Can organic ever catch up with conventional?

Most agronomists and farmers concede that organic crop yields are lower than conventional.

The debate usually centres on the size of the yield gap and whether organic agriculture, if properly supported with research and extension, could produce a sufficient volume of grains and oilseeds to feed the world.

Anecdotal reports and Twitter comments suggest the yield difference is approximately 20 to 30 percent, but studies supporting those figures are rarely referenced.

To get a sense of the yield difference, we contacted provincial crop insurers in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta and requested organic yield data.

• Manitoba data was pulled from the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corp. website.

• The Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp. provided extensive data on organic and conventional yields.

• AFSC, the crop insurer in Alberta, doesn’t provide insurance specific to organic crops.

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• Agricorp in Ontario has not responded yet to a data request.

The Manitoba and Saskatchewan data indicates the gap between organic and conventional yields is larger than 20 or 30 percent. Although organic yields are lower, farm income from organic production may be more than conventional because organic crop prices can be two or three times higher and input costs are lower.

Manitoba

Yields in Manitoba’s Red River Valley are typically higher than other regions. When provincial organic yields are compared to yields in western Manitoba, the yield gap is less. For instance, average HRSW yields in the RM of Dauphin were 40.7 bu. per acre between 2010-14. Organic HRSW yields for the same period, across Manitoba, were 19.5 bu, a difference of 20.2 bu.

MB-stats

Does variety matter?

Certain wheat varieties seem to perform better in organic systems. For example, organic farmers who grow HRSW Lillian get consistently higher yields than the Saskatchewan average for organic wheat, which is 20 bu./acre.

variety

Saskatchewan

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The yield gap between conventional and organic crops seems to expand in years with excellent growing conditions, such as 2013.

sask

Detailed data on organic yields for Saskatchewan can be found below:

sask HRSW.001 OATSorganicVSconventional.001 flaxSaskorganicVSconventional.001 ManitobaorganicVSconventional.001 DURUMorganicVSconventional.001

 

 

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  • richard

    I wonder if it ever occurred to the author that the most experienced organic growers have nothing to do with crop insurance. Unlike their conventional peers they have high equity to debt ratios and they dont require quasi subsidy programs to validate their practices. Furthermore its not how much you grow or even the unit value of what you produce……but rather how much sticks??? And the facts are well known amongst serious organic growers that three to five hundred dollars per acre net, are very common. Of course this flies in the face of the apocryphal innuendo on display here complete with cute graphics, but the fact remains you never hear an organic farmer complaining about the price of grain…… Get over it ok?

    • David Kucher

      Has it ever occured to the respondent the most experienced conventional growers also have nothing to do with crop insurance.

      • richard

        Great!…..Thank you for making my point. Using crop insurance data is a weak attempt at trying to propagate agribiz mythology around theoretical superiority of industrial agriculture…… Successful organic producers are laughing all the way to the bank….and a lot of people here really resent that fact….. …

  • ed

    This is a very interesting line of logic. It may look somewhat encouraging to those buried in the mythology of “conventional agriculture” as we refer to it these days but upon closer inspection it is a complete disaster that is leading to a state of misery and multiple malfunctions in our safe food systems. When you take the fixed costs and bare seed and fuel out of the equation, an organic producer could be producing 10-20 bushels of RSW for every let’s say $1 for simple math sake, ($0 really) of chemical herbicide, fungicide and fertilizer input costs. On the other hand a conventional farmer may be producing as little as 1/4 of a bushel of RSW / dollar of these same input costs. That make organic 40-80 times more productive in terms of unadulterated food volume alone. There are more bushels from conventional farm practice granted, but at a pretty pathetic cost in regards to the money and real terms damage as to how you get it. Organic matter, erosion and over all health of the soil are not considered and hugh amounts of cancer causing agents are applied and end up residing on the land and in the produce. The question should be, “Will conventional agriculture ever be as good as our organic production?”, and of course the answer is no. That does not mean however that what is now considered “conventional agriculture”, (a bit of an oxymoron perhaps) will not continue to invade the market place. It is after all the crack-cocaine of the industry. If it feels good and it is cheap and carries some kind of short term glamour, it is a very attractive option. It really is up to consumers here and if humans predominantly chose short term gain over the longer term pain of educating themselves about the perils of doing things the “easy way”, the chemical invasion will continue. It is all actually pretty simple, isn’t it?

