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Concept: Crop rotation


It has been suggested that conversion to organic farming contributes to soil carbon sequestration, but until now a comprehensive quantitative assessment has been lacking. Therefore, datasets from 74 studies from pairwise comparisons of organic vs. nonorganic farming systems were subjected to metaanalysis to identify differences in soil organic carbon (SOC). We found significant differences and higher values for organically farmed soils of 0.18 ± 0.06% points (mean ± 95% confidence interval) for SOC concentrations, 3.50 ± 1.08 Mg C ha(-1) for stocks, and 0.45 ± 0.21 Mg C ha(-1) y(-1) for sequestration rates compared with nonorganic management. Metaregression did not deliver clear results on drivers, but differences in external C inputs and crop rotations seemed important. Restricting the analysis to zero net input organic systems and retaining only the datasets with highest data quality (measured soil bulk densities and external C and N inputs), the mean difference in SOC stocks between the farming systems was still significant (1.98 ± 1.50 Mg C ha(-1)), whereas the difference in sequestration rates became insignificant (0.07 ± 0.08 Mg C ha(-1) y(-1)). Analyzing zero net input systems for all data without this quality requirement revealed significant, positive differences in SOC concentrations and stocks (0.13 ± 0.09% points and 2.16 ± 1.65 Mg C ha(-1), respectively) and insignificant differences for sequestration rates (0.27 ± 0.37 Mg C ha(-1) y(-1)). The data mainly cover top soil and temperate zones, whereas only few data from tropical regions and subsoil horizons exist. Summarizing, this study shows that organic farming has the potential to accumulate soil carbon.

Concepts: Agriculture, Soil, Charcoal, Organic farming, Humus, Input, Crop rotation, Subsoil


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


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


Organic farming practices have been promoted as, inter alia, reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture. This meta-analysis systematically analyses published studies that compare environmental impacts of organic and conventional farming in Europe. The results show that organic farming practices generally have positive impacts on the environment per unit of area, but not necessarily per product unit. Organic farms tend to have higher soil organic matter content and lower nutrient losses (nitrogen leaching, nitrous oxide emissions and ammonia emissions) per unit of field area. However, ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems. Organic systems had lower energy requirements, but higher land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit. The variation within the results across different studies was wide due to differences in the systems compared and research methods used. The only impacts that were found to differ significantly between the systems were soil organic matter content, nitrogen leaching, nitrous oxide emissions per unit of field area, energy use and land use. Most of the studies that compared biodiversity in organic and conventional farming demonstrated lower environmental impacts from organic farming. The key challenges in conventional farming are to improve soil quality (by versatile crop rotations and additions of organic material), recycle nutrients and enhance and protect biodiversity. In organic farming, the main challenges are to improve the nutrient management and increase yields. In order to reduce the environmental impacts of farming in Europe, research efforts and policies should be targeted to developing farming systems that produce high yields with low negative environmental impacts drawing on techniques from both organic and conventional systems.

Concepts: Agriculture, Soil, Nitrogen, Organic farming, Sustainable agriculture, Humus, Crop rotation, Industrial agriculture


Red clover (Trifolium pratense L.) is a globally significant forage legume in pastoral livestock farming systems. It is an attractive component of grassland farming, because of its high yield and protein content, nutritional value and ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. Enhancing its role further in sustainable agriculture requires genetic improvement of persistency, disease resistance, and tolerance to grazing. To help address these challenges, we have assembled a chromosome-scale reference genome for red clover. We observed large blocks of conserved synteny with Medicago truncatula and estimated that the two species diverged ~23 million years ago. Among the 40,868 annotated genes, we identified gene clusters involved in biochemical pathways of importance for forage quality and livestock nutrition. Genotyping by sequencing of a synthetic population of 86 genotypes show that the number of markers required for genomics-based breeding approaches is tractable, making red clover a suitable candidate for association studies and genomic selection.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Agriculture, Livestock, Trifolium pratense, Crop rotation, Clover


