Like virtual water and virtual emissions, looking at organic food through a prism of implicit benefits translated into estimated dollars makes it look a lot more economically viable than it otherwise might appear.

The new estimate says that organic farming systems do a better job of capitalizing on nature's services than they are credited with, and natural processes that aid farming and that can substitute for costly fossil fuel-based inputs are cost-effective.

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 in to the price we pay at the grocery store. The value of ecosystem service benefits provided to people by nature is rarely quantified in agricultural studies and not taken into account in the real world of economic markets.

If organic food is not viable for most of the world economically, it is only because they use real money rather than virtual money. The team created a virtual 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.

They found that the virtual money of the two ecosystem services was greater for the organic systems, averaging $146 per acre each year compared to $64 per acre each year in their conventional counterparts. The combined virtual money, including the market value of the crops and the non-market value of the two ecosystem services, was much higher in the organic systems, averaging $1,165 per acre each year compared with $826 per acre each year in conventional fields, due to consumers willingness to pay far more for food that uses organic chemicals rather than synthetic.

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. The scientists calculated that the virtual money value of these two services could exceed the global costs of pesticides and fertilizers for growing similar crops, even if the two services were used in just 10 percent of the world's cropland. 

The authors advocate for government incentives to reflect this higher value of ecosystem services and so they can be realized by conventional and other farming systems by adopting farming practices like diverse crop rotations and cover crops. 

"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 co-author John Reganold, a Washington State University organic farming proponent who also claimed in a 2010 paper that using the 'sensory' quality of organic strawberries made them virtually better than conventional.

Citation: Sandhu et al. (2015), Significance and value of non-traded ecosystem services on farmland. PeerJ 3:e762; DOI 10.7717/peerj.762.