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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $9.92 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Lockeretz, W. in Organic Farming: An International History (ed. Lockeretz, W. ) 1–8 (CABI, 2007).
Trewavas, A. Urban myths of organic farming. Nature 410, 409–410 (2001).
Emsley, J. Going one better than nature? Nature 410, 633–634 (2001).
Kirchmann, H. & Thorvaldsson, G. Challenging targets for future agriculture. Eur. J. Agron. 12, 145–161 (2000).
Connor, D. J. & Mí nguez, M. I. Evolution not revolution of farming systems will best feed and green the world. Glob. Food Secur. 1, 106–113 (2012).
Pickett, J. A. Food security: intensification of agriculture is essential, for which current tools must be defended and new sustainable technologies invented. Food Energ. Secur. 2, 167–173 (2013).
Willer, H. & Lernoud, J. (eds) The World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics and Emerging Trends 2015 (FiBL-IFOAM, 2015).
International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development Agriculture at a Crossroads: Global Report (Island, 2009).
De Schutter, O. Report Submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food (United Nations, 2010).
National Research Council Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century (The National Academies, 2010).
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations FAOSTAT Online Database (accessed August 2015); http://faostat.fao.org/site/377/default.aspx#ancor
Rockström, J. et al. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475 (2009).
Godfray, H. C. J. et al. Food security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science 327, 812–818 (2010).
Amundson, R. et al. Soil and human security in the 21st century. Science 348, 1261071 (2015).
Stanhill, G. The comparative productivity of organic agriculture. Agr. Ecosyst. Environ. 30, 1–26 (1990).
Badgley, C. et al. Organic agriculture and the global food supply. Renew. Agr. Food Syst. 22, 86–108 (2007).
de Ponti, T., Rijk, B. & van Ittersum, M. K. The crop yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture. Agr. Syst. 108, 1–9 (2012).
Seufert, V., Ramankutty, N. & Foley, J. A. Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture. Nature 485, 229–232 (2012).
Ponisio, L. C. et al. Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap. Proc. R. Soc. B 282, 20141396 (2015).
Crowder, D. W. & Reganold, J. P. Financial competitiveness of organic agriculture on a global scale. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 7611–7616 (2015).
Lockeretz, W., Shearer, G. & Kohl, D. H. Organic farming in the Corn Belt. Science 211, 540–547 (1981).
Lotter, D., Seidel, R. & Liebhardt, W. The performance of organic and conventional cropping systems in an extreme climate year. Am. J. Alternative Agr. 18, 146–154 (2003).
Siegrist, S., Scaub, D., Pfiffner, L. & Mäder, L. Does organic agriculture reduce soil erodability? The results of a long-term field study on loess in Switzerland. Agr. Ecosyst. Environ. 69, 253–264 (1998).
Murphy, K. M., Campbell, K. G., Lyon, S. R. & Jones, S. S. Evidence of varietal adaptation to organic farming systems. Field Crop. Res. 102, 172–177 (2007).
Baker, B. P., Benbrook, C. M., Groth, E. III & Benbrook, K. L. Pesticide residues in conventional, integrated pest management (IPM)-grown and organic foods: insights from three US data sets. Food Addit. Contam. 19, 427–446 (2002).
Smith-Spangler, C. et al. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives? Ann. Intern. Med. 157, 348–366 (2012).
Barański, M. et al. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Brit. J. Nutr. 112, 794–811 (2014).
Pussemier, L., Larondelle, Y., Van Peteghem, C. & Huyghebaert, A. Chemical safety of conventionally and organically produced foodstuffs: a tentative comparison under Belgian conditions. Food Control 17, 14–21 (2006).
Curl, C. L., Fenske, R. A. & Elgethun, K. Organophosphorus pesticide exposure of urban and suburban preschool children with organic and conventional diets. Environ. Health Persp. 111, 377–382 (2003).
Lu, C. et al. Organic diets significantly lower children's dietary exposure to organophosphorus pesticides. Environ. Health Persp. 114, 260–263 (2006).
Forman, J. et al. Organic foods: health and environmental advantages and disadvantages. Pediatrics 130 e1406–e1415 (2012).
