Organic contributes more than yield: Reframing the yield gap debate between conventional and organic production

Photo Credit: Jessica Ruscello

The question of whether organic farming can feed the world has fueled many studies that calculate ratios of conventional to organic yield to measure how organic production compares to the conventional benchmark. Authors of a recent study published in the journal Agronomy suggest that these yield gap calculations focus on the wrong question. Asking whether organic can feed the world is not the right approach given that organic agriculture currently accounts for only 1.2 percent of worldwide agricultural land. Instead, the question should be, “How and how much can organic methods contribute to feeding the world?”

Directly comparing conventional and organic yields makes a false assumption that these farming systems have the same goals and values, which they do not. The conventional approach maximizes the production of food, fiber and fuel with the goal of meeting the demand of population growth. This strategy is most successful in areas where industrialized practices can be used. On the other hand, organic farming tries to balance yield with other values to conserve natural resources, and can be particularly important in providing food security and self-sufficiency for farmers and local communities. In this sense, comparing conventional to organic yield is like comparing apples to oranges. Organic agriculture cannot be judged solely on yield, because it is not the only standard of the organic farming system.

The authors present a new model that accounts for the different goals of organic and conventional farming. They argue that the maximum yield achievable in the organic system has to lie somewhere below the conventional maximum if the natural environment is not exploited. Future research to measure how a given organic farm is performing should not be to compare the organic farm to its conventional counterpart, but rather focus on being a new, ecologically sustainable benchmark within the organic paradigm.