The Rodale Institute’s 30-Year Farming Systems Trial Report


The Rodale Institute’s 30-year
Farming Systems Trial report
(1.3mb PDF)

The Rodale Institute has been, for a full 30 years now, conducting a long-term comparative Farming Systems Trial. Starting in 1981, when it was already abundantly clear that industrialising nature was creating far more problems than it solved, the Rodale Institute began documented research comparing organically fertilised fields and conventionally fertilised fields on its 330 acre farm in Pennsylvania, USA.

It’s the longest running comparative study of its kind in the world.

In time for their trial’s 30-year anniversary, the institute has put out a report outlining its documented observations. You can download this report via the link at right.

This report is one of several well-researched reports that have come out in recent years, including the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Failure to Yield report (which proves GMOs do not perform as claimed) and the IAASTD’s 400-scientist-strong, 3-year worldwide study (which concluded we need to quickly transition back to relocalised, diverse, agroecological methods).

Facts from the 30-year study

  • Organic yields match conventional yields.
  • Organic outperforms conventional in years of drought.
  • Organic farming systems build rather than deplete soil organic matter, making it a more sustainable system.
  • Organic farming uses 45% less energy and is more efficient.
  • Conventional systems produce 40% more greenhouse gases.
  • Organic farming systems are more profitable than conventional.

As it happens, quite a few countries worldwide are poised at an interesting juncture. (Actually, as it happens, all countries are poised at an interesting juncture, but ‘quite a few’ are actually realising it!) They’re recognising that continuing with business as usual is taking them to hell in a hand basket. Water tables are being both exhausted and polluted, soils are steadily eroding and being contaminated, and despite increasing use of pesticides (insecticides and herbicides), ‘pest‘ and disease problems are proving more troublesome than they ever were before the industrial revolution.

Indeed, in every area we’re seeing that applying a factory-floor mindset to our fields is resulting in our getting less and less out whilst putting more and more in. With resources failing, this is becoming critical.

And, as regular readers will know, I also like to ensure people are aware that there are a litany of other problems directly created by our present ‘mainstream’ methods of agriculture — from personal physical and mental health*, to unemployment, crime, social disintegration, greed, and, perhaps the greatest problem of all, growing detachment and ignorance about that most important area of knowledge: biology and the lessons it teaches us about the interconnectness, and thus the interdependencies, of life.

As a case in point (of nations realising they must change course), the EU is now debating a shift in its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidy program, so as to move more towards supporting ‘greener’ farmers. Given we’re talking about a full 47% of the EU’s entire budget, this is not an insignificant debate, and is thus also an area where Big Ag’s lobbyists will be doing everything they can to water down the result (just as they did for the last rehash of the U.S. Farm Bill). Still, I think we can see the writing on the wall for industrial agriculture. It is making sense, and cents, for less and less people, and its implementation is seeing our world getting increasingly ugly, on every front.

If people would recognise one simple lesson I think change would occur far more rapidly. That lesson is to understand that whilst water and soil depletion can occur very rapidly, restoring them to their former state takes much longer, with a much greater input of energy. This is particularly so when our natural systems are so far out of balance that our work is constantly attacked by the darker side of the forces of nature. Yes, Permaculture goes beyond the ‘organic’ systems trialled by the Rodale Institute, and can dramatically hasten regeneration, but to accommodate Permaculture at the scale required necessitates a rapid transition to create the supporting infrastructure to facilitate it. By ‘supporting infrastructure’ I refer to people having land to work (think land redistribution), and community support schemes and systems that incubate and foster healthy community and inter-community collaboration, and an educational network to undertake the necessary reskilling….

In short, if we don’t act quickly, then trying to restore our ecosystems back to stabilised health whilst simultaneously feeding, housing and mollycoddling our ever-growing and ever-more-demanding populations will become all but impossible.

The Rodale Institute’s 30-year report begs the question — will we spend another thirty years comparing sustainable farming methods with industrial farming methods, or will we do what needs to be done, and get rid of the latter entirely?

*I want to take a moment to share a personal conviction — and prediction — in the area of health: We will yet see a period of ill health of epidemic proportions. Man cannot live by NPK alone, and without life in our soils we’re getting little else…. A recent report that, globally, cancer rates have skyrocketed 20% in less than a decade is just the beginning of what I’m talking about.

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