Science Supporting the Environmental Benefits of Organic
Presented at The Organic Center's Organic Confluences Summit
On May 23, The Organic Center’s Organic Confluences Conference: A Summit to Turn Environmental Evidence into Policy Practice brought together scientists, policymakers, farmers and industry to connect research on the environmental benefits of organic farming practices with policy to improve the sustainability of U.S agriculture. Scientists from across the United States presented the latest research on how organic farming practices benefit soil health, water quality, biodiversity, and pollinators, and can contribute to climate change mitigation. Here are some of the highlights presented on each topic.
Soil health is the basis of our food system yet many farming practices deplete soil health. The amount of soil organic carbon is perhaps one of the most important parameters for measuring soil health. Soil with more organic matter is more stable and has improved aeration, water infiltration, water-holding capacity, and provides resilience against soil compaction. Soil organic matter also serves as a soil reserve for nutrients that compose the base of the soil food web.
Long-term research studies show that organic farming systems that utilize tillage can increase soil organic matter levels even when compared with conventional no-till methods to significantly improve soil health.
Non-point source contamination is a major water quality concern in agricultural regions where plant nutrients – especially nitrogen – are susceptible to leaching. The Organic Water Quality experiment at the Iowa State University Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Agronomy Research Farm, which compares transitioning organic and conventional crop rotations and pasture systems, has found that the organic farming systems consistently reduced nitrogen runoff, with conventionally farmed plots experiencing nearly twice as much nitrogen runoff than organic plots. These results suggest that adoption of organic farming practices can play a major role in improving water quality in agricultural areas.
The intensification of agriculture is one of the leading causes of biodiversity loss worldwide. Analysis of many data sets from studies conducted worldwide suggest that organic farming promotes the diversity of beneficial groups of animals such as pollinators and insect predators but has a negligible effect on the diversity of agricultural insect pests. Furthermore, by promoting diverse and abundant assemblages of beneficial organisms on farms, organic practices provide significant increases in profitability compared to conventional agriculture by reducing the need for pest control.
Global food security is highly dependent on pollination. Continued losses in honeybee stocks have increased food costs and compromised crop production, highlighting the importance of alternative, native pollinators that are threatened by agricultural intensification. Research has shown that organic farming methods that increase plant diversity such as planting a diversity of crops, planting hedgerows and utilizing cover crops lead to increased of farm pollination services and greater crop yield.
Climate Change Mitigation
Food production accounts for approximately 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is expected to increase as food production demands grow. Organic agriculture is well positioned to provide positive contributions to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the use of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides – the manufacturing of which comprises as much as 10% of direct global agricultural emissions. Furthermore, organic farming systems produce lower nitrous oxide emissions than conventional systems when calculated per acre. These results suggest that adoption of organic farming methods can contribute to climate change mitigation by reducing both direct and indirect sources of agricultural greenhouse gasses.
Did you know that you can support critical organic research?
Contact us to learn more.