The fruits of organic farming

Les Schaffer schaffer at
Wed Apr 18 14:41:43 MDT 2001

there was some discussion several weeks ago about organic
vs. non-organic farming.....

from this week's Nature:

The fruits of organic farming

The market for organic produce is growing, but the science behind
organic farming has been questioned. A recent Commentary in Nature (
410, 409-410; 2001) called for proper scientific testing of claims
that organic farming is superior. A contribution to the scientific
comparison of farming methods is published this week. In a six-year
study in Washington State (where they produce "The Best Apples on
Earth™"), organic apples scored better than the competition. Yields
were much the same, but organic apples were sweeter and less tart, and
ranked above integrated and conventional apples for environmental and
economic sustainability.


Green apples upset cart

A study of apple farming published today finds that organic orchards
can be more profitable, produce tastier fruit at similar yields
compared to conventional farming, and be better for the environment at
the same time1.

John Reganold and colleagues at Washington State University in Pullman
farmed three experimental plots of Golden Delicious apples (Malus x
domestica) using organic, conventional and 'integrated' growing

Although the organic system took longer to reach profitability, it
ranked first in terms of environmental sustainability, profitability
and energy efficiency by the end of the six-year study. Integrated
farming, which reduces the use of chemicals by combining organic and
conventional production methods, came second, conventional farming

[ snip ]

Critics say organic farming is based more on ideology than on
environmental or economic merit2 . They also worry that because
organic farming is often more energy intensive and produces lower
yields than conventional methods it may place an even higher burden on
the environment.

Although Reganold's study finds that this is certainly not the case
for growing Golden Delicious in Washington, it does not necessarily
imply that organic farming is more environmentally and economically
sound for other types of agriculture in other regions, he admits.

Dennis Avery, director of the Center for Global Food Issues in
Churchville, Virginia argues that this is a persistent problem with
research hailing the benefits of organic systems.

"The real issue of sustainability doesn't have a lot to do with
intensive fruit and vegetable production," says Avery. He argues that
it is the large-scale production of staple crops like wheat, corn,
rice and wood that have the greatest impact on whether or not
agriculture is environmentally and economically sustainable and that
organic methods cannot produce sufficient yields in these crop systems
to compete with conventional methods. "Organic field crops are 50 to
60 percent less productive per acre," says Avery.

But organic farming experts argue that if there was as much research
into 'alternative' farming practices as there is into conventional
ones, the muddy boot could be on the other foot when it comes to the
sustainability of organic farming.

"The research input that goes into organic farming is so small that I
just get irritated at people who are trying to make comparisons
between the two systems when there isn't a level playing field," says
Martin Wolfe, an organic farming researcher at Wakelyns Agroforestry
in Suffolk, UK.

Alternative farming practices could lose their unscientific "muck and
luck" image if there were more thorough studies into organic methods
such as Reganold's, says Wolfe. "As more of a scientific spotlight
plays on what is occurring, in most cases it will emerge that organic
farming is coming up with the goods."


Nature 410, 926 - 930 (2001) © Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Sustainability of three apple production systems


* Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Washington State University,
Pullman, Washington 99164, USA

† Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Washington
State University, Pullman, Washington 99164, USA

‡ Department of Agricultural Economics, Washington State University,
Pullman, Washington 99164, USA

Escalating production costs, heavy reliance on non-renewable
resources, reduced biodiversity, water contamination, chemical
residues in food, soil degradation and health risks to farm workers
handling pesticides all bring into question the sustainability of
conventional farming systems1-4. It has been claimed5, 6, however,
that organic farming systems are less efficient, pose greater health
risks and produce half the yields of conventional farming
systems. Nevertheless, organic farming became one of the fastest
growing segments of US and European agriculture during the 1990s7,
8. Integrated farming, using a combination of organic and conventional
techniques, has been successfully adopted on a wide scale in
Europe9. Here we report the sustainability of organic, conventional
and integrated apple production systems in Washington State from 1994
to 1999. All three systems gave similar apple yields. The organic and
integrated systems had higher soil quality and potentially lower
negative environmental impact than the conventional system. When
compared with the conventional and integrated systems, the organic
system produced sweeter and less tart apples, higher profitability and
greater energy efficiency. Our data indicate that the organic system
ranked first in environmental and economic sustainability, the
integrated system second and the conventional system last.


Our results show that organic and integrated apple production systems
in Washington State are not only better for soil and the environment
than their conventional counterpart but have comparable yields and,
for the organic system, higher profits and greater energy
efficiency. Although crop yield and quality are important products of
a farming system, the benefits of better soil and environmental
quality provided by the organic and integrated production systems are
equally valuable and usually overlooked in the marketplace. Such
external benefits come at a financial cost to growers. Currently,
growers of more sustainable systems may be unable to maintain
profitable enterprises without economic incentives, such as price
premiums or subsidies for organic and integrated products, that value
these external benefits. Equally important, upon incorporation of
external costs into economic assessments of farming systems, we may
find that many currently profitable farming systems are uneconomical
and therefore unsustainable. The challenge facing policymakers is to
incorporate the value of ecosystem processes into the traditional
marketplace, thereby supporting food producers in their attempts to
employ both economically and environmentally sustainable practices.


les schaffer

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