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Concept: Agroecology


Organic agriculture is proposed as a promising approach to achieving sustainable food systems, but its feasibility is also contested. We use a food systems model that addresses agronomic characteristics of organic agriculture to analyze the role that organic agriculture could play in sustainable food systems. Here we show that a 100% conversion to organic agriculture needs more land than conventional agriculture but reduces N-surplus and pesticide use. However, in combination with reductions of food wastage and food-competing feed from arable land, with correspondingly reduced production and consumption of animal products, land use under organic agriculture remains below the reference scenario. Other indicators such as greenhouse gas emissions also improve, but adequate nitrogen supply is challenging. Besides focusing on production, sustainable food systems need to address waste, crop-grass-livestock interdependencies and human consumption. None of the corresponding strategies needs full implementation and their combined partial implementation delivers a more sustainable food future.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Agriculture, Organic farming, Natural gas, Sustainable agriculture, Greenhouse gas, Agroecology, Permaculture


Numerous reports have emphasized the need for major changes in the global food system: agriculture must meet the twin challenge of feeding a growing population, with rising demand for meat and high-calorie diets, while simultaneously minimizing its global environmental impacts. Organic farming—a system aimed at producing food with minimal harm to ecosystems, animals or humans—is often proposed as a solution. However, critics argue that organic agriculture may have lower yields and would therefore need more land to produce the same amount of food as conventional farms, resulting in more widespread deforestation and biodiversity loss, and thus undermining the environmental benefits of organic practices. Here we use a comprehensive meta-analysis to examine the relative yield performance of organic and conventional farming systems globally. Our analysis of available data shows that, overall, organic yields are typically lower than conventional yields. But these yield differences are highly contextual, depending on system and site characteristics, and range from 5% lower organic yields (rain-fed legumes and perennials on weak-acidic to weak-alkaline soils), 13% lower yields (when best organic practices are used), to 34% lower yields (when the conventional and organic systems are most comparable). Under certain conditions—that is, with good management practices, particular crop types and growing conditions—organic systems can thus nearly match conventional yields, whereas under others it at present cannot. To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Agriculture, Organic farming, Sustainable agriculture, Green Revolution, Crop rotation, Agroecology, Industrial agriculture


There has been growing policy interest in social justice issues related to both health and food. We sought to understand the state of knowledge on relationships between health equity-i.e. health inequalities that are socially produced-and food systems, where the concepts of ‘food security’ and ‘food sovereignty’ are prominent. We undertook exploratory scoping and mapping stages of a ‘meta-narrative synthesis’ on pathways from global food systems to health equity outcomes. The review was oriented by a conceptual framework delineating eight pathways to health (in)equity through the food system: 1-Multi-Scalar Environmental, Social Context; 2-Occupational Exposures; 3-Environmental Change; 4-Traditional Livelihoods, Cultural Continuity; 5-Intake of Contaminants; 6-Nutrition; 7-Social Determinants of Health and 8-Political, Economic and Regulatory context. The terms ‘food security’ and ‘food sovereignty’ were, respectively, paired with a series of health equity-related terms. Combinations of health equity and food security (1414 citations) greatly outnumbered pairings with food sovereignty (18 citations). Prominent crosscutting themes that were observed included climate change, biotechnology, gender, racialization, indigeneity, poverty, citizenship and HIV as well as institutional barriers to reducing health inequities in the food system. The literature indicates that food sovereignty-based approaches to health in specific contexts, such as advancing healthy school food systems, promoting soil fertility, gender equity and nutrition, and addressing structural racism, can complement the longer-term socio-political restructuring processes that health equity requires. Our conceptual model offers a useful starting point for identifying interventions with strong potential to promote health equity. A research agenda to explore project-based interventions in the food system along these pathways can support the identification of ways to strengthen both food sovereignty and health equity.

