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Synthesis/Regeneration 30   (Winter 2003)

Organic Agriculture Fights Back

by Lim Li Ching, Institute of Science in Society

Organic farming largely excludes synthetic inputs—pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers—and focuses instead on biological processes such as composting and other measures to maintain soil fertility, natural pest control and diversifying crops and livestock. Organic agriculture gives priority to long-term ecological health, such as biodiversity and soil quality, contrasting with conventional farming, which concentrates on short-term productivity gains.

Organic farming has been denigrated for being less efficient in land use and having lower yields than conventional farming, and even accused of posing potential health risks.

But there are scientific studies, peer-reviewed and published, documenting organic agriculture’s positive outcomes. Furthermore, certified organic production is just the tip of the iceberg. De facto organic farming is prevalent in resource-poor, agriculturally marginal regions where local populations have limited engagement with the cash economy. Farmers rely on locally available natural resources to maintain soil fertility and to combat pests and diseases. They are showing the way towards sustainable agriculture through sophisticated systems of crop rotation, soil management, and pest and disease control, based on traditional knowledge.

The charge that organic farming is lower-yielding is misleading.

The charge that organic farming is lower-yielding is misleading. Studies simply evaluating the reduction or elimination of inputs in conventional systems may not accurately represent conditions in alternative systems. Furthermore, comparisons made when farms have just turned organic do not tell the whole story, as it takes a few years for yields to increase.

A study on conventional and alternative farming systems for tomatoes over four years indicates that organic and low-input agriculture produce yields comparable to conventional systems. Nitrogen (N) availability was the most important factor limiting yield in organic systems, and can be satisfied by biological inputs.

Another experiment examined organic and conventional potatoes and sweet corn over three years. Results showed that yield and vitamin C content of potatoes were not affected by the two different regimes. While one variety of conventional corn out-produced the organic, there was no difference in yield of another variety or the vitamin C or E contents. Results indicate that long-term application of composts is producing higher soil fertility and comparable plant growth.

A review of replicated research results in seven different US Universities and from Rodale Research Center, Pennsylvania and the Michael Fields Center, Wisconsin over the past 10 years showed that organic farming systems resulted in yields comparable to industrial, high-input agriculture.

The most remarkable results of organic farming…have come from small farmers in developing countries.

The most remarkable results of organic farming, however, have come from small farmers in developing countries. Case studies of organic practices show dramatic increases in yields as well as benefits to soil quality, reduction in pests and diseases and general improvement in taste and nutritional content. For example, in Brazil the use of green manures and cover crops increased maize yields by between 20% and 250%; in Tigray, Ethiopia, yields of crops from composted plots were 3–5 times higher than those treated only with chemicals; yield increases of 175% have been reported from farms in Nepal adopting agro-ecological practices; and in Peru the restoration of traditional Incan terracing has led