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Environmental Impact of Different Agricultural Management Practices: Conventional vs. Organic Agriculture

by Tiziano Gomiero, David Pimentel, Maurizio G. Paoletti
Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences ()

Abstract

Organic agriculture refers to a farming system that enhance soil fertility through maximizing the efficient use of local resources, while foregoing the use of agrochemicals, the use of Genetic Modified Organisms (GMO), as well as that of many synthetic compounds used as food additives. Organic agriculture relies on a number of farming practices based on ecological cycles, and aims at minimizing the environmental impact of the food industry, preserving the long term sustainability of soil and reducing to a minimum the use of non renewable resources. This paper carries out a comparative review of the environmental performances of organic agriculture versus conventional farming, and also discusses the difficulties inherent in this comparison process. The paper first provides an historical background on organic agriculture and briefly reports on some key socioeconomic issues concerning organic farming. It then focuses on how agricultural practices affect soil characteristics: under organic management soil loss is greatly reduced and soil organic matter (SOM) content increases. Soil biochemical and ecological characteristics appear also improved. Furthermore, organically managed soils have a much higher water holding capacity than conventionally managed soils, resulting in much larger yields compared to conventional farming, under conditions of water scarcity. Because of its higher ability to store carbon in the soil, organic agriculture could represent a means to improve CO2 abatement if adopted on a large scale. Next, the impact on biodiversity is highlighted: organic farming systems generally harbor a larger floral and faunal biodiversity than conventional systems, although when properlymanaged also the latter can improve biodiversity. Importantly, the landscape surrounding farmed land also appears to have the potential to enhance biodiversity in agricultural areas. The paper then outlines energy use in different agricultural settings: organic agriculture has higher energy efficiency (input/output) but, on average, exhibits lower yields and hence reduced productivity. Nevertheless, overall, organic agriculture appears to perform better than conventional farming, and provides also other important environmental advantages, such as halting the use of harmful chemicals and their spread in the environment and along the trophic chain, and reducing water use. Looking at the future of organic farming, based on the findings presented in this review, there is clearly a need for more research and investment directed to exploring potential of organic farming for reducing the environmental impact of agricultural practices; howe ver, the implications of reduced productivity for the socioeconomic system should also be considered and suitable agricultural policies should be developed.

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