Putting a price on nature’s services to agriculture

Scientists calculate the economic value of organic farming processes

On organic farms, nature does a lot of the heavy lifting. Earthworms turn the soil. Insects prey on pests. Cover crops supply organic matter to the soil and make nitrogen available to plants. Farmers who take advantage of these natural processes can sidestep expenditures on costly and less eco-friendly alternatives.

In dollars and cents, exactly how much is Mother Nature’s labor worth?

Washington State University soil scientist John Reganold was part of an international team of scholars that put a sticker price on the benefits that nature provides agriculture. In a study funded by the New Zealand Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, scientists calculated economic values of two organic farming processes: pest control and fertilization. They compared the numbers to values of conventional, fossil fuel-based alternatives.

Determinants of value included factors such as market prices of crops, size of crop yields, costs of fertilizers and pesticides, predation rates of pests like aphids, and the rate of mineralization, or return of nitrogen to the soil by decay.

The difference was clear: Organic agricultural services deliver more than twice value of their conventional counterparts.

As the population surges in the decades ahead, farmers will need to produce greater quantities of food. In the face of climate change, they will be challenged to maintain yields under increasingly unstable conditions. Dr. Reganold hopes that the lure of greater value will spur a shift toward sustainable farming methods that protect future generations.