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Daily News Blog

24
Aug

Socioeconomic and Environmental Benefits in Organic Farming Exceed Chemical Practices

(Beyond Pesticides, August 24, 2021) Organic agriculture provides multiple ecosystem functions and services at greater economic benefit to farmers than conventional, chemical-intensive cropping systems, according to research recently published in the journal Science Advances. The study, conducted by a team of scientists based in Switzerland, goes beyond farming evaluations based solely on ecosystem services to include socioeconomic elements. “We did this because agroecosystems also have a socioeconomic dimension for producers and policy makers,” the authors note. While it is unsurprising based on prior research that organic practices provide greater environmental and economic benefits, the study lays bare the true cost of policies that myopically focus on yield while ignoring other factors.

Researchers conducted their study using data derived from a long-running Farming System and Tillage Experiment (FAST) based in Switzerland. FAST tracked four types of cropping systems: conventional intensive tillage, conventional no tillage, organic intensive tillage, and organic reduced tillage. Cropping systems were evaluated based on four broad categories, including provisioning (ie food production), regulating (ie water, air, and soil management), and supporting (ie biodiversity and soil health) ecosystem services, as well as socioeconomic well-being. These categories were subsequently broken down into nine assessments: soil health preservation, erosion control, biodiversity conservation, water and air pollution control, food production, income, work efficiency, and financial autonomy.

Organic farming significantly increased soil health preservation and erosion control when compared to intensively tilled conventional systems. These benefits were   primarily seen in the organic reduced tillage approach, highlighting the benefits of that practice. Researchers found that yields dropped from conventional to organic systems, although differences were seen between particular crops – with less pronounced disparities between legume crops compared to corn. Organic systems also resulted in higher income, due to the higher price organic products command in the marketplace.

In general, researchers see the greatest differences between the conventional intensive tillage and organic reduced tillage systems. Both of these cropping systems have pronounced trade-offs. High productivity is negatively associated with supporting services like soil health and biodiversity conservation. Supporting and regulating services, however, are strongly associated with each other. For example, good soil management interacts with greater soil diversity to foster improved soil health.

The study provides a tool (located here: https://apps.agroscope.info/sp/fast) for researchers and policymakers to employ to review how emphasis on different ecosystem services or economic factors effect the trade offs that result on the ground.

Scientists note that although there is a tradeoff between productivity and environmental benefits, focus has been traditionally placed on productivity because the hazards conventional agriculture poses to the environment are often not considered, and generally externalized to society at large. The authors note that policy changes can help fill this gap – explaining that direct payments to farmers can help compensate them for reductions in yield while other ecosystem services improve.

It is evident that agriculture that is solely focused on yield is unsustainable. While negatively impacting a range of environmental factors that can affect harvests in the long term, conventional chemical cropping systems nonetheless do not provide a better economic outlook for farmers.  

Past research shows that organic farming can help address economic insecurity, the climate crisis, and public health disparities. In organic hotspots, considered counties with high levels of organic agricultural activity whose neighboring counties also have high organic activity, median household incomes are $2,000 higher than average and poverty levels are lower on average by 1.3%.

Organic agriculture can and must feed the world. But it is also critical that organic standards maintain the beneficial practices that continue to protect ecosystems and the critical services that provide for humanity. Act today to tell USDA to ensure that organic farming protects native ecosystems.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Science Advances

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