Thursday, May 22, 2008

U of I's Dan Anderson on recent research about the benefits of organic agriculture

Recent research on the benefits of organic agriculture

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As sales of organic food increase from one year to the next, it is clear that American consumers feel good about organic farming. And the wide variety of organic products available indicates we’ve come a long way since the days of hippie farmers. But questions about organic agriculture linger—is it really better for people and the environment? And does it represent a realistic alternative to the conventional systems developed over the course of the 20th century?

I attended a talk last week by Dan Anderson, who’s a research specialist in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the U of I and Chair of the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Committee. In his talk, Anderson addressed three questions that are often raised about organic agriculture, with reference to recent studies that lend support to the good feelings people have about organic production with university research.

The first question Anderson addressed was whether organic food promotes human health. The answer to this is “yes,” at least in one significant respect. Researchers who studied the content of certain cancer-fighting compounds in tomatoes over a ten year period found significantly higher concentrations in those that were produced organically.*

The second question Anderson addressed was whether organic agriculture is less productive than conventional farming, which is an important consideration given the pressure worldwide to convert more and more land to human use. He answered this question with reference to a paper that brings together information from recent studies of corn, soybeans, wheat and tomatoes. In each of the studies cited, the productivity of organic systems was comparable to that of conventional systems—no lower than 94 % in any case. ** Anderson emphasized that this level of productivity in organic agriculture has been achieved with only miniscule support for research, noting that less than 1% of agricultural research funding goes to work on organic practices.

The third question Anderson addressed was how organic agriculture benefits the environment. In response he cited studies that show organic farms support a greater diversity of pollinators than conventional farms, which is especially important now, as both honeybees and wild bees that are native to North America seem to be in steep decline. Anderson also noted that organic production does not pollute waterways in the same manner as conventional production, and cited other studies showing that organic agriculture uses less energy per unit of output than conventional production, so it has a smaller carbon footprint.***

Despite all of the benefits he cited, Anderson does not envision organic agriculture replacing conventional farming practices altogether in the United States any time soon. He noted that while it is possible to grow row crops organically using all of the same equipment used in conventional farming, the change is not so easy when it comes to producing fruits and vegetables. That’s because producing fruits and vegetables by organic methods currently requires much more human labor than conventional methods.

You can link to video of the talk referred to here via the website of the Waste Management Research Center, which hosted it, at

You can learn more about support for organic agriculture at the U of I beginning at the home page for the Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture Program.

A forum conducted by the Illinois Local and Organic Food and Farm Task Force regarding the food system in Illinois will take place this Wednesday, May 28, 2008, from 7:00 – 9:00 P.M. at the Urbana Civic Center. The public is invited to hear from experts on the panel and to voice their interests and concerns for inclusion in a report that will be delivered to the Illinois General Assembly later this year. For more information about the forum, please contact Lisa Bralts at (217) 384-2319 or at .

References from Dan Anderson's talk:

* 2007. A. E. Mitchell, Yun-JeongHong, EunmiKoh, D. M. Barrett, D. E.Bryant, R. Ford Denison, and S. Kaffka. Ten-Year Comparison of the Influence of Organic and Conventional Crop Management Practices on the Content of Flavonoids in Tomatoes. J. of Agric. and Food Chem. American Chemical Soc.

** 2001. Bill Liebhardt. Get the facts straight: organic agriculture yields are good. OFRF Information Bulletin, Summer 2001, #10.

2008. J.L. Posner, J.O. Baldockand J.L. Hedtcke. Organic and Conventional Production Systems in the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trials: I. Productivity 1990–2002. Agron Journal, 100: 253.

*** 2008. Holzschuh A., Steffan-DewenterI., Tscharntke T. Agricultural landscapes with organic crops support higher pollinator diversity. Oikos. 117: 354-361.

2008. Rundolf M., Nilsson H., Smith H. Interaction effects of farming practice and landscape context on bumble bees. Biological Conservation 141: 417-26.

2007. Ziesemer, Jodi. Energy Use in Organic Food Systems. Natural Resources Management and Environment Department Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.