Soil Association Organic Farming, Food Quality and Human Health: A Review of the Evidence (Soil Association, 2000); http://soilassociation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=cY8kfP3Q%2BgA%3D
Brandt, K. & Mølgaard, J. P. Organic agriculture: does it enhance or reduce the nutritional value of plant foods? J. Sci. Food Agr. 81, 924–931 (2001).
Worthington, V. Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits, vegetables, and grains. J. Alter. Complem. Med. 7, 161–173 (2001).
Bourn, D. & Prescott, J. A comparison of the nutritional value, sensory qualities, and food safety of organically and conventionally produced foods. Critical Rev. Food Sci. 42, 1–34 (2002).
Williams, C. M. Nutritional quality of organic food: shades of grey or shades of green? Proc. Nutr. Soc. 61, 19–24 (2002).
Magkos, F., Arvaniti, F. & Zampelas, A. Organic food: nutritious food or food for thought? A review of the evidence. Int. J. Food Sci. Nutr. 54, 357–371 (2003).
Rembialkowska, E. Quality of plant products from organic agriculture. J. Sci. Food Agr. 87, 2757–2762 (2007).
Benbrook, C., Zhao, X., Yáñez, J., Davies, N. & Andrews, P. New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-based Organic Foods (The Organic Center, 2008); http://organic-center.org
Dangour, A. D. et al. Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 90, 680–685 (2009).
Hunter, D. et al. Evaluation of the micronutrient composition of plant foods produced by organic and conventional agricultural methods. Crit. Rev. Food Sci. 51, 571–582 (2011).
Lairon, D. Nutritional quality and safety of organic food: a review. Agron. Sustain. Dev. 30, 33–41 (2010).
Brandt, K., Leifert, C., Sanderson, R. & Seal, C. J. Agroecosystem management and nutritional quality of plant foods: the case of organic fruits and vegetables. Crit. Rev. Plant Sci. 30, 177–197 (2011).
Palupi, E., Jayanegara, A., Ploeger, A. & Kahl, J. Comparison of nutritional quality between conventional and organic dairy products: a meta-analysis. J. Sci. Food. Agr. 92, 2774–2781 (2012).
Gattinger, A. et al. Enhanced top soil carbon stocks under organic farming. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 18226–18231 (2012).
Alföldi, T. et al. in Organic Agriculture, Environment, and Food Security (eds Scialabba, N. E.-H. & Hattam, C. ) Ch. 2 (FAO, 2002); www.fao.org/docrep/005/y4137e/y4137e00.htm
Kaspercyk, N. & Knickel, K. in Organic Agriculture: A Global Perspective (eds Kristiansen, P., Taji, A. & Reganold, J. ) 259–294 (CSIRO, 2006).
Tuomisto, H. L., Hodge, I. D., Riordan, P. & Macdonald, D. W. Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts? A meta-analysis of European research. J. Environ. Manage. 112, 309–320 (2012).
Mondelaers, K., Aertsens, J. & Van Huylenbroeck, G. A meta-analysis of the differences in environmental impacts between organic and conventional farming. Brit. Food. J. 111, 1098–1119 (2009).
Gomiero, T., Pimentel, D. & Paoletti, M. G. Environmental impact of different agricultural management practices: conventional vs. organic agriculture. Crit. Rev. Plant Sci. 30, 95–124 (2011).
Lynch, D. H., Halberg, N. & Bhatta, G. D. Environmental impacts of organic agriculture in temperate regions. CAB Rev. 7, 1–17 (2012).
Tuck, S. et al. Land-use intensity and the effects of organic farming on biodiversity: a hierarchical meta-analysis. J. Appl. Ecol. 51, 746–755 (2014).
Kennedy C. M. et al. A global quantitative synthesis of local and landscape effects on wild bee pollinators in agroecosystems. Ecol. Lett. 16, 584–599 (2013).
Lotter, D. W. Organic agriculture. J. Sustain. Agr. 21, 59–128 (2003).
Crowder, D. W., Northfield, T. D., Strand, M. R. & Snyder, W. E. Organic agriculture promotes evenness and natural pest control. Nature 466, 109–112 (2010).
