Crop yield gap and stability in organic and conventional farming systems
Schrama, M. ; Haan, J.J. de; Kroonen, M. ; Verstegen, H. ; Putten, W.H. Van der - \ 2018
Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 256 (2018). - ISSN 0167-8809 - p. 123 - 130.
Ecological intensification - Nutrient leaching - Soil communities - Spatial stability - Sustainable intensification - Variability
A key challenge for sustainable intensification of agriculture is to produce increasing amounts of food and feed with minimal biodiversity loss, nutrient leaching, and greenhouse gas emissions. Organic farming is considered more sustainable, however, less productive than conventional farming. We analysed results from an experiment started under identical soil conditions comparing one organic and two conventional farming systems. Initially, yields in the organic farming system were lower, but approached those of both conventional systems after 10–13 years, while requiring lower nitrogen inputs. Unexpectedly, organic farming resulted in lower coefficient of variation, indicating enhanced spatial stability, of pH, nutrient mineralization, nutrient availability, and abundance of soil biota. Organic farming also resulted in improved soil structure with higher organic matter concentrations and higher soil aggregation, a profound reduction in groundwater nitrate concentrations, and fewer plant-parasitic nematodes. Temporal stability between the three farming systems was similar, but when excluding years of Phytophthora outbreaks in potato, temporal stability was higher in the organic farming system. There are two non-mutually exclusive mechanistic explanations for these results. First, the enhanced spatial stability in the organic farming system could result from changes in resource-based (i.e. bottom-up) processes, which coincides with the observed higher nutrient provisioning throughout the season in soils with more organic matter. Second, enhanced resource inputs may also affect stability via increased predator-based (i.e. top-down) control. According to this explanation, predators stabilize population dynamics of soil organisms, which is supported by the observed higher soil food web biomass in the organic farming system.We conclude that closure of the yield gap between organic and conventional farming can be a matter of time and that organic farming may result in greater spatial stability of soil biotic and abiotic properties and soil processes. This is likely due to the time required to fundamentally alter soil properties.