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(40,394 posts)
Tue May 15, 2012, 11:44 AM May 2012

The War Between Organic and Conventional Farming Misses the Point


The War Between Organic and Conventional Farming Misses the Point
By Ari LeVaux
May 14 2012, 3:28 PM ET 2

The real dispute is over valid but competing priorities.

On April 23, the science journal Nature published a paper titled "Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture," by Verena Seufert et al. The mainstream press waded into the paper's implications but had a hard time packaging them in a headline. CNN announced "Organic yields 25% lower than conventional farming," while the Los Angeles Times proclaimed "Organic Farming, carefully done, can be efficient."

Pundits have used the paper to support contrary arguments in the ongoing debates about organic agriculture. Such cherry-picking isn't a huge surprise, given the issue's divisiveness, said co-author Dr. Navin Ramankutty of McGill University.

"We made everyone equally unhappy," he told me by phone.

The paper is a meta-analysis of previous studies comparing organic and conventional agriculture, and purports to be the second of its kind. The first, by another team in 2007, concluded that organic agriculture could outperform conventional agriculture, but parts of that study's methodology were criticized. Seufert et al. took those criticisms into account, hoping to avoid similar challenges, and considered 66 studies that compared the yields of 344 different crops. In this sample, conventional techniques outperformed organic methods in terms of overall yield. In some circumstances, and with some crops, the difference is statistically insignificant. There are counterexamples as well.

Yield alone, the team writes, is "...only part of a range of economic, social and environmental factors that should be considered when gauging the benefits of different farming systems."

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