To compete, organic farming must find its place

Farmers working a rice paddy

Fans of organic farming: There’s something I have to tell you. Conventional farming isn’t going anywhere. Fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, the works. They’re here to stay. But I also have something else to tell you. In certain places, organic farming could supersede conventional practices. The trick is, we have to find out where those places are.

Plenty of ink has been spilled over the nitty-gritty of organic farming—what type of natural fertilizers work best, which species of insects farmers should court to ward off pests, and so on. But little has been done on a larger scale, like which regions might be better suited to organic practices. Little, but fortunately not none.

I’ve found two papers that I think, when considered together, show where organic farming can make its biggest impact. The first comes from Germany, where Teja Tscharntke and colleagues reviewed scads of scientific papers on organic farming. They noticed that fields surrounded by healthy portions of wilderness can be farmed either organically or conventionally without significantly harming the ecosystem.

Put differently, that means organic farming won’t do much to boost species diversity and abundance in complex, species rich landscapes—the benefits are less substantial where the landscape is less degraded. That’s a pretty obvious statement, but it’s corollary is more interesting: Organic farming might be more beneficial in simple landscapes dominated by intensive farming.

Like in Asia. Farming in Asia is more extensive than in Europe. Where European farms are often interrupted by woodlots, Asian farms tend to form an uninterrupted carpet. Raw statistics bear this out. According to the World Bank, farmland in the European Union occupies about 45 percent of the land (or less than 30 percent if you include the eastern part of the continent), while in East Asia that number is closer to 50 percent. And where forests do exist in East Asia, they’re being lost more rapidly than anywhere else in the world.

Organic farming could benefit East Asian countries more, according to a paper by Tatsuya Amano and colleagues in Japan.¹ They focused on rice paddies across Japan’s 3,000 kilometer north-south span, sampling the abundance of a particular group of spiders, Tetragnatha species, a widely distributed genus found in forests, grasslands, and rice paddies. When the researchers studied the distribution of spiders in the country’s organic farms, they found that organic methods boosted spider numbers most in wetter and warmer regions.

They cite two reasons for this. First, there’s strong evidence that spiders thrive in wetter areas. Second, warmer, wetter regions tend to have what ecologists call “high energy” ecosystems. Rainforests are a good example; there’s so much sunlight, warmth, and water that life can barely contain itself.

When you consider these two papers together, you can see where organic farming would be most beneficial—warmer, wetter regions with extensive farmland. In other words, tropical Asia, Africa, and South America. Unfortunately, those places are, with the exception of Japan, among the least likely to have organic farms. Part of this is economics—conventional farming still produces food more cheaply, and people in developing countries don’t have the money to pay a premium for organic. Another is education. In the drive to raise food production, organic farming isn’t always considered. In part that’s because conventional agriculture is a known quantity. Developed nations ramped up farm productivity with those techniques. Why wouldn’t developing nations go with a sure thing?

But if this new research is anything to go by, the script should be tweaked for developing nations. Organic farming certainly pays dividends environmentally, but it could boost farm output in tropical and sub-tropical regions, or at least farm profitability. Even when forgoing costly inputs like pesticides, farmers can still control pests by accommodating beneficial bugs, which in turn gain the most from organic methods in wet, warm regions.

Despite its successes, organic farming still languishes in a niche—selling to farmers’ markets and boutique grocers—within another niche—the developed world. To break out, it’ll have to identify where it can be most effective. Organic farming has trouble competing with conventional agriculture in complex, low energy landscapes like those found throughout Europe or parts of the United States. But if organic farming really does excel in simple, high energy landscapes like those in tropical Asia, then there’s potential for change on a global scale.

  1. Japan isn’t included in the World Bank data on East Asia, but their land use patterns aren’t substantially different.


Amano, T., Kusumoto, Y., Okamura, H., Baba, Y.G., Hamasaki, K., Tanaka, K. & Yamamoto, S. (2011). A macro-scale perspective on within-farm management: how climate and topography alter the effect of farming practices, Ecology Letters, 14 (12) 1272. DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2011.01699.x

Tscharntke, T., Klein, A.M., Kruess, A., Steffan-Dewenter, I. & Thies, C. (2005). Landscape perspectives on agricultural intensification and biodiversity – ecosystem service management, Ecology Letters, 8 (8) 874. DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2005.00782.x

Photo by Tormod Sandtorv.

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