Geiger, F. et al. Persistent negative effects of pesticides on biodiversity and biological control potential on European farmland. Basic Appl. Ecol. 11, 97–105 (2010).
Skinner, S. et al. Greenhouse gas fluxes from agricultural soils under organic and non-organic management — a global meta-analysis. Sci. Total Environ. 468, –469, 553–563 (2014).
Lee, K. S., Choe, Y. C. & Park, S. H. Measuring the environmental effects of organic farming: a meta-analysis of structural variables in empirical research. J. Environ. Manage. 162, 263–274 (2015).
Steffen, W. et al. Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347, 1259855 (2015).
Halberg, N., Sulser, T. B., Høgh-Jensen, H., Rosegrant, M. W. & Knudsen, M. T. in Global Development of Organic Agriculture: Challenges and Prospects (eds Halberg, N. et al.) 277–322 (CABI, 2006).
Zentner, R. P. et al. Effects of input management and crop diversity on economic returns and riskiness of cropping systems in the semi-arid Canadian Prairie. Renew. Agr. Food Syst. 26, 208–223 (2011).
Prihtanti, T. M., Hardyastuti, S., Hartono, S. & Irham Social-cultural functions of rice farming systems. Asian J. Agr. Rural Dev. 4, 341–351 (2014).
Mendoza, T. C. Evaluating the benefits of organic farming in rice agroecosystems in the Philippines. J. Sustain. Agr. 24, 93–115 (2004).
Pretty, J. N., Ball, A. S., Lang, T. & Morison, J. I. L. Farm costs and food miles: an assessment of the full cost of the UK weekly food basket. Food Policy 30, 1–19 (2005).
Kremen, C. & Miles, A. Ecosystem services in biologically diversified versus conventional farming systems: benefits, externalities, and trade-offs. Ecol. Soc. 17, 40 (2012).
Andersson, G. K. S., Rundlöf, M. & Smith, H. G. Organic farming improves pollination success in strawberries. PLoS One 7, e31599 (2012).
Porter, J., Costanza, R., Sandhu, H., Sigsgaard, L. & Wratten, S. The value of producing food, energy, and ecosystem services within an agro-ecosystem. Ambio 38, 186–193 (2009).
Sandhu, H. et al. Significance and value of non-traded ecosystem services on farmland. PeerJ 3 e762 (2015).
Östman, Ö., Ekbom, B. & Bengtsson, J. Yield increase attributable to aphid predation by ground-living polyphagous natural enemies in spring barley in Sweden. Ecol. Econ. 45, 149–158 (2003).
Sandhu, H. S., Wratten, S. D. & Cullen, R. The role of supporting ecosystem services in conventional and organic arable farmland. Ecol. Complex. 7, 302–310 (2010).
MacRae, R. J., Frick, B. & Martin, R. C. Economic and social impacts of organic production systems. Can. J. Plant Sci. 87, 1037–1044 (2007).
Gruère, G., Nagarajan, L. & King, E. D. I. O. The role of collective action in the marketing of underutilized plant species: lessons from a case study on minor millets in South India. Food Policy 34, 39–45 (2009).
Eddleston, M. et al. Pesticide poisoning in the developing world — a minimum pesticides list. Lancet 360, 1163–1167 (2002).
Thundiyil, J. G., Stober, J., Besbelli, N. & Pronczuk, J. Acute pesticide poisoning: a proposed classification tool. Bull. World Health Organ. 86, 205–209 (2008).
International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements The IFOAM Norms for Organic Production and Processing, Version 2014 (IFOAM, 2014); www.ifoam.bio/en/ifoam-norms
USDA Agricultural Marketing Service National Organic Program Handbook (USDA, 2015); www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic/handbook
Council of the European Union Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007 of 28 June 2007 on Organic Production and Labeling of Organic Products and Repealing Regulation (EEC) No 2092/91 (Official Journal of the European Union, 2008); http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/NOT/?uri=CELEX:32007R0834
Japan Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Notification No. 1608 Japanese Agricultural Standard for Organic Livestock Products (MAFF, 2012); www.maff.go.jp/e/jas/specific/pdf/836_2012-2.pdf
Parrott, N., Olesen, J. E. & Høgh-Jensen, H. in Global Development of Organic Agriculture: Challenges and Prospects (eds Halberg, N. et al.) 153–179 (CABI, 2006).
