12/09/2014 04:42 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Agroecology and the Disappearing Yield Gap

The more scientists actually study agroecology, the better it looks.

The largest meta-analysis to date comparing yields of organic and conventional agriculture concluded that the "yield gap" between the two is much smaller than previously claimed and for some crops, doesn't exist at all.

In a new study released in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London entitled Diversification Practices Reduce Organic to Conventional Yield Gap, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found that when organic farms employ agroecological practices like inter-cropping and crop rotations, the organic-conventional yield gap all but disappears. For legumes, there is no yield difference. The study used three times the number of farms and a more discerning, fine-grained statistical procedure than a previous study published in Nature by Seufert, Ramankutty and Foley in 2012 that due to a statistical bias erroneously concluded organic yielded 25 percent less than conventional agriculture.

Great! But after the celebrating among organic farming enthusiasts is over, what are we to make of this?

First of all, agroecology -- the science of sustainable agriculture --must be taken seriously by policy makers, land grant universities, the National Science Foundation and big philanthropy, all of whom have preferred to invest in high-input, industrial agriculture for the past 50 years. This bias is deeply engrained in our scientific and political institutions; Nature refused even to look at the new study that called the results of the 2012 research into question... Less than two percent of the USDA's research budget currently goes to organic systems. In places where there is significant research money spent on organics (e.g., University of Washington in wheat,) or on agroecology (e.g. Cuba) the highly touted "yield gap" disappears. Agroecology will not only get the yields we need without chemical inputs, genetically engineered seeds and expensive precision farming, it will bring us resiliency.

Agroecologically-managed farms in all of their biodiversity richness are usually organic or become organic over time. Their diversity of crops, rotations agroforestry and mixed livestock-cultivar-forest landscapes builds environmental resilience into the farm system. This is as been shown to be essential for confronting the extreme weather events associated with global warming, like drought, flood, heat waves and freezes, all of which can wreak havoc with a crop within a single season. Unlike genetically-engineered crops (GMOs) that attempt to build resilience into the genomes of specific cultivars one trait at a time, agroecology strengthens the resilience of the entire agroecosystem. Not all organic farms are agroecological, of course. Some are vast industrial monocultures that are as climate-vulnerable as their conventional counterparts. What this new study shows is that agroecology -- not organic agriculture per se -- is the key to yield and sustainability.

Refreshingly, the authors of this research recognize that simply increasing yields will not end hunger in a world that already produces 1 ½ times more than enough food for everyone. They also recognize that the way this food is produced makes a difference.

What the study does not address, is that who is producing the food also makes a difference. The real inventors and tireless practitioners of agroecological methods -- innovative smallholder farmers like those in the Campesino a Campesino Movement (farmer to farmer) -- need to be recognized and supported in their contribution to productive, sustainable food systems.

In fact, the key to ending global hunger is not to produce food for hungry people (who aren't able to afford), but to allow people to feed themselves.

Globally, the world's smallholders produce 70 percent of the world's food on 25 percent of the land. Tragically, because they don't have enough land (or market power), they are also among the world's poorest people and so make up 70 percent of the world's hungry. We don't need to produce more food to end world hunger. We need to create an equitable food system for the people who actually produce the world's food. Smallholders need more land, access to water, and basic infrastructure, education and health services -- not GMOs, precision agriculture or global markets. They do also need more agroecology and are especially suited to this practice.

Many thanks to the authors of Diversification Practices Reduce Organic to Conventional Yield Gap for revealing the importance of agroecology. Now let's spread the practice by supporting the farmers who know how to do it.