Population growth and climate change challenge our food and farming systems and provide arguments for an increased intensification of agriculture. A promising option is eco-functional intensification through organic farming, an approach based on using and enhancing internal natural resources and processes to secure and improve agricultural productivity, while minimizing negative environmental impacts. In this concept an active soil microbiota plays an important role for various soil based ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling, erosion control and pest and disease regulation. Several studies have reported a positive effect of organic farming on soil health and quality including microbial community traits. However, so far no systematic quantification of whether organic farming systems comprise larger and more active soil microbial communities compared to conventional farming systems was performed on a global scale. Therefore, we conducted a meta-analysis on current literature to quantify possible differences in key indicators for soil microbial abundance and activity in organic and conventional cropping systems. All together we integrated data from 56 mainly peer-reviewed papers into our analysis, including 149 pairwise comparisons originating from different climatic zones and experimental duration ranging from 3 to more than 100 years. Overall, we found that organic systems had 32% to 84% greater microbial biomass carbon, microbial biomass nitrogen, total phospholipid fatty-acids, and dehydrogenase, urease and protease activities than conventional systems. Exclusively the metabolic quotient as an indicator for stresses on microbial communities remained unaffected by the farming systems. Categorical subgroup analysis revealed that crop rotation, the inclusion of legumes in the crop rotation and organic inputs are important farming practices affecting soil microbial community size and activity. Furthermore, we show that differences in microbial size and activity between organic and conventional farming systems vary as a function of land use (arable, orchards, and grassland), plant life cycle (annual and perennial) and climatic zone. In summary, this study shows that overall organic farming enhances total microbial abundance and activity in agricultural soils on a global scale.

Concepts: Agriculture, Climate, Soil, Ecosystem, Organic farming, Sustainable agriculture, Crop rotation, Green manure


Missouri is an agriculturally intensive state, primarily growing corn and soybeans with additional rice and cotton farming in some southeastern counties. Communities located in close proximity to pesticide-treated fields are known to have increased exposure to pesticides and may be at increased risk of adverse birth outcomes. The study aims were to assess the relationship between county-level measures of crop-specific agricultural production and adverse birth outcomes in Missouri and to evaluate the most appropriate statistical methodologies for doing so.

Concepts: Agriculture, Green Revolution, Crop rotation, Glyphosate, Arable land


Archaeological research suggests significant human occupation in the arid Andean highlands during the 13th to 15th centuries, whereas paleoclimatic studies reveal prolonged drier and colder conditions during that period. Which subsistence strategy supported local societies in this harsh environment? Our field and aerial surveys of archaeological dwelling sites, granaries, and croplands provide the first evidence of extended pre-Hispanic agriculture supporting dense human populations in the arid Andes of Bolivia. This unique agricultural system associated with quinoa cultivation was unirrigated, consisting of simple yet extensive landscape modifications. It relied on highly specific environmental knowledge and a set of water-saving practices, including microterracing and biennial fallowing. This intense agricultural activity developed during a period of unfavorable climatic change on a regional and global scale, illustrative of efficient adaptive strategies to cope with this climatic change.

Concepts: Agriculture, Climate, Climate change, Andes, World population, Crop rotation, Quechua, Cultivation


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


The debate on the relative benefits of conventional and organic farming systems has in recent time gained significant interest. So far, global agricultural development has focused on increased productivity rather than on a holistic natural resource management for food security. Thus, developing more sustainable farming practices on a large scale is of utmost importance. However, information concerning the performance of farming systems under organic and conventional management in tropical and subtropical regions is scarce. This study presents agronomic and economic data from the conversion phase (2007-2010) of a farming systems comparison trial on a Vertisol soil in Madhya Pradesh, central India. A cotton-soybean-wheat crop rotation under biodynamic, organic and conventional (with and without Bt cotton) management was investigated. We observed a significant yield gap between organic and conventional farming systems in the 1(st) crop cycle (cycle 1: 2007-2008) for cotton (-29%) and wheat (-27%), whereas in the 2(nd) crop cycle (cycle 2: 2009-2010) cotton and wheat yields were similar in all farming systems due to lower yields in the conventional systems. In contrast, organic soybean (a nitrogen fixing leguminous plant) yields were marginally lower than conventional yields (-1% in cycle 1, -11% in cycle 2). Averaged across all crops, conventional farming systems achieved significantly higher gross margins in cycle 1 (+29%), whereas in cycle 2 gross margins in organic farming systems were significantly higher (+25%) due to lower variable production costs but similar yields. Soybean gross margin was significantly higher in the organic system (+11%) across the four harvest years compared to the conventional systems. Our results suggest that organic soybean production is a viable option for smallholder farmers under the prevailing semi-arid conditions in India. Future research needs to elucidate the long-term productivity and profitability, particularly of cotton and wheat, and the ecological impact of the different farming systems.

Concepts: Agriculture, Organic farming, Sustainable agriculture, Crops, Crop rotation, Industrial agriculture, Green manure, Biodynamic agriculture