It's official: Organic farming outperforms conventional, chemical farming when it comes to crop yields, sustainability and profit. The evidence is found in Rodale Institute's Farming Systems Trial, the longest-running scientific comparison of organic and conventional agriculture, celebrating its 30th year in 2011.

The study targets large-scale grain growers and includes 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.) Then-CEO Robert Rodale's vision was to assess high-acreage crops to make growers aware that they were being led down the pathway to less money by using pesticides, said Elaine Ingham, chief scientist for Rodale Institute.

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 includes four replications (repeating the study using the same methods but with different researchers) for each of the four different management systems: organic manure, organic legume, conventional synthetic (the majority of the grain farms in the U.S.) and no-till systems.

The study's conventional plots are immediately adjacent to the organic plots, so both experience the same soil types and weather patterns. Also, the now-organic plots began as conventional and have been remediated over time. To dispel any organic bias, Ingham said the farmers involved in the study are veterans of farming with chemicals, and the study's advisory committee contains members who are strongly entrenched in chemical agriculture.

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. "That divergence is only going to get bigger," Ingham said, as the demand for organic grows. Plus, it's a myth that GM means using fewer pesticides, she said. The study showed 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 organic corn yields were 31 percent higher than conventional in years of drought. Ironically, 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, while organic systems that build—rather than deplete—soil quality are more efficient to manage, leading to less fuel use.

Charles Benbrook, PhD, chief scientist at The Organic Center in Boulder, Colo., said the study "already has a big impact on what scientists think about sustainable and organic cropping systems. Whether it's had a big impact on drawing conventional farmers into organic is in the eye of the beholder."

While the study may not shift the mindset of those already invested in Big Ag, Ingham hopes it will change consumers' minds. "What we're really doing this work for is to change the mind of the individual who eats food," she said. "As a consumer, you vote with your dollars. What are you going to choose to buy? That's where we'll make the difference."