A new study has found that organic farming is much more efficient at recycling nitrogen than conventional farming, helping reduce global nitrogen pollution, New Hope reports.
The research, from the University of Virginia in conjunction with The Organic Center, shows conventional farming heavily relies on newly created reactive nitrogen, primarily through the production of synthetic fertilizer, while 80 to 95% of organic farming’s inputs are from recycled nitrogen sources, like manure and compost for fertilization. Reactive nitrogen is essential for plant and animal growth, but contributes to many environmental problems, including ozone depletion, acid rain and ocean pollution.
Organic farming releases 64% less new reactive nitrogen into the environment than conventional farming, the study found, meaning that more benign, non-polluting nitrogen remains in the soil and the atmosphere.
Consumers already associate organic products with environmental benefits, and view a lack of fertilizers and pesticides as one of their defining features. Because mainstream shoppers already assume that organically grown foods are better for the environment than conventional counterparts, it's possible that this study may not be radically different enough to draw new converts to organic food.
That said, the research certainly won’t do the organic industry any harm — and may help convince hesitant farmers to convert to organic farming. That would be a boon for the sector in itself, considering that a vital question for the organic industry right now is whether supply can keep up with ever-rising consumer demand. Conversion to organic is a time-consuming and costly process, entailing a three-year transitional period in which farmers must adhere to organic practices without getting paid organic prices. Despite this, the number of organic farms has increased 300% since 2002 — but less than 1% of U.S. farmland is certified organic.
Meanwhile, organic produce now accounts for about 15% of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic foods account for 5.3% of U.S. food purchases and are in 82.3% of American households.
Consumers are willing to pay significantly more for organically grown products, but researchers have identified premium pricing as a limiting factor that continues to restrict the organic market from reaching its full potential. Better defined environmental benefits, such as nitrogen recycling, may encourage some consumers to dig deeper in their support of organic agriculture.