Concepts: Agriculture, Health disparities, Nutrition, Economics, Concept, Population health, Food security, Agroecology


Land area devoted to organic agriculture has increased steadily over the last 20 years in the United States, and elsewhere around the world. A primary criticism of organic agriculture is lower yield compared to non-organic systems. Previous analyses documenting the yield deficiency in organic production have relied mostly on data generated under experimental conditions, but these studies do not necessarily reflect the full range of innovation or practical limitations that are part of commercial agriculture. The analysis we present here offers a new perspective, based on organic yield data collected from over 10,000 organic farmers representing nearly 800,000 hectares of organic farmland. We used publicly available data from the United States Department of Agriculture to estimate yield differences between organic and conventional production methods for the 2014 production year. Similar to previous work, organic crop yields in our analysis were lower than conventional crop yields for most crops. Averaged across all crops, organic yield averaged 80% of conventional yield. However, several crops had no significant difference in yields between organic and conventional production, and organic yields surpassed conventional yields for some hay crops. The organic to conventional yield ratio varied widely among crops, and in some cases, among locations within a crop. For soybean (Glycine max) and potato (Solanum tuberosum), organic yield was more similar to conventional yield in states where conventional yield was greatest. The opposite trend was observed for barley (Hordeum vulgare), wheat (Triticum aestevum), and hay crops, however, suggesting the geographical yield potential has an inconsistent effect on the organic yield gap.

Concepts: Agriculture, United States, Wheat, Soybean, Organic farming, Crops, Crop rotation, Agroecology


The beneficial use of silver nanoparticles (AgNPs) in agroecosystems is not fully explored with partial information available, of which most of the studies are limited to laboratory conditions and only few involve natural ecosystems. AgNPs, being the most popular metallic nanoparticles exhibiting antimicrobial property, are predominantly used for plant disease management. Owing to the ill hazards of chemically synthesized AgNPs, their biosynthesis using environment-friendly biomolecules is gaining noteworthy attention. In addition, considering the advantages of nanoformulations over biopesticides, there is no doubt that biosynthesized AgNP-based biopesticides could revolutionize the agricultural sector in the future. Though enhanced commercial use of AgNPs has generated biosafety issues in modern scenario but expecting their significant contribution towards agricultural sector, it is too early to predict the risk factor associated with their usage. To unveil the toxicity factor of AgNPs, we need to focus and understand the major interactions of AgNPs in agroecosytems. Hence, the present review highlights (i) the potential application of AgNPs in the agricultural sector particularly for plant disease management, (ii) significance of biosynthesized AgNPs using microbes and plants over their chemical synthesis, (iii) major interactions of AgNPs in agroecosystems (with soil, soil biota, and plants) with emphasis to deal with toxicity-determining factors, and (iv) identifying future research work holding promising applications of biosynthesized AgNPs in agroecosystems.

Concepts: Present, Biodiversity, Agriculture, Future, Chemistry, Ecosystem, Chemical synthesis, Agroecology


The US food system functions within a complex nexus of social, political, economic, cultural, and ecological factors. Among them are many dynamic pressures such as population growth, urbanization, socioeconomic inequities, climate disruption, and the increasing demand for resource-intensive foods that place immense strains on public health and the environment. This review focuses on the role that policy plays in defining the food system, particularly with regard to agriculture. It further examines the challenges of making the food supply safe, nutritious, and sustainable, while respecting the rights of all people to have access to adequate food and to attain the highest standard of health. We conclude that the present US food system is largely unhealthy, inequitable, environmentally damaging, and insufficiently resilient to endure the impacts of climate change, resource depletion, and population increases, and is therefore unsustainable. Thus, it is imperative that the US embraces policy reforms to transform the food system into one that supports public health and reflects the principles of human rights and agroecology for the benefit of current and future generations.

Concepts: Health, Agriculture, Nutrition, Ecology, Natural environment, Sustainability, World population, Agroecology


To promote global food and ecosystem security, several innovative farming systems have been identified that better balance multiple sustainability goals. The most rapidly growing and contentious of these systems is organic agriculture. Whether organic agriculture can continue to expand will likely be determined by whether it is economically competitive with conventional agriculture. Here, we examined the financial performance of organic and conventional agriculture by conducting a meta-analysis of a global dataset spanning 55 crops grown on five continents. When organic premiums were not applied, benefit/cost ratios (-8 to -7%) and net present values (-27 to -23%) of organic agriculture were significantly lower than conventional agriculture. However, when actual premiums were applied, organic agriculture was significantly more profitable (22-35%) and had higher benefit/cost ratios (20-24%) than conventional agriculture. Although premiums were 29-32%, breakeven premiums necessary for organic profits to match conventional profits were only 5-7%, even with organic yields being 10-18% lower. Total costs were not significantly different, but labor costs were significantly higher (7-13%) with organic farming practices. Studies in our meta-analysis accounted for neither environmental costs (negative externalities) nor ecosystem services from good farming practices, which likely favor organic agriculture. With only 1% of the global agricultural land in organic production, our findings suggest that organic agriculture can continue to expand even if premiums decline. Furthermore, with their multiple sustainability benefits, organic farming systems can contribute a larger share in feeding the world.

