What's missing in the yield gap debate between organic and conventional agriculture

March 22, 2022
Natalie Thorburn

In spite of this simple calculation, the proposal to allow the whole forest to be chopped down for wood would be unpopular at the very least, no matter how many jobs and how much of an economic boom could that bring: it is widely accepted that the forest provides many other services to the city, and focusing on exploiting just one would be unwise, unsustainable, and could end up with the city being wiped by a flood. A good forestal policy would be to establish a reforestation rate, with a maximum number of trees that can be cut each year, so that the city can have a lumber industry and a forest instead of ending up without a forest and, as a consequence of that in the long run, without a lumber industry either.


That is one of the arguments underlying a 2019 paper that provides an insightful discussion into the yield gap debate between proponents of organic and conventional agriculture. What this argument seeks to propose is that we, as a society, should reframe the role that yield has in agriculture: the main concern of agriculture is to provide food security, and an unsustainable system of producing food cannot be called better simply because its yields are higher. To draw from our example, the yields of a lumber industry without forestall regulations would indeed be higher, but at what cost? What is the cost of attaining higher yields in conventional agriculture, in terms of soil erosion, eutrophication, biodiversity loss, and increased greenhouse gas emissions? Organic agriculture, the authors observe, does a far better job in balancing the evident yield requirements of agriculture with the environmental requirements that will enable the next generations to feed themselves as well.


Adding to that, the authors also discuss the large variability that exists not only among studies presenting the extent of the yield gap (resulting in gap estimates that range between 9% and 25%) but also among individual cases of application of organic techniques and, especially, among regions. Organic Fertilizer could actually help increase agricultural yields in developing regions, providing, at the same time, higher resistance to changing climatic conditions and ensuring food security: a case registered in the paper notes, for example, how yields of organic corn and soybean were 37% and 52% larger than conventionally-planted corn and soybeans, under drought conditions. Our own studies in greenhouses in Qatar show that, under those specific conditions, organic methods can obtain 35%-40% higher yields with a reduction of 20% in input costs of soil fertilizers, water, and labor.


The case-effective nature of figures like this highlight, according to the authors, another problem with the yield gap debate as it stands now: it asks how and if organic agriculture can feed the world when half the world is already fed. We already produce enough food for thousands of millions of people over the current world population. The question would be: can it feed those who need it most? And the answer to that is a rotund yes.


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