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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2020 Feb 11;117(6):2870-2878. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1906909117. Epub 2020 Jan 27.

Landscape context affects the sustainability of organic farming systems.

Author information

School of Biological Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164;
Department of Entomology, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164.
Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164.
School of Biological Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164.
Department of Entomology, China Agricultural University, Beijing 100193, China.
Global Lands Program, The Nature Conservancy, Fort Collins, CO 80524.


Organic agriculture promotes sustainability compared to conventional agriculture. However, the multifunctional sustainability benefits of organic farms might be mediated by landscape context. Assessing how landscape context affects sustainability may aid in targeting organic production to landscapes that promote high biodiversity, crop yields, and profitability. We addressed this using a meta-analysis spanning 60 crop types on six continents that assessed whether landscape context affected biodiversity, yield, and profitability of organic vs. conventional agroecosystems. We considered landscape metrics reflecting landscape composition (percent cropland), compositional heterogeneity (number and diversity of cover types), and configurational heterogeneity (spatial arrangement of cover types) across our study systems. Organic sites had greater biodiversity (34%) and profits (50%) than conventional sites, despite lower yields (18%). Biodiversity gains increased as average crop field size in the landscape increased, suggesting organic farms provide a "refuge" in intensive landscapes. In contrast, as crop field size increased, yield gaps between organic and conventional farms increased and profitability benefits of organic farming decreased. Profitability of organic systems, which we were only able to measure for studies conducted in the United States, varied across landscapes in conjunction with production costs and price premiums, suggesting socioeconomic factors mediated profitability. Our results show biodiversity benefits of organic farming respond differently to landscape context compared to yield and profitability benefits, suggesting these sustainability metrics are decoupled. More broadly, our results show that the ecological, but not the economic, sustainability benefits of organic agriculture are most pronounced in more intensive agricultural landscapes.


agriculture; biodiversity; meta-analysis; profitability; yield

[Available on 2020-07-27]

Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare no competing interest.

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