Organic farming isn’t just green — it’s very good business

A laborer packs community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes full of tomatoes at J.R. Organics Farm in Escondido, California, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. Photographer: Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg

With a growing body of evidence pointing to the environmental damage inflicted by large-scale agriculture — from rainforest clearing and other forms of habitat destruction, to high carbon outputs and the ecological impacts of pesticides — exploring more eco-friendly farming systems is a high priority for environmentalists and policymakers alike.

One potential solution gaining support is organic agriculture, a form of farming that avoids synthetic chemicals and genetically modified organisms. It is often touted by environmentalists as a more sustainable alternative to conventional farming. And now, new research shows that it’s financially sustainable for farmers, too.

A study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the premium farmers can charge for organic products make it more profitable than conventional farming.

Researchers David Crowder and John Reganold from Washington State University conducted a meta-analysis of 44 studies on organic agriculture, which included 55 crops grown in 14 countries across five continents. They found that when farmers did not charge a premium for organic food, it was significantly less profitable than conventional agriculture. But when they did charge a premium, organic agriculture was 22 to 35 percent more profitable.

Crowder, lead author and assistant professor of entomology at Washington State University, says he and Reganold became interested in the topic after reading a study several years ago that indicated that organic farming produces a lower crop yield than conventional agriculture.

“We knew going into this that organic agriculture is less productive in terms of crop yields than conventional agriculture,” Crowder says. “But when [Reganold] and I really started doing this, we said, ‘Yields are really just one component of financial sustainability.’”

Still, Crowder says, he and Reganold were surprised by how much more profitable organic agriculture turned out to be. In order to match conventional profits, organic farmers would need to charge premiums of 5 to 7 percent. But in their study, Crowder and Reganold found that organic farmers were charging much more, a 29 to 32 percent premium, boosting profitability.

These bigger profits are good news for conventional farmers who...