Oct 16 2011
“The hallmark of a truly sustainable system is its ability to regenerate itself. When it comes to farming, the key to sustainable agriculture is healthy soil, since this is the foundation for present and future growth.”
“Organic farming is far superior to conventional systems when it comes to building, maintaining and replenishing the health of the soil. For soil health alone, organic agriculture is more sustainable than conventional. When one also considers yields, economic viability, energy usage, and human health, it’s clear that organic farming is sustainable, while current conventional practices are not.”
“As we face uncertain and extreme weather patterns, growing scarcity and expense of oil, lack of water, and a growing population, we will require farming systems that can adapt, withstand or even mitigate these problems while producing healthy, nourishing food. After 30 years of side-by-side research in our Farming Systems Trial (FST)®, Rodale Institute has demonstrated that organic farming is better equipped to feed us now and well into the ever changing future.”
- Organic yields match conventional yields.
- Organic outperforms conventional in years of drought.
- Organic farming systems build rather than deplete soil organic matter, making it a more sustainable system.
- Organic farming uses 45% less energy and is more efficient.
- Conventional systems produce 40% more greenhouse gases.
- Organic farming systems are more profitable than conventional.
The Farming Systems Trial (FST)® at Rodale Institute is America’s longest running, side-by-side comparison of organic and chemical agriculture. Started in 1981 to study what happens during the transition from chemical to organic agriculture, the FST surprised a food community that still scoffed at organic practices. After an initial decline in yields during the first few years of transition, the organic system soon rebounded to match or surpass the conventional system. Over time, FST became a comparison between the long term potential of the two systems.
We selected corn and soybean production as our research focus because large tracts of land, particularly in our region and the Midwest, are devoted to the production of these crops. Corn and soybean acreage comprised 49% of the total cropland in the U.S. in 2007. Other grains made up 21%, forages 22% and vegetables just 1.5%.
Throughout its long history, the FST has contained three core farming systems, each of which features diverse management practices: a manure-based organic system, a legume-based organic system, and a synthetic input-based conventional system. In the past three years of the trial, genetically modified (GM) crops and no-till treatments were incorporated to better represent farming in America today. Results and comparisons are noted accordingly to reflect this shift.
THE DIFFERENT SYSTEMS
Organic Manure: This system represents an organic dairy or beef operation. It features a long rotation including both annual feed grain crops and perennial forage crops. The system’s fertility is provided by leguminous cover crops and periodic applications of manure or composted manure. This diverse rotation is also the primary line of defense against pests.
Organic Legume: This system represents an organic cash grain system. It features a mid-length rotation consisting of annual grain crops and cover crops. The system’s sole source of fertility is leguminous cover crops and the rotation provides the primary line of defense against pests.
Conventional Synthetic: This system represents the majority of grain farms in the U.S. It relies on synthetic nitrogen for fertility, and weeds are controlled by synthetic herbicides selected by and applied at rates recommended by Penn State University Cooperative Extension. In 2008, genetically modified (GM) corn and soybeans were added to this system.
No-Till Systems: Each of the major systems was divided into two in 2008 to compare traditional tillage with no-till practices. The organic systems utilize our innovative no-till roller/crimper, and the no-till conventional system relies on current, widespread practices of herbicide applications and no-till specific equipment.
The crop rotations in the organic systems are more diverse than in the conventional systems, including up to seven crops in eight years (compared to two conventional crops in two years). While this means that conventional systems produce more corn or soybeans because they occur more often in the rotation, organic systems produce a more diverse array of food and nutrients and are better positioned to produce yields, even in adverse conditions.