Thanks to Jeremy Bartlett for more on how organic farming can be more profitable, produce tastier food at similar yields compared to conventional farming, and be better for the environment at the same time.
The fruits of organic farming
19 April 2001
Nature © Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
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 EarthT"), 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.
Sustainability of three apple production systems JOHN P. REGANOLD, JERRY D. GLOVER, PRESTON K. ANDREWS & HERBERT R. HINMAN Nature 410, 926-930 (19 April 2001)
Policy: Green apples upset cart
Organic apples: sweet and sustainable.
Thursday 19 April 2001
© John Reganold
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 time 1.
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 methods.
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 last.
What's more, untrained tasters rated the organic apples the sweetest.
"This is one of the first well-replicated rigorous experiments that's looked at all of the benefits and costs involved in an alternative framing practice," says David Tilman, who works on sustainable development at the University of Minnesota in St Paul.
"We kept track of everything that went in," says Reganold. By recording inputs of compost, chemicals and even the amount of fuel used by farming machinery, Reganold's team produced an 'environmental impact assessment' for each growing method.
Critics say organic farming is based more on ideology than on environmental or economic merit 2 . 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."
1. Reganold, J. P., Glover, J. D., Andrews, P. K., Hinman, H. R. Sustainability of three apple production systems. Nature 410, 926-930 (2001).
2. Trewavas, A. Urban myths of organic farming. Nature 410, 409-410 (2001).
3. Drinkwater, L. E., Wagoner, P. & Sarrantonio, M. Legume-based cropping systems have reduced carbon and nitrogen losses. Nature 396, 262-265 (1998).
© Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2001 - NATURE NEWS SERVICE
Sustainability of three apple production systems
JOHN P. REGANOLD, JERRY D. GLOVER, PRESTON K. ANDREWS & HERBERT R. HINMAN
Nature © Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2001 Reg. No. 785998 England.
Nature 410, 926 - 930 (2001) © Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
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 systems.
It has been claimed, 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 1990s. Integrated farming, using a combination of organic and conventional techniques, has been successfully adopted on a wide scale in Europe.
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.