The most infamous fact about organic food is that it’s expensive—about 47% more expensive, according to a recent analysis from Consumer Reports. But a new review study published in Nature Plants analyzed everything research currently knows about organic farming versus the conventional kind and found that organic offers a lot of good that outweighs its sticker shock.
When organic farming first began, it was derided as an idealistic and inefficient way of feeding people. Not surprisingly, there was little research about it. “There were just a couple handfuls of studies back in the ‘80s,” says John Reganold, professor of soil science and agroecology at Washington State University and co-author of the new study. Reganold has been studying organic agriculture for more than 30 years. “At the turn of the century, it just skyrocketed, and now there are probably at least 1,000 studies,” he says.
Reganold analyzed 40 years of available data and focused on how organic farming impacts several types of sustainability: productivity, impact on the environment, economic viability and social wellbeing.
“If I had to put it in one sentence, organic agriculture has been able to provide jobs, be profitable, benefit the soil and environment and support social interactions between farmers and consumers,” Reganold says. “In some ways, there are practices in organic agriculture that really are ideal blueprints for us to look at feeding the world in the future.”
Organic may even be our best bet to help feed the world in an increasingly volatile climate, he says.
At first, this might sound unlikely, given that the crop yields of organic agriculture are typically 10-20% lower than conventional. That’s because conventional growers can use synthetic fertilizers, most of which aren’t allowed in organic food production. “When farmers add fertilizers, those nutrients are immediately available to the plant, and the plants can grow faster,” Reganold explains. Organic crops, on the other hand, are fertilized by organic matter like compost or animal manure, which takes more time to decompose and release its nutrients. (This slow, steady approach is called building the soil.)
But Reganold found one scenario where the research shows that organic yields are consistently greater than conventional: during periods of drought. Organic soil is built up with organic material, which can hold onto water, he says. That means that by the time a farmer plants and grows a crop, the plant has access to more water, so yields increase. For every inch of rainwater soaked up by soil, a plant can produce another 7-8 bushels of wheat, Reganold says.
Organic farming typically uses less energy, too. “When you look at ecosystem services, organic agriculture really shines,” he says. “The value they bring in areas like biodiversity, pollination, soil quality—if you were to put an economic value on those, and some researchers have, then it more than makes up for the higher price or price premium of organic food.”
A 2015 meta-analysis about the economics of organic farming, published in the journal PNAS, even determined that organic farming is more profitable than conventional, earning farmers 22% to 35% more money. They determined that the organic price premium (which was around 30% in the study) only had to be about 5% for organic profits to break even with conventional.
There's a lot left to learn about organic food, including whether or not it's healthier than conventional in a meaningful way. The latest study points out that of the 15 or so scientific reviews focusing on nutrition, 12 studies have found evidence that organic is more nutritious than conventional by having more vitamin C, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. Other studies indicate that children who eat organic foods have lower levels of pesticide metabolites in their bodies than those who eat conventional.
The popularity of organic food is growing fast. Back in 1997, less than 1% of the food and beverage market was organic, and now it's 5%, Reganold says. But organic faces several setbacks. "We have policies that support the more conventional model," Reganold says, along with a relative dearth in research about organic agriculture.
"The challenge facing policymakers is to create an enabling environment for scaling-up organic and other innovative farming systems to move towards truly sustainable production systems," the study concludes. "This is no small task, but the con- sequences for food and ecosystem security could not be bigger."