Organic agriculture in the twenty-first century

Abstract

Organic agriculture has a history of being contentious and is considered by some as an inefficient approach to food production. Yet organic foods and beverages are a rapidly growing market segment in the global food industry. Here, we examine the performance of organic farming in light of four key sustainability metrics: productivity, environmental impact, economic viability and social wellbeing. Organic farming systems produce lower yields compared with conventional agriculture. However, they are more profitable and environmentally friendly, and deliver equally or more nutritious foods that contain less (or no) pesticide residues, compared with conventional farming. Moreover, initial evidence indicates that organic agricultural systems deliver greater ecosystem services and social benefits. Although organic agriculture has an untapped role to play when it comes to the establishment of sustainable farming systems, no single approach will safely feed the planet. Rather, a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems is needed. Significant barriers exist to adopting these systems, however, and a diversity of policy instruments will be required to facilitate their development and implementation.

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Figure 1: Annual global market for organic foods and land area of organic production.
Figure 2: Organic management practices.
Figure 3: Hypothetical nitrogen stocks and flows of two contrasting cropping systems.
Figure 4: Assessment of organic farming relative to conventional farming in the four major areas of sustainability.
Figure 5: Policy instruments for overcoming barriers to farmers adopting more sustainable farming systems.

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Acknowledgements

J.M.W. is supported by NSF-IGERT (0903714) and USDA-NIFA (230470).

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J.P.R. and J.M.W. contributed equally to the concept, outline and writing of the manuscript, including generating the figures.

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Correspondence to John P. Reganold.

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Reganold, J., Wachter, J. Organic agriculture in the twenty-first century. Nature Plants 2, 15221 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nplants.2015.221

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