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Keywords:

  • agricultural management;
  • diversity;
  • farming systems;
  • landscape complexity;
  • species richness

Summary

  1. The benefits of organic farming to biodiversity in agricultural landscapes continue to be hotly debated, emphasizing the importance of precisely quantifying the effect of organic vs. conventional farming.
  2. We conducted an updated hierarchical meta-analysis of studies that compared biodiversity under organic and conventional farming methods, measured as species richness. We calculated effect sizes for 184 observations garnered from 94 studies, and for each study, we obtained three standardized measures reflecting land-use intensity. We investigated the stability of effect sizes through time, publication bias due to the ‘file drawer’ problem, and consider whether the current literature is representative of global organic farming patterns.
  3. On average, organic farming increased species richness by about 30%. This result has been robust over the last 30 years of published studies and shows no sign of diminishing.
  4. Organic farming had a greater effect on biodiversity as the percentage of the landscape consisting of arable fields increased, that is, it is higher in intensively farmed regions. The average effect size and the response to agricultural intensification depend on taxonomic group, functional group and crop type.
  5. There is some evidence for publication bias in the literature; however, our results are robust to its impact. Current studies are heavily biased towards northern and western Europe and North America, while other regions with large areas of organic farming remain poorly investigated.
  6. Synthesis and applications. Our analysis affirms that organic farming has large positive effects on biodiversity compared with conventional farming, but that the effect size varies with the organism group and crop studied, and is greater in landscapes with higher land-use intensity. Decisions about where to site organic farms to maximize biodiversity will, however, depend on the costs as well as the potential benefits. Current studies have been heavily biased towards agricultural systems in the developed world. We recommend that future studies pay greater attention to other regions, in particular, areas with tropical, subtropical and Mediterranean climates, in which very few studies have been conducted.