Concepts: Agriculture, Organic farming, Sustainable agriculture, Crop rotation, Agroecology, Industrial agriculture, Permaculture, Wildculture


Organic farming (OF) has been believed to be capable of curtailing some hazardous effects associated with chemical farming (CF). However, debates also exist on whether OF can feed a world with increasing human population. We hypothesized that some improvements on OF may produce adequate crops and reduce environmental pollutions from CF. This paper makes comparative analysis of crop yield, soil organic matter and economic benefits within the practice on Biodiversity Management of Organic Farming (BMOF) at Hongyi Organic Farm (HOF) over eight years and between BMOF and CF. Linking crop production with livestock to maximal uses of by-products from each production and avoid xenobiotic chemicals, we have achieved beneficial improvement in soil properties, effective pest and weed control, and increased crop yields. After eight years experiment, we have obtained a gradual but stable increase in crop yields with a 9.6-fold increase of net income. The net income of HOF was 258,827 dollars and 24,423 dollars in 2014 and 2007 respectively. Thus, BMOF can not only feed more population, but also increase adaptive capacity of agriculture ecosystems and gain much higher economic benefits.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Agriculture, Soil, Organic farming, Sustainability, Yield, Crop rotation, Agroecology


A major challenge for agriculture is to enhance productivity with minimum impact on the environment. Several studies indicate that cover crops could replace anthropogenic inputs and enhance crop productivity. However, so far, it is unclear if cover crop effects vary between different cropping systems, and direct comparisons among major arable production systems are rare. Here we compared the short-term effects of various cover crops on crop yield, nitrogen uptake, and weed infestation in four arable production systems (conventional cropping with intensive tillage and no-tillage; organic cropping with intensive tillage and reduced tillage). We hypothesized that cover cropping effects increase with decreasing management intensity. Our study demonstrated that cover crop effects on crop yield were highest in the organic system with reduced tillage (+24%), intermediate in the organic system with tillage (+13%) and in the conventional system with no tillage (+8%) and lowest in the conventional system with tillage (+2%). Our results indicate that cover crops are essential to maintaining a certain yield level when soil tillage intensity is reduced (e.g. under conservation agriculture), or when production is converted to organic agriculture. Thus, the inclusion of cover crops provides additional opportunities to increase the yield of lower intensity production systems and contribute to ecological intensification.

Concepts: Agriculture, Nitrogen, Crops, Agroecology, Green manure, Tillage, Agricultural soil science, Cover crop


Conservation biologists are devoting an increasing amount of energy to debating whether land sparing (high-yielding agriculture on a small land footprint) or land sharing (low-yielding, wildlife-friendly agriculture on a larger land footprint) will promote better outcomes for local and global biodiversity. In turn, concerns are mounting about how to feed the world, given increasing demands for food. In this review, I evaluate the land-sparing/land-sharing framework-does the framework stimulate research and policy that can reconcile agricultural land use with biodiversity conservation, or is a revised framing needed? I review (1) the ecological evidence in favor of sparing versus sharing; (2) the evidence from land-use change studies that assesses whether a relationship exists between agricultural intensification and land sparing; and (3) how that relationship may be affected by socioeconomic and political factors. To address the trade-off between biodiversity conservation and food production, I then ask which forms of agricultural intensification can best feed the world now and in the future. On the basis of my review, I suggest that the dichotomy of the land-sparing/land-sharing framework limits the realm of future possibilities to two, largely undesirable, options for conservation. Both large, protected regions and favorable surrounding matrices are needed to promote biodiversity conservation; they work synergistically and are not mutually exclusive. A “both-and” framing of large protected areas surrounded by a wildlife-friendly matrix suggests different research priorities from the “either-or” framing of sparing versus sharing. Furthermore, wildlife-friendly farming methods such as agroecology may be best adapted to provide food for the world’s hungry people.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Conservation biology, Agriculture, Ecology, Sustainability, Food security, Agricultural economics, Agroecology