Organic farming is a realistic alternative
It's strange how a movement that began with the best of intentions has managed to generate so much animosity.
I'm talking about organic farming. But while a few people seem convinced it's a scam, the research continues to suggest otherwise.
Organically grown food is certainly popular. People buy it for any number of reasons: They say it tastes better, they're concerned about the effects of pesticide residue on their families' health, and they believe it is less harmful to the environment. They're willing to pay a premium price for it too.
Because the organic movement is relatively new, there has not been a wealth of scientific data to confirm organic farmers' anecdotal observations that this method produces good yields while maintaining healthier soils and ecosystems.
Such claims are too good to be true, according to some proponents of industrial agriculture. A few years ago, the Nature of Things did a program on organic farming. I thought it was a Mom-and-apple pie-type show that everyone would love.
To my amazement, we were inundated with letters of outrage from university agriculture facilities and chemical companies, arguing that conventional monocultures with copious inputs of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides were the only way we could possibly feed our growing human population.
Today, some critics seem genuinely angry at the success of the organic movement. They've written books and published articles in journals saying that organic farmers are starry-eyed idealists who are trying to bring back 19th century farming practices that will reduce yields by four times and thus, if widely adopted, will lead to mass starvation.
But organic farming isn't about turning back the clock; it's about moving forward. It's about smart farming to help maintain healthy ecosystems.
Conventional farming produces high yields, but there are also enormous costs: pollution of groundwater, rivers, lakes, and coastal areas and reduced soil productivity through nutrient leaching. The use of pesticides and herbicides also kills beneficial nontarget species and poses a health risk to farm workers and potentially to consumers. None of these "external" costs are factored in to the price of conventionally grown crops.
Organic farming seeks to reduce these external costs, and it seems to be working. According to a landmark 21-year study recently published in the journal Science, organic farming can produce good yields, save energy, maintain biodiversity, and keep soils healthy.
The study took place on 1.5 hectares in Switzerland using four farming methods and several different crops. Crop yields, on average, were 20 percent lower using organic methods, but they required 56 percent less energy per unit of yield. Organic plots also had 40 percent greater colonization by fungi that help plants absorb nutrients, three times as many earthworms, and twice as many pest-eating spiders.
Some crops fared better under organic systems than did others. Potatoes, for example, produced 38 percent lower yields, but winter wheat was just 10 percent lower. The researchers said, "We conclude that organically manured, legume-based crop rotations utilizing organic fertilizers from the farm itself are a realistic alternative to conventional farming systems."
Other studies have also shown similar results. A comparison study completed last year on apples, for example, found that organic crops can produce yields similar to conventional crops — and they taste better. Another paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology last year found that using organic methods to grow tomatoes can promote biodiversity while maintaining productivity.
It is important to keep in mind that there is much that we don't know about agriculture, and there is likely no ultimate answer to our food production needs. To feed our growing population we have to be open to all ideas, new and old.
And we mustn't let the entrenched interests of the commercial agriculture and biotechnology industries dictate the future of our food when less intensive and damaging alternatives are available.