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A meta-analysis of maize and wheat yields in low-input vs conventional and organic systems

Developing sustainable yet high-yield agricultural systems is a major priority in today’s world. Researchers at INRA have recently published a meta-analysis of wheat and maize crops showing that yields from low-input farming (using few phytosanitary products) drop only slightly compared to conventional agriculture.

Location of the 15 crop systems experiments studied in this meta-analysis: United States (7 sites), Canada (2 sites), France (4 sites), Sweden (1 site), Switserland (2 sites) and Norway (1 site). Map by L. Hossard with ggplot2 (Wickam, 2009) and maptools (Bivand and Lewin-Koh, 2015) of R software (R Development Core Team, 2013).. © INRA, Laure Hossard
Updated on 04/22/2016
Published on 04/01/2016

Finding a middle ground between conventional and organic farming

Organic and low-input farming have been put forward as ways to reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture. Previous studies have shown that yields from organic farming can be 19% to 25% lower than those from conventional agriculture. An intermediary approach, called low input farming, could offer a solution that is less damaging to the environment than conventional agriculture, but still provides higher yields than organic farming. In this study, researchers compared low-input farming to conventional and organic farming. The meta-analysis was based on data from cropping system trials run in Europe and North America and focused on two major crops: maize (Zea mays L.) and winter wheat (Triticum aestivum L.).

Nearly identical yields with fewer pesticides

The study showed that pesticide use was significantly lower in low-input farming compared to conventional agriculture in both crops (on average, 50% for maize and 70% for wheat). The average use of mineral nitrogen fertilizer was also reduced by 36% for maize and 28% for wheat in low-input farming compared to conventional farming. Low-input maize yields were equal to those from conventional agriculture and higher than those from organic farming (by a factor of 1.24). Low-input wheat yields were lower than conventional yields (by a factor of 0.88), but substantially higher than organic yields (by a factor of 1.43).
This study is one of the first meta-analyses to offer yield estimates of low-input cropping systems. It shows that these farming systems can greatly reduce pesticide use without considerably diminishing yields compared to conventional agriculture.

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A Meta-Analysis of Maize and Wheat Yields in Low-Input vs. Conventional and Organic Systems, Laure Hossard, David W. Archer, Michel Bertrand, Caroline Colnenne-David, Philippe Debaeke, Maria Ernfors, Marie-Helene Jeuffroy, Nicolas Munier-Jolain, Chris Nilsson, Gregg R. Sanford, Sieg S. Snapp, Erik S. Jensen and David Makowski, Agronomy Journal, 26 February 2016, https://dl.sciencesocieties.org/publications/aj/abstracts/0/0/agronj2015.0512

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This research was part of the INRA/CIRAD GloFoodS metaprogramme.