Here at ESSA we strive to provide you with nothing but the most the most thorough, comprehensive, evidence based and scientifically backed information possible. Today we are featuring an 30-year long comparative experiment conducted by the Rodale Institute. It doesn’t get any more thorough than that. This article serves as a summary and jump-off point to the many wonderful resources on their website.
The experiment, called the Farming Systems Trial (FST) started in 1981 to widescale ridicule, as the farming community could not imagine that organic could ever surpass conventional methods. After a drop in yield during the first two years of conversion, the organic system began to match the conventional harvests. By the fourth year, the organic fields began to surpass the conventional ones, and yields have been increasing ever since. Below is a summary of how they conducted the FST.
The Treatment Systems
The institute conducted side by side sample plots growing identical crops and different treatments that fell into the following categories:
Organic Manure– A system that relies on composted manure and plant material for fertilization and a rotation with leguminous crops as the primary method of pest and weed management.
Organic Legumes- A system that relies on rotation with leguminous crops as the source of fertilization and pest and weed management.
Synthetic Conventional- A system that relies on synthetic chemicals as the source of fertilization, pest and weed control.
In 2008, they included No-Till technology into their experiment. Half of the fields from each of the above systems were subjected to these new treatments:
Organic No-Till- The organic systems utilized their innovative no-till roller/crimper, which pushes plant matter back into the soil. This was used on the Legume and Manure fields. See exactly how they do it here.
Conventional No-Till- This system relies on current, widespread practices of herbicide applications and no-till specific equipment.
In 2008 they also incorporated Genetically Engineered varieties in all the systems. While they are strong advocates against GE varieties, they wanted to create a thorough report.
So let’s take a look at how it turned out! All charts are property of the Rodale Institute and taken from their official release entitled “The 30 Year Report”. You can see the whole report here.
Yields- The Table Below shows the yields in 2016 by system:
Profits– Of course yields don’t really mean anything, as the profits depend on the amount of capital spent in the first place. This includes labor, inputs, operational expenses and more.
It is also worth noting that the input costs of the organic systems were mostly for labor. This means that more money is sent back into the local economy, improving the lives of the community, rather than filling the coffers of agricultural corporations. This is an important aspect of sustainable agriculture.
Impacts & Resiliency in the Age of Climate Emergency- As the entire Earth begins to suffer the effects of Climate Emergency we need to take into account the impacts of each of our actions. The FST also measured Greenhouse gas emissions from each of the systems.
It is also important to note that as weather events (drought and floods) become more extreme, the resiliency of our crops is essential.
Nutritional Density– The more nutritionally dense a food is, the better the health benefits and value for consumers. They tested wheat for protein levels and Organic Legume system had the highest amount of proteins.
No Chemical Exposure- They also tested for leaching of harmful chemicals into the groundwater near the conventional fields.
Carbon Content In Soil– Organic farming systems allow for more carbon to be sequestered in the soil as well. Aside from the benefits to the environment, this additional carbon builds up the soil structure, providing a myriad of benefits.
Soil Health– All of these remarkable advantages were directly attributed to one thing: Soil Health. It has been found that the more organic matter there is in the soil, the healthier it is. Organic matter provides fuel for the microbiome, moisture retention, drainage and continually available plant nutrition (as opposed to Urea which is only available for a very short period) among other benefits. Below is the amount of organic matter in the soil of each system.
These are just a few of the significant findings of the Farm Systems Trial. They have also started a Vegetable Systems Trial in 2016, which aims to prove that organic has higher nutritional density.
Please do visit rodaleinstitute.org and read the whole 30-year report, as well as their other articles. It is full of highly significant information that will help in our mission to advocate sustainable agriculture.