Trade-offs in the performance of alternative farming systems

Navin Ramankutty*, Vincent Ricciardi, Zia Mehrabi, Verena Seufert

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Numerous alternative farming systems are proposed as solutions to the sustainability challenges of today's conventional farming systems. In this paper, we review the production, environmental, and socioeconomic performance of three widely discussed and promoted alternative farming systems—organic, smallholder, and urban agriculture. We show that both organic and smallholder agricultures have some benefits, but also entail important trade-offs; organic has environmental benefits, and also livelihood, health, and nutritional benefits for producers and consumers, but is hampered by lower yields and higher prices. Smaller farms have higher yields and host higher biodiversity, but are hampered by lower incomes to farmers. Urban agriculture can take some pressure off rural landscapes, provide nutritional benefits to the urban poor, and engage urban dwellers in addressing food system challenges, but it simply cannot scale up to be a substantial solution in and of itself. We suggest that instead of focusing on alternative systems, we should identify pathways to sustainable farming for all systems, reforming conventional systems where they perform poorly, and transitioning to alternative systems in contexts where they perform best.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)97-105
Number of pages9
JournalAgricultural Economics (United Kingdom)
Issue numberS1
Early online date29 Oct 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2019


  • organic farming
  • Q01
  • Q56
  • smallholders
  • sustainability
  • urban agriculture


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