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Mar 312008

By John DeFore

Organic farming may sometimes be seen in the mainstream as a kind of boutique industry, producing small yields in comparison to the modern efficiency of industrial agriculture. New research published in Agronomy Journal, though, challenges that perception, finding that organic systems can be equal or very nearly equal to their conventional counterparts.

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted the study. Over 13 years, they compared six farming approaches — “ranging from diverse, organic systems to less diverse conventional systems” — at two Wisconsin sites.

In that time, certain types of crops known as forage crops, used to feed livestock, yielded “both as much dry matter as their conventional counterparts and … quality sufficient to produce as much milk” from dairy cows. Other crops, like corn and soybeans, averaged 90% of the conventional yield.

In the latter cases, organic weed control was a large factor: Organic yields in some years were as low as 74% of their conventional or chemically-enhanced counterparts, owing to wet weather and the effectiveness of mechanical weed control techniques; in other years, the comparative yield was 99%.

The study focused on harvested crops, not on farming techniques’ impact on the soil itself. Some organic advocates might assert that their methods enrich soil in ways that, over the long haul, would actually lead to better yields than their competitors; on the other hand, the effect of that enrichment might already be showing up in the university’s findings.

For more information on how organic farming methods may be producing not just comparable yields, but better quality fruits, veggies and grains, see the Organic Center’s new report State of Science Review: The Nutritional Superiority of Organic Foods. Yes, the center exists to promote organic farming, but the non-profit aims to produce “credible, peer reviewed scientific information.” It’s board consists of academics, organic industry representatives and its technical advisory group members include wellness guru Dr. Andrew Weil and well-known pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene.

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