    • Dean

      My take on the numbers are that conventional will feed the world, where as organic will only feed the niche market that exists for it. A niche market inherently achieve a higher value per unit of production. If everyone switched to an organic production system, then yes the cost of food to the consumer would go up, but also the price to the producer would also go down since organic would no longer be a niche market. The argument still comes down to can you produce enough food to feed the world with an organic purification system? And the pretty graphs above say no. As far as the relevance of the data set used, it’s the largest that any researcher can get their hands on and covers the largest amount of producers possible, so it can be thought as relevant in my mind. I’m actually surprised that the organic levels were as high as they show.

      • Charley33

        No, those graphs say the same thing they have always said: there is more than enough food for the world’s people, if only a great many of them weren’t too poor to buy it.

        • Dean

          and there would be even more people that couldn’t afford to eat if we switched to an organic only cropping system. Simple economics, less Supply with same demand equals higher cost per unit of food. Force the organic cropping system and starve the poor. The world wants cheap, ample and safe food, and a conventional cropping system gives them that.

          • ed

            You just said (above) that with less supply (if we had only organic) the price would go down because it would not be a niche market anymore. Then later (just above) you switched to say. “It is simple economics, less supply with same demand equals higher cost per unit of food.” It can not be both and it may not be near as simple as you say. It is not the organic farmer that is starving people or poisoning them or anything else. It is a total lack of good will from predominantly the rich and powerful or in power people that is doing that. Proudly organic farmers don’t fit into those categories. Most conventional farmers do not either but sadly their proponent middle men and their masters do.

          • Dean

            Still is simple economics. A niche market allows the producer to extract a higher margin per unit produced through higher prices. Whereas if organic becomes simply a commodity, Supply of organic only would increase and drive down the ability to extract margin from the consumer. In turn the amount of food produced would decrease on a whole and price to the consumer would increase to that of a conventional farming supplied industry. So in short price an organic producer will receive will drop when the organic produced food goes from being a niche market to that of a mainstream commodity. In turn the general price of food will go up with the decrease in total production.

        • Guest

          Right on with that fact Charley.

  • Tyler

    They never took into account that organic is usually summerfallowed every third year which means comparing acre to acre with conventional reduces the organic yield by another third.

    • David Kucher

      Every 3rd year? I thought it was every 2nd. Dropping total production to a faminous 1/4th of conventional. Better start clear-cutting forests and draining wetlands to make up the difference.

      • ed

        World population growth is for the most part in most species including mankind directly related to the availability of very cheap food. The farther below the cost of producing it is produce in vast volumes, the faster the population grows. The faster the population grows, the sooner the rain forests and wet land will be gone. Farmers responsibilities ‘do not’ really include growing the population of the earth as fast as possible. Farmers responsibilities ‘do’ on the other hand include increasing their net income to as high above the cost of production as possible to ensure that they and a percentage of their children are still here to produce “some” more produce tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. Organic producers are fulfilling those responsibilities for the most part while conventional farmers are not. If we don’t change the way the conventional agriculture is working, population growth and those people’s stomachs and will to live will demand that the forests are all clear cut and the wet lands are all drained long before the human population “die back” occurs. This “die off” will be induced by that very destruction of global environment and the vast reduction of food production capacity associated with this destruction. At that point and perhaps as early as now, if more wisdom is not applied here, there is nothing that you, me or the grace of God is going to do about it.

  • P_B

    If organic producers would be looking at the capabilities of RTK technology in cropping systems, they may be able to do better. Looks like it would pay for itself pretty quickly based on these yield numbers.

  • Dayton

    Was at a land sale last fall. Conventional farmers where sitting on their hands if they even showed up. Majority of the land was bought by Cattlemen and Organic farmers. What does that tell you?

    • kd

      it wasn’t great land.

    • Dean

      Tells me that it was poor land. Cattle guy isn’t going to buy good land to grass and graze. More than likely sand and rocks.

      • Dayton

        Well, Peas. Flax and Wheat are growing on that clayloam now.

  • Terry

    To go by crop insurance data is a joke. Crop insurance is so far behind on their knowledge and data in organic farming on price and yield. Organic farmers are farmers too and we use crop insurance because we have to to get out banks onside and to be able to participate in the other Ag programs. All we need to do is look at the small farms in other parts of the world. Less waste and definitely less overhead . This model of bigger is better begs the question better go who?

