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Soybean production systems were also highly productive, achieving 40 bushels/acre. In 1999 however, during one of the worst droughts on record, yields of organic soybeans were 30 bushels /acre, compared to only 16 bushels/acre from conventionally- grown soybeans (Rodale Institute, 1999). "Our trials show that improving the quality of the soil through organic practices can mean the difference between a harvest or hardship in times of drought" writes Jeff Moyer, farm manager at The Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania (Rodale Institute, 1999). He continues, "over time, organic practices encourage the soil to hold on to moisture more efficiently than conventionally managed soil." The higher content of organic matter also makes organic soil less compact so that root systems can penetrate more deeply to find moisture. These results highlight the importance of organic farming methods and their potential to avert future crop failures both in the US and in the rest of the world.

  • Broadbalk experiment at the Rothamsted Experimental Station, UK

One of the longest running agricultural trials on record (more than 150 years) is the Broadbalk experiment at the Rothamsted Experimental Station in the United Kingdom. The trials compare a manure based fertilizer farming system (but not certified organic) to a synthetic chemical fertilizer farming system. Wheat yields are shown to be on average slightly higher in the organically fertilized plots (3.45 tones/hectare) than the plots receiving chemical fertilizers (3.40 tones/hectare). More importantly though, soil fertility, measured as soil organic matter and nitrogen levels, increased by 120% over 150 years in the organic plots, compared with only 20% increase in chemically fertilized plots (Jenkinson, 1994).

  • Organic grain and soybean production in the Midwestern United States

A comprehensive review of a large number of comparison studies of grain and soybean production conduct by six Midwestern universities since 1978 found that in all of these studies organic production was equivalent to, and in many cases better than, conventional (Welsh, 1999). Organic systems had higher yields than conventional systems which featured continuous crop production (no rotations) and equal or lower yields in conventional systems that included crop rotations. In the drier climates such as the Great Plains, organic systems had higher yields, as they tend to be better during droughts than conventional systems. In one such study in South Dakota for the period 1986-1992, the average yields of soybeans were 29.6 bushels/acre and 28.6 bushels/acre in the organic and conventional systems respectively. In the same study, average spring wheat yields were 41.5 bushels/acre and 39.5 bushels/acre in the organic and conventional systems respectively.

When comparing the profitability of farming systems, the study found that organic cropping systems were always more profitable than the most common conventional cropping systems if the higher premiums that organic crops enjoy were factored in. When the higher premiums were not factored in, the organic systems were still more productive and profitable in three of the six studies. This was attributed to lower production costs and the ability of organic systems to outperform conventional in drier areas, or during drier periods.
The author of the report remarked: "What is most surprising is how well the organic systems performed despite the minimal amount of research that traditional agricultural research institutions have devoted to them." (Welsh, 1999).

  • Comparison of conventional and organic farms in California.

Lastly, a study which compared ecological characteristics and productivity of 20 commercial farms in the Central Valley of California gives us a better understanding of how a conversion to organic would fare in a commercial farm setting.

The farms compared had a fresh market tomato production. Tomato yields were shown to be quite similar in organic and conventional farms (Drinkwater, 1995). Insect pest damage was also comparable in both cases of organic and conventional farms. However, significant differences were found in soil health indicators such as nitrogen mineralization potential and microbial abundance and diversity which were higher in the organic farms. Nitrogen mineralization potential was three times greater in organic compared to conventional fields. The organic fields also had 28% more organic carbon. The increased soil health in the organic farms resulted in considerably lower disease incidence. Severity of the most prevalent disease in the study, tomato corky root disease, was found to be significantly lower in the organic farms (Drinkwater, 1995).

Can we afford not to go Organic?
From the studies mentioned above and from an increasing body of case studies, it is becoming evident that organic farming does not result in neither catastrophic crop losses due to pests nor in dramatically reduced yields as many critics from agribusiness and in academia would have us believe. A report from UC Davis predicted a 36% reduction in tomato yields in California if conventional insecticides and fungicides were eliminated (Agricultural Issues Center 1988).

On the contrary, organic farming systems have proven that they can prevent crop loss to pests without any synthetic pesticides. They are able to maintain high yields, comparable to conventional agriculture without any of the associated external costs to society. Furthermore, organic and agroecological farming methods continually increase soil fertility and prevent loss of topsoil to erosion, while conventional methods have the opposite effect. In the end, only a conversion to organic farming will allow us to maintain and even increase current crop yields.

The ability of organic agriculture to produce comparable yields is particularly significant, considering that limited research has been conducted in land-grant universities to optimize cultural practices or select for suitable crop genetic traits in organic farming systems. It is becoming imperative that we move away from organic versus conventional systems comparisons, to research into ways ofimproving organic farming methods.

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