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 farming community skeptical of the practicality of organic practices.
After an initial decline in yields during the first few years of transition, the organic system began to match or surpass the conventional system.
Organic farming outperformed conventional, chemical farming when it came to crop yields, sustainability and profit.
Over three decades, the study has yielded eye-opening results for conventional farmers:
An organic farmer can expect to earn double (on less land) than a chemical farmer, whose money goes mostly into the pocket of the chemical companies upon which he or she is dependent.
GM crop farmers typically ended up using more herbicides, making it more expensive to go GM than if they had stayed with heritage crops.
Organic and conventional crop yields were equivalent throughout the trial … except that organic corn yields were 31 percent higher than conventional in years of drought. And the GM “drought-tolerant” corn only increased 7 percent to 13 percent over its conventional (non-drought resistant) varieties.
Organic farming uses 45 percent less energy than conventional systems, while conventional systems produce 40 percent more greenhouse gases. The largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions on conventional systems are nitrogen fertilizer production and fuel use. Organic systems that build soil quality are more efficient to manage, leading to less fuel use.
The best-designed trial to date
The study examined large-scale grain growers and included three crops: corn, soybean and wheat. As of 2008, genetically modified corn and soybean were introduced into the study to better assess the landscape of American agriculture.
The goal was to assess high-acreage crops, and unlike many organic and conventional farming comparison studies, the Farming Systems Trial is scientifically rigorous to ensure an accurate representation of farming practices.
The study was repeated using the same methods but with different researchers for each of the four different management systems. And the study's conventional plots are immediately adjacent to the organic plots, so both experienced the same soil types and weather patterns:
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.
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.
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.
Each of the three major systems was divided into two in 2008 to compare traditional tillage with no-till practices. The organic systems utilize an 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.
Also, the now-organic plots began as conventional and have been remediated over time. To dispel any organic bias, the study oversight committee contains members who are strongly entrenched in chemical agriculture.
While the results of this rigorous trial may not shift the mindset of those already invested in conventional and GM methods, we can hope that it will influence many farmers’ choices, and change consumers’ minds.
By “voting” with their dollars, consumers can simultaneously reward farmers for using organic methods, and help push American agriculture in a more sustainable and profitable direction.
What about nutrition?
While the Farming Systems Trial has not yet addressed the nutrition question, Rodale is currently writing proposals to secure grants for nutrition studies.
The Organic Center and Rodale Institute hope to work together on the study, using The Organic Center's Nutritional Quantity Index … a rigorous, evidence-based way to quantify the nutrient contribution of a serving of apple compared to yogurt compared to a grain-based product.
The two organizations hope to go back 10 or 20 years to analyze the Farming Systems Trial's samples for nutrient content.
It’s already known that over the last 30 years, the nutrient content of conventional soybean and corn has gone down 20 percent to 30 percent. It will be interesting to see if the sustainable, organic plots avoid that degree of nutrient decline.
The record so far is mixed, with some studies finding organic crops more nutritious, and others failing to find a difference.
Prior studies comparing the levels of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant flavonoids in organic and conventional produce have produced mixed results, although they’ve often found higher levels of all three in organic produce.
As the authors of one literature review reported five years ago, “Organic crops contain a significantly higher amount of certain antioxidants (vitamin C, polyphenols and flavonoids) and minerals … Moreover, there is a lower level of pesticide residues, nitrate and some heavy metal contaminations in organic crops compared to conventional ones.” (Gyorene KG et al 2006)
Caris-Veyrat C, Amiot MJ, Tyssandier V, Grasselly D, Buret M, Mikolajczak M, Guilland JC, Bouteloup-Demange C, Borel P. Influence of organic versus conventional agricultural practice on the antioxidant microconstituent content of tomatoes and derived purees; consequences on antioxidant plasma status in humans. J Agric Food Chem. 2004 Oct 20;52(21):6503-9.
Chassy AW, Bui L, Renaud EN, Van Horn M, Mitchell AE. Three-year comparison of the content of antioxidant microconstituents and several quality characteristics in organic and conventionally managed tomatoes and bell peppers. J Agric Food Chem. 2006 Oct 18;54(21):8244-52.
Gyorene KG, Varga A, Lugasi A. [A comparison of chemical composition and nutritional value of organically and conventionally grown plant derived foods] Orv Hetil. 2006 Oct 29;147(43):2081-90. Review. Hungarian.
Lombardi-Boccia G, Lucarini M, Lanzi S, Aguzzi A, Cappelloni M. Nutrients and antioxidant molecules in yellow plums (Prunus domestica L.) from conventional and organic productions: a comparative study. J Agric Food Chem. 2004 Jan 14;52(1):90-4. Erratum in: J Agric Food Chem. 2006 May 17;54(10):3764.
Mader P, Fliessbach A, Dubois D, Gunst L, Fried P, Niggli U. Soil fertility and biodiversity in organic farming. Science. 2002 May 31;296(5573):1694-7.
Magkos F, Arvaniti F, Zampelas A. Organic food: nutritious food or food for thought? A review of the evidence. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2003 Sep;54(5):357-71. Review.
Mitchell AE, Hong YJ, Koh E, Barrett DM, Bryant DE, Denison RF, Kaffka S. Ten-year comparison of the influence of organic and conventional crop management practices on the content of flavonoids in tomatoes. J Agric Food Chem. 2007 Jul 25;55(15):6154-9. Epub 2007 Jun 23.
Owsikowski M, Gronowska-Senger A, Predka A. [Antioxidants content in selected conventionally and organically cultivated vegetables]. Rocz Panstw Zakl Hig. 2008;59(2):223-30. Polish.
Raigón MD, Rodríguez-Burruezo A, Prohens J. Effects of organic and conventional cultivation methods on composition of eggplant fruits. J Agric Food Chem. 2010 Jun 9;58(11):6833-40.
Rodale Institute. The Farming Systems Trial: Celebratig 30 Years. Accessed at http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/FSTbookletFINAL.pdf
Søltoft M, Bysted A, Madsen KH, Mark AB, Bügel SG, Nielsen J, Knuthsen P. Effects of organic and conventional growth systems on the content of carotenoids in carrot roots, and on intake and plasma status of carotenoids in humans. J Sci Food Agric. 2011 Mar 15;91(4):767-75. doi: 10.1002/jsfa.4248. Epub 2011 Jan 6.
Søltoft M, Nielsen J, Holst Laursen K, Husted S, Halekoh U, Knuthsen P. Effects of organic and conventional growth systems on the content of flavonoids in onions and phenolic acids in carrots and potatoes. J Agric Food Chem. 2010 Oct 13;58(19):10323-9.
Stracke BA, Rüfer CE, Bub A, Seifert S, Weibel FP, Kunz C, Watzl B. No effect of the farming system (organic/conventional) on the bioavailability of apple (Malus domestica Bork., cultivar Golden Delicious) polyphenols in healthy men: a comparative study. Eur J Nutr. 2010 Aug;49(5):301-10. Epub 2009 Dec 22.
Tarozzi A, Hrelia S, Angeloni C, Morroni F, Biagi P, Guardigli M, Cantelli-Forti G, Hrelia P. Antioxidant effectiveness of organically and non-organically grown red oranges in cell culture systems. Eur J Nutr. 2006 Mar;45(3):152-8. Epub 2005 Aug 12.
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