Oxford Study Finds a Farming Method “Greener than Organic”

An Oxford University study from earlier this month has found that “integrated farming,” or farming that emphasizes both high crop production and eco-friendly practices, beats both organic and conventional methods, filling fields, wallets, and energy reports alike with green.

Slated to appear in science journal Agricultural Systems, the study examined different methods of farming and compared their environmental impacts. What authors found was that the best type of farming fused the best of both traditional and organic worlds—crop maximization, crop rotation, minimal pesticide use, organic fertilizers, and “cover crops” for the winter. Combining these attributes into one approach, the “integrated” system produced more for less: more crops with less energy and greenhouse gas emission per unit of production.

As explained in a press release from Oxford University:

“Farming in a way that’s good for the environment doesn’t have to mean accepting a dramatic drop in food production,” said Dr. Hanna Tuomisto, who led the research at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU). “Our research suggests that integrated farming systems, which combine the best practices for producing high yields with low negative environmental impacts, can be more beneficial for the environment than either organic or conventional farming.”

More beneficial for the environment, and more beneficial for humans as well. As Dr. Tuomisto went on to note, organic farming practices often require more acres of land, creating a tradeoff between quality and quantity of food. However, by blending techniques and exploiting alternative land uses, we can have our carrot-cake and eat it too.

Not everyone, however, is impressed by the news.

Peter Melchett, policy director for the Soil Association, a farming organization, said the research is flawed, and on the whole, irrelevant to the real world. Taken from his comments to Farmers Guardian:

“Anyone could make up a system which is better than both conventional and organic farming by picking the best parts of each, which is all this author has done.

“This research is not based on any actual benefits or new measurements, but on models. Even then, the researchers have used Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) data which is out of date and wrong.

“In contrast, the review of evidence on wildlife on farms is based on actual scientific data collected by other scientists which shows higher levels of wildlife on organic farms.

“The paper contains a number of basic misunderstandings about organic farming such as not including livestock in the system, and treating organic clover leys as ‘intensive’ grassland.

“This research is of no interest or use to consumers, as there is no formal definition, legal or otherwise, of the ‘integrated’ system made up by the researchers.”

Others prefer to view the research as a step, however small, in the right direction. Studies of methods’ effectiveness and environmental impacts advance the realm of farming, pushing the age-old practice to new millennium heights.

As Oxford’s Professor David Macdonald, who directed the research, explains, “integrating the needs of food production and wildlife conservation is a major 21st Century challenge – humanity needs both, and it’s only by taking account of all the costs and benefits that the best compromises can be found.”

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