  • Dayton

    Is there an advantage to growing a glut of grain for less profit? I suppose an input supplier and equpt. sales person would say yes. So Brown Flax is $37 a bu. today. Do the math…..

  • Happy Farmer

    Here we go again? Organic bashing conventional, conventional bashing organic. Each of us that farms is doing what we see as the best for us to make a living. Our opinions should pertain to our operations and not be of a political nature where we talk how the “other” farmer is doing it wrong. I can’t see myself farming organically due to the evidence in my area, but as I said, I will not speak against organic farmers that are farming the way they want to. My area has had dry spells over the years and int these years crops that have little or not inputs are basically total write-offs. My Grandfather farmed with little or no inputs and talked about some dry years when there was nothing to harvest. Over the years our farm has started with small use of inputs and increased and we are seeing yields steadily improve. Two years ago I had 6.5″ of rain the entire growing season and yields were among the best I have ever seen for our farm. IMHO if I had been using tillage with no inputs I would have had a complete crop failure that year. While there is a growing vocal segment of people in the world calling for organic food the scientific evidence is not proving to me that either way, organic or conventional is producing a better or poorer product. So farm the way you want, enjoy it and don’t bash anyone farming differently than you, after all, we all want to make a living.

    • Charley33

      You know that “no inputs” doesn’t include water? Organic farmers can irrigate just the same as anyone if they have the money and the resources are available. Even those organic farmers with access to water often choose not to.

      Applying fertilizer, assuming that is the main “input” you’re talking about, requires the addition of much water. So were your yields about the inputs or the water you applied? How could you even tell?

      We know that applying fertilizer will boost yields, but we also know that we don’t include the real costs of climate change in anything; once we do (and we will…), your costs will begin to increase dramatically and it will not seem like such a good idea. In other words, your expectation of a “normal yield” is greatly inflated to being with.

      Organic farmers try to grow varieties that have sufficient genetic variation so that some plants will exhibit drought-tolerance; good ones select from these and have a store of suitable seeds for years in which lean water supplies are predictable. Tell me, do organic farmers in your area have ready access to good seeds, or do they have to rely on the conventional-industrial suppliers for their varieties? Do you think Monsanto and Dow, for two examples, see greater profits in pesticide-free, low-maintenance varieties or in their “crop systems” which come complete with an agronomist? So, what accounts for the low yields or supposedly poor performance of organic in bad years? Is it farming organically itself, or, and I think this far more likely, is it that Big Agribiz are trying to protect their profits?

      • Happy Farmer

        The inputs I refer to are all inclusive from herbicides, fertilizers and pesticides. I did not mean to refer to water as an input, and I don’t irrigate my crops. How to tell what influences yields, leave a strip with no inputs and see how it compares(it doesn’t, sorry).

        Climate change? Its been around for thousands of years. We have farmed with conventional tillage and no inputs, with conventional tillage and more inputs, and now we are zero till with inputs. Which has the least effect on the environment? Number and data crunchers can prove this one any way they chose to. My land is in better shape now with zero tillage than it was with tillage.

        Do I think Big Agribiz is trying to protect their profits, absolutely. But, so am I and so are you trying to protect profits as well.

        I can’t answer your question regarding organic producers and their seed acquisition. I have seen their fields and don’t want mine looking like that. I also can tell say that in my area the yield differential between conventional and organics is a lot bigger than what the original article suggests.

    • ed

      They said that in ancient Egypt and they were wrong. They did the go big or go home thing. The track record is not good on that type of behavior. We are down to 1/4 of an acre of good arable land per person on the planet and destroying and permanently losing top soil at a rate that is the fastest than any time in the history of man. and some suggest to do what you want. Enjoy it while you can people, because the tipping point is getting smaller in your rear view mirror now. Steroid farming can only last so long. Land, like a racing tire, can’t keep up with demands that are placed on it as it wears out. It is time to switch it up and slow it down. Better before the crash rather than after.

  • Newellsfarm

    Maybe the way to measure the difference between any two farming systems is”calories of energy in v.s. calories produced”

  • An interesting article. But we cannot even begin to begin to compare organic to conventional yields until the following two factors are taken into account:

    Fraud in the organic industry, made possible by the lack of field testing

    The fact that organic farmers benefit from all of the conventional pest control being carried out around them by conventional farmers.