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Calculating the Value of Organic

Root nodules on hairy vetch.

Root nodules on hairy vetch store nitrogen captured from the air with help from Rhizobium bacteria. The stored nitrogen is released into the soil when the plant dies.

A team of international scientists has shown that assigning a dollar value to the benefits nature provides agriculture improves the bottom line for farmers while protecting the environment. The study confirms that organic farming systems do a better job of capitalizing on nature’s services.

Scientists from Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States describe the research they conducted on organic and conventional farms to arrive at dollar values for natural processes that aid farming and can substitute for costly fossil fuel-based inputs. The study appears in the journal PeerJ.

“By accounting for ecosystem services in agricultural systems and getting people to support the products from these systems around the world, we move stewardship of lands in a more sustainable direction, protecting future generations,” said Washington State University soil scientist John Reganold.

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Earthworms turning the soil, bees pollinating crops, plants pulling nitrogen out of the air into the soil and insects preying on pests like aphids — these are a few of nature’s services that benefit people but aren’t often factored into the price we pay at the grocery store.

The research team quantified the economic value of two ecosystem services — biological control of pests and the release of nitrogen from soil organic matter into plant-accessible forms — in 10 organic and 10 conventional fields on New Zealand grain farms.

The values of the two ecosystem services were greater for the organic systems, averaging $146 per acre each year compared to $64 per acre each year in their conventional counterparts.

The combined economic value, including the market value of the crops and the non-market value of the two ecosystem services, was also higher in the organic systems, averaging $1,165 per acre each year compared with $826 per acre each year in conventional fields. The study showed that the value of the two ecosystem services on the organic farms exceeded the combined cost of traditional pesticide and fertilizer inputs on the conventional farms.

This article appears in the June 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

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