things. But we can continue to draw down excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere through organic agriculture.
Green America/André Floyd: The agricorporate industry says that without chemicals, the world can’t feed itself. Can the world get enough food through organics?
Aaron Kinsman: It’s a topic that the Rodale Institute has explored extensively—probably more extensively than anyone else. We have the longest running side-by-side comparison of conventional to organic agriculture currently running. We will release our 35-year report on our Farming Systems Trial early in 2016, and our 30-year report came out in 2011.
Our Farming Systems Trial has found that in the long-term, yields from organic and conventional farming are essentially the same.
However, in our study, organic came out slightly ahead because we had one particular year of drought where organic over-performed in several plots with anywhere between 18 to 30 percent higher yields than conventional.
The reason, of course, is that organic, living soil is much better prepared to hold water as opposed to “dirt”, which is soil that is dead and does not have the biology [living with it], so it experiences much more runoff, erosion, etc.
Dr. Emmanuel Omondi: Also, analysis of 22 years of data from the FST by Pimentel et al. [confirmed] that the organic systems produced greater corn and soybean yields in drought years. Organic corn yields in five years between 1988 and 1998, when total rainfall was only nine inches during the growing season (compared to 18 inches during normal years), were 134 bushels/acre compared to 101 bushels/acre conventional corn yields. Soybean yields in the conventional system were half those of the organic manure system.
Aaron Kinsman: It’s important to recognize that the world currently grows enough calories—and I’m careful to say calories and not necessarily food—to feed somewhere between 10 and 14 billion people. We now have a world population of around 7 billion,
and all projections point to that figure growing to 9 billion by the year 2050.
The primary [reason there currently isn’t enough food to feed the world] is food waste. [Editor’s note: The UN Environment Programme estimates that roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption gets lost or wasted each year globally.] And there are economic problems that lead to the bottom billion suffering malnutrition due to a lack of calories.
In addition, the top billion, socioeconomically speaking, suffer malnutrition in the form of too many empty calories, leading to obesity and many other health problems—especially in the US. In addition, now in the United States, we’re growing mostly corn and soy. A lot of that goes to animal feed, and also ethanol, soy inks, you name it, not food. So the yields don’t necessarily translate to nutrition for humans.
When we look at the way that we farm and we talk about transitioning to organic, Rodale doesn’t necessarily mean to transition to the same crops or the same footprint. What we really need to concentrate on is diversifying crops and growing crops that humans eat.
Again, it goes back to soil health and soil preservation—because we’re losing so much of it so quickly. Agriculture must move toward the mindset of soil building. The more you farm organically, the more soil you build. You improve the resource that we need to feed people not only 30 or 300 years in the future but 1,000 years in the future, as opposed to destroying it.
So when we talk about organic and conventional agriculture, including GMOs genetically modified organisms], “yield”, or pounds per acre per year, is a sort of red herring.
We would argue that feeding the world is more complex than simple yields. At
this point, we have the yields. It’s really about nutrition and, in the long run, whether we can feed people 1,000 years from now in 3015 if we deplete our soil resource.
The answer is no—we can’t feed the world’s population without healthy soil. So we need to regenerate the soil, and we can only do that by farming organically.
Photo from the Rodale Institute
Soil in the Rodale’s Farming Systems Trial organic and conventional plots are very different in appearance due to the increase in soil organic matter in the organically managed soils. The organically managed soil is visibly darker, and aggregates (clumps of soil particles, which allow for better water drainage and retention) are more visible compared to conventionally managed soil.
Green America/André Floyd: The FST takes place in Pennsylvania, which is a pretty fertile place. Is it possible to farm organically in places that aren’t as fertile?
Aaron Kinsman: In Pennsylvania, we do benefit from some really fertile soils. We are looking to expand our presence into other climatic regions, other cultures where different situations may create different organic agricultural practices. We need to continue to conduct research in different places around the world and continue to develop those best methods locally.
Dr. Emmanuel Omondi: As a result of Rodale Institute’s work, long-term trials similar to the FST are mushrooming all over the US. Similar sites are located at UC-Davis in California, University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USDA-ARS in Maryland, and at Iowa State University. University of Nebraska has a longterm research study that also compares organic and conventional dry-land winter-wheat cropping systems.
Green America/André Floyd: The biotech industry likes to claim that its yields are higher than organic farming. What has the FST found?
Aaron Kinsman: When we evaluate the trials that are used to validate the claim that conventional or GMO agriculture has superior yields to organic, we see that the
conventional agriculture industry looks only at very short-term trials, anywhere as short as nine months to three years. They simply don’t provide enough time [to make a fair assessment].
Dr. Emmanuel Omondi: GM corn and GM soy were introduced at the FST in 2008. Yields short-term and longterm have remained in a statistical tie [between GMO and organic plots], with the GM corn yielding slightly more (140 bushels/acre) than organic (121 bushels/acre), and organic soybeans yielding slightly more (54 bu/a) than conventional (47 bu/a) on average.
But with the organic price premiums paid to farmers—ranging between $9 and
$14 per bushel of corn (compared to about $5 per bushel of conventional corn) and $20-$25 per bushel of soybean (compared to about $10 per bushel of conventional soybean)—organic is more profitable.
Aaron Kinsman: Conventional agriculture using toxic chemicals, even without the tool of GMOs, will continue to destroy the soil resource that we have. Organics Can Feed The World: More Sources
One Farming Systems Trial isn’t going to make the question of whether organics can feed the world go away. However, there are additional, similar trials going on that show organics can meet or beat conventional farming yields.
In June 2015, researchers from Iowa State and the USDA published a review
of six long-term organic comparison studies: at the Rodale Institute (started
in 1981), University of California-Davis (1988), University of Minnesota (1989),
University of Wisconsin-Madison (1989), Iowa State University (1998), and a USDA trial in Beltsville, MD (1996).
They found that all six “provided sufficient evidence of the potential for successful [US] organic transition.” The researchers also found an increase in soil health, water retention, and economic benefits on the organic plots in these trials. In fact, they noted, “These results suggest that organic farming practices have the potential to reduce nitrate leaching, foster carbon sequestration, and allow farmers to remain competitive in the marketplace.”
But can farmers grow enough food for the world’s population? The Worldwatch Institute points out that “there are actually myriad studies from around the world showing that organic farms can produce about as much, and in some settings much more, than conventional farms.” Any yield gap, the Institute notes, is usually in wealthy nations, where chemical inputs have degraded the soil. Over the long term, after converting from conventional to organic farming, those soils recover, and yields pick up.
A study published in Dec. 2014 in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London
showed that organic farmers can achieve comparable yields to conventional farmers,
with average organic yields coming in at as little as eight percent lower. With more research into organic best practices, that figure could shrink even further.
Finally, the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) noted in its Trade and Development Review 2013 that countries must shift to more sustainable, resilient agriculture to feed the world.
UNCTAD called for systems that regenerate the soil, require fewer chemical
inputs, and create strong local food systems.
The message is clear. In the words of Dr. Vandana Shiva, we need “soil, not oil.”
Top photo: Ross Duffield, Rodale Institute’s farm manager; Madeline Keller, Rodale intern; and Larry Byers, Rodale intern; using a no-till transplanter.