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Organic farming methods produce crop yields that are, on average, 20 per cent smaller than conventional yields. But the organic approach more than makes up the difference in ecological benefits, according to a 21-year study.

Researchers led by Paul Mäder of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Switzerland compared plots of cropland grown according to organic and conventional methods.

They found that organic systems, which use no synthetic fertilisers or pesticides, are able to produce more with less energy and fewer resources. In addition, they found that the soil in plots farmed organically was more fertile, and was home to more abundant and more diverse groups of organisms.

"Our results suggest that, by enhancing soil fertility, organic farmers can help increase biodiversity," says Mäder.

The study, published in this week's issue of Science, has been described as the longest and most comprehensive study to date comparing organic and conventional farming.

"There is a need to evaluate farming systems as a whole system in a scientific way," says Mäder. "The most appropriate method to do this is still to conduct long-term experiments, which can be analysed statistically and performed under identical soil and climate conditions. Soil and biodiversity develop slowly, and this is why a long-term study is essential."

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Link to paper by Paul Mäder et al

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