Conventional farming also described as industrial farming or agriculture, is a system of production that utilizes synthetic chemical inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Methods of production include raising livestock in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), heavy irrigation, tillage and concentrated monoculture production for crops.
While this system, which has become globally widespread following World War II, is highly productive, it is incredibly energy and resource intensive and contributes to negative effects on the environment, human health, and social equity. Thus, many organizations, such as the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations (FAO) have identified a need for change.
One option is to increase attention towards a more ecological approach, in which food is produced in a sustainable manner that minimizes global environmental impacts while still providing fresh, nutritious food to consumers: organic agriculture.
To be recognized as a serious alternative to conventional food production, organic agricultural methods must illustrate that they can:
- provide sufficient amounts of high-quality food
- maintain and enhance the natural resources and environment
- be financially realistic and competitive
- contribute to the social well-being of farmers, workers, consumers and the global community
Point 1: Yield Comparison of organic vs. conventional agriculture
Agricultural output, or crop yield, is the quantity (yield) of a certain crop that is produced on a specific unit of the area under cultivation, including the seed generation of the plant itself. To measure this, producers will quantify the amount of a given crop that has been harvested from the particular area of agricultural land, for example, hectares.
Different crops are more “efficient” than others, meaning that they can produce relatively higher yields on an equal unit of agricultural land. As well, crop yields can differ between seasons and are highly dependent on certain factors such as production methods, climate, presence of pests and diseases, etc.
The main criticism of organic agriculture is that it cannot compete with conventional agriculture in terms of crop yield, especially due to yield-limiting factors such as nutrient limitations and the occurrence of pests and diseases. In recent years, faced with the challenge of feeding the world’s ever-increasing population through more ecological alternatives, numerous studies have been conducted comparing the crop yield of organic agriculture vs. conventional.
One study conducted by Seufert, et al. (2012) found that overall, organic yields are typically lower, ranging from five to 34% less than conventional yields dependent on the crop. Across all measured crops, organic yields were on average 25% lower overall.
Another study conducted by Reganold & Wachter (2016) synthesized data from several meta-analyses or reviews, finding that yield averages are eight to 25% lower in organic systems. Furthermore, de Ponti, et al. (2012) compiled and analyzed a meta-dataset of 362 published organic-conventional comparative crop yields and found that, on average, organic yields are 20% lower than those obtained under conventional conditions.
With all studies, yield differences were highly contextual, depending on the system, site characteristics, growing conditions, and management practices.
One main conclusion found by two studies indicate that in the case of extreme weather conditions such as drought or excessive rainfall, as may be expected in many regions with increasing climate change, organic production tends to surpass conventional production, due to relatively higher water-holding ability of the soils.
Point 2: Nutritional quality and healthiness of organic vs. conventional foods
To date, the assessment of the nutritional quality of organically produced foods compared to conventional is still in its infancy, some studies indicate that in chemical-analytical terms, organic produce frequently demonstrates higher quality features than conventional produce.
Reganold & Wachter (2016), for example, referenced fifteen reviews or meta-analyses of scientific literature comparing nutritional values of organic and conventional foods.
Twelve of the studies found evidence of organic food being more nutritious, such as having higher concentrations of vitamin c, more antioxidants, more omega-3 fatty acids in total, and higher omega-3 to omega-6 ratios.
And while three of the twelve studies found no significant nutritional difference, one of them found that conventionally produced chicken and pork had a 33% higher risk of contamination with antibiotic-resistant bacteria compared to organic alternatives.
While research is limited which indicates if the use of GMOs, chemical herbicides, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and antibiotics used in conventional food production is significantly harmful to our human health, all may pose a potential risk which is not as frequent or at all present in organic methods.
For example, the world’s best-selling herbicide, glyphosate, is used in a vast majority of conventionally produced crops.
This is especially true for soy and corn, two products that are widely used in many other processed food products, as well as to feed livestock, meaning we eat glyphosate when we consume conventionally produced meat.
Did you know glyphosate cannot be broken down by cooking or removed by washing?
Residue remains constant in food and animal feed for more than a year.
Most of us are exposed to glyphosate on a daily basis, despite the fact that its usage is limited in Europe. In February 2016, traces of the herbicide were even found in numerous brands of German beer.
Globally, antibiotics are widely used to accelerate growth and prevent disease in conventionally produced livestock such as cattle, poultry, and pigs, especially in CAFOs.
According to the FAO, this can pose a risk to human health through the presence of drug-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs” which are “created in farm animals by antibiotic use that can be transferred to people, leading to antibiotic resistance, food-borne infections in humans that are more likely to be severe and long lasting, more likely to lead to infections in the bloodstream and hospitalization and more likely to lead to death”.
Despite the fact that antibiotics to promote growth were prohibited in the EU in 2006, their use did not decrease significantly.
These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be passed to humans in a few ways:
- The food chain (through consumption of meat)
- Bacteria can be blown several hundred meters by the exhaust fans of livestock houses.
- Bacteria are abundant in manure and can runoff into waterways.
