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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.


  1. This report is truly the end of unsustainable agriculture. Sustainability ensures our long term survival and is the priority, so its a plus that organic farming also provides healthier food and a better environment.

  2. Hi Craig,

    I agree with your comments. THE NPK issue is particularly interesting because as I’m producing more and more food here, I can see and taste the difference between the stuff that grows here and store purchased fruit and veg. The really interesting thing is that the greens here have thicker and tastier leaves, than shop purchased veg. Plus the mention of drought years is true, with soils high in organic matter there is less shock on the fruit trees.



  3. Chris – when I studied organic biological agriculture, part of the studies looked at differences between conventional produce and those produced with living soils. Because plants are, in simplistic terms, when it comes to water, basically ‘pumps’ (pumping water up from below), when they have water-soluble fertiliser they suck it up, grow rapidly and ‘look’ great, but the differences in nutrition are quite striking. Conventional plants have more water, and less dry matter. Conventional produce thus rots quicker. How often do we get frustrated by store bought produce that rots before it’s even ripened? Produce from living soils produce, tomatoes, for example, which you can put on a shelf, and instead of rotting, they’ll simply dry and shrivel up over time. Plants that are instead fed a balanced diet through symbiotic exchanges between the plant’s roots and the micro-organisms that surround them, end up getting much more than just NPK, but also trace elements the plants (and we!) need for health. This makes the natural defences of plants much stronger, eliminating a great deal of ‘pest’ problems, and when we eat these healthy ‘broad spectrum’ nutrient bombs, we also receive the gift of strong immune systems.

    This should interest:

    If the world persists with its industrial agricultural mindset, and the GMOs born of it, I think they’ll have to design a human capable of eating this crap without getting sick….

  4. Hi Craig,

    Thanks for the link it was most informative. Your comment brought to mind two further issues:

    1) The fruit grown here is often smaller, but far more intensively flavoured (which I prefer) than store brought produce. I suspect that this has something to do with the balance between plant matter and water that you mentioned. I’m aware that many commercial orchardists flood their orchards with water prior to picking in order to increase the weight of the fruit because they are paid by weight rather than quality or taste; and

    2) When you wrote in your comment about exchanges with the plants root systems, it started me thinking about how the fruit trees here tend to suffer the most problems within the first year or two whilst they are establishing. The longer they are established in organic soils, the hardier they become. Curly leaf has been a bit of a problem here this year due to the extreme wet weather, but the older nectarines and peaches tend to be a lot hardier than the more recently planted trees.



  5. Craig, I only recently encountered the FST study report. I was wondering about the study design, in particular that they rotated 7 crops in 8 years on the organic side, but only 2 crops in 2 years on the conventional side. Now clearly the latter represents conventional farming as it’s usually done today, but someone could argue about the possible performance of the conventional side if crop rotation was more frequent or equal to the organic side.
    Now, I’m just a Permaculture enthusiast with no scientific background except a PDC, so I would like to hear your opinion on this. Thanks!

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