Bachman, L., Cruzada, E. & Wright, S. Food Security and Farmer Empowerment: A Study of the Impacts of Farmer-Led Sustainable Agriculture in the Philippines (MASIPAG, 2009).
Reganold, J. P. et al. Transforming US agriculture. Science 332, 670–671 (2011).
Food and Agriculture Organization FAO Statistical Pocketbook 2015: World Food and Agriculture (FAO, 2015).
World Health Organization Obesity and Overweight, Fact Sheet #311 (WHO, 2015); www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/
Food and Agriculture Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development & World Food Programme The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015 (FAO, 2015).
Jackson, L. L. Who “designs” the agricultural landscape? Landscape J. 27, 23–40 (2008).
Sharifi, O. et al. Barriers to conversion to organic farming: a case study in Babol County in Iran. Afr. J. Agr. Res. 5, 2260–2267 (2010).
Constance, D. & Choi, J. Y. Overcoming the barriers to organic adoption in the United States: a look at pragmatic conventional producers in Texas. Sustainability 2, 163–188 (2010).
UNCTAD Trade and Environment Review 2013 (United Nations Publication, 2013).
Stolze, M. & Lampkin, N. Policy for organic farming: rationale and concepts. Food Policy 34, 237–244 (2009).
Pretty, J. & Bharucha Z. P. Sustainable intensification in agricultural systems. Ann. Bot. 114, 1571–1596 (2014).
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Policy Instruments to Support Green Growth in Agriculture (OECD Publishing, 2013).
Sanchez, P. A. Tripling crop yields in tropical Africa. Nature Geosci. 3, 299–300 (2010).
Office of Communications Agriculture Secretary Vilsack unveils vision for US organic agriculture. USDA News Release No. 0096.13 (2013); www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdamediafb?contentid=2013/05/0096.xml&printable=true
Reganold, J. P., Glover, J. D., Andrews, P. K. & Hinman, H. R. Sustainability of three apple production systems. Nature 410, 926–930 (2001).
Davis, A. S., Hill, J. D., Chase, C. A., Johanns, A. M. & Liebman, M., Increasing cropping system diversity balances productivity, profitability and environmental health. PLoS One 7, e47149 (2012).
Wachter, J. M. & Reganold, J. P. in Encyclopedia of Agriculture and Food Systems (ed. Van Alfen, N. ) 265–286 (Elsevier, 2014).
Willer, H., Lernoud, J. & Kilcher, L. (eds) The World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics and Emerging Trends 2013 (FiBL-IFOAM, 2013).
Willer, H. & Lernoud, J. (eds) The World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics and Emerging Trends 2014 (FiBL-IFOAM, 2014).
Stockdale, E. A. et al. Agronomic and environmental implications of organic farming systems. Adv. Agron. 70, 261–327 (2001).
Institute of Medicine & National Research Council A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System (The National Academies, 2015).
J.M.W. is supported by NSF-IGERT (0903714) and USDA-NIFA (230470).
The authors declare no competing interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Reganold, J., Wachter, J. Organic agriculture in the twenty-first century. Nature Plants 2, 15221 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nplants.2015.221
Organic and conventional sweetpotato production in the Southeastern of United States: a comparative analysis
Agriculture & Food Security (2021)
Commercial preparations of pesticides exert higher toxicity and cause changes at subcellular level in earthworm Eisenia andrei
Environmental Sciences Europe (2021)
Commoning of territorial heritage and tools of participated sustainability for the production and enhancement of agro-environmental public goods
Agricultural and Food Economics (2021)
Anti-fungal activity of moso bamboo (Phyllostachys pubescens) leaf extract and its development into a botanical fungicide to control pepper phytophthora blight
Scientific Reports (2021)
Conservative to disruptive diets for optimizing nutrition, environmental impacts and cost in French adults from the NutriNet-Santé cohort
Nature Food (2021)