Point 3: Environmental sustainability
Compared to conventional farming, organic agriculture is generally considered more environmentally friendly, with greater protection of natural resources—particularly higher soil carbon levels, enhanced soil quality, and less soil erosion.
Soil conservation is achieved through the promotion of humus formation and soil biota via natural fertilizers and compost. Measures that can increase the risks of soil erosion, such as monocultures and tillage, are avoided, and, instead, organic farming focuses on methods such as crop rotations and cover crops that restore nutrients to the soil.
Example: soil erosion and salinization
According to a study by the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures presented at the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris in 2015, nearly 33% of the world’s arable land has been lost to erosion or pollution in the last 40 years. The rate at which erosion occurs from plowed fields is 10-100 times greater than natural rates of formation, and it takes roughly 500 years to form 2.5 cm of topsoil under normal agricultural conditions4.
Unsustainable farming and forestry operations, prevalent in conventional production methods, encourage soil erosion, especially when sloping land is plowed, the grass is removed from semi-arid land for dryland farming, and when cattle, sheep, or goats are allowed to overgraze.
Furthermore, according to a recent United Nations (UN) report, current conventional agricultural practices have caused salinization, the buildup of salts in soils toxic for plants, of 20% of the global irrigated area.
Example: biodiversity of flora and fauna
Organic farms tend to have greater flora and fauna, encouraged by the prohibition of agrochemicals that can upset the balance of the natural ecosystem.
In organic systems, biodiversity of crops and livestock helps to create resilience to disease and pests.
Conventional farming, on the other hand, in many cases encourages specialization of crops and livestock, leading to a decrease in biodiversity. This can increase vulnerability and requires inputs of more artificial protections such as pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and synthetic fertilizers. Additionally, these chemical inputs may not only kill the parasites harmful to crops, but also beneficial insects that are vital to the food chain.
Furthermore, intense crop specialization and concentration can also lead to monocultures, where only one crop or livestock species is produced on a very large scale.
In this case, if pests discover how to attack this species, the entire yield could be wiped out, or even more herbicides and pesticides will be required. Through the specialization of livestock, such as with CAFOs, there are increased environmental concerns, the risk of exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, significant risks to animal welfare as well as a break in the holistic balance of the farm system.
Organic agriculture restricts the amount of livestock allowed in one space, improving animal welfare and there is generally no build-up of manure and slurry that can cause pollution.
Organic farming practices encourage, if not require, for the farm to be as closed-cycle as possible. When crops and animals are raised on the same farm, the waste from one part of the system—the animals—becomes a valuable resource for another part of the system—as fertilizer for crops. In the case of a crop-only farm, for example, the nutrients that were once provided by animal manure need to be replaced by energy-intensive artificial fertilizers, which have the potential to pollute the environment, especially through nitrogen runoff.
Point 4: Profitability for producers and affordable prices for consumers
Profitability of organic agriculture compared to conventional production can be determined by crop yields, labor, and total costs, price premiums of organic products, potential for reduced income during the organic transition period (typically three years), and potential cost savings from reduced reliance on non-renewable resources and purchased inputs.
A meta-analysis by Crowdera & Reganold (2015) examined the financial performance of organic and conventional agriculture from forty years of studies, covering fifty-five crops grown on five continents. It was concluded that when price premiums—the higher prices awarded to organic foods—were applied, organic agriculture was significantly more profitable (22 to 35%).
What is not reflected in the price of many conventionally produced products, which are generally lower than organically produced ones, is the externalities associated with the production.
Environmental, health and social challenges are not accounted for; instead, the burden is placed on the society. The cost for remediation of environmental pollution of waterways, hospital bills due to exposure to “superbugs” and exploitation of labor is not reflected in the price the consumer pays.
Point 5: Social well-being
A huge concern of the current industrialized system is the exploitation of workers and laborers, especially in developing countries.
As discussed previously, the externalities of production are not necessarily reflected in the price of the product. On a global scale, large farms and concentrated processing facilities require an enormous labor force. In many cases, workers are subjected to unfair or unsafe conditions.
Child labor, unfair practices, poverty, slavery, and hunger are all related to agricultural production and according to the FAO, there are still approximately 100 million children aged 5-17 who are engaged in child labor in agriculture.
Although it is highly dependent on the contextual situation, organic farming methods have been proven to demonstrate certain sociocultural strengths, such as community economic developments, an increased social interaction between farmer and consumer, and reduced exposure to chemicals for farmers and workers.
Additionally, organic certifications require that animals be raised in a human way, aligned to natural behaviors and needs.
BMEL(b). (2015, July). Organic Farming in Germany. Retrieved September 7, 2015, from Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL)
Heinrich Böll Foundation. (2014, January). Meat Atlas. Retrieved January 28, 2016, from Friends of Earth Europe
FAO. (2011, November). Antibiotics in Farm Animal Production: Public Health and Animal Welfare. Retrieved March 15, 2016, from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
Cameron, D., Osborne, C., Horton, P., & Sinclair, M. (2015, December). A sustainable model for intensive agriculture. Retrieved March 14, 2016, from Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures
FAO. (2015, June 10). Whittling down instances of child labour in agriculture. Retrieved March 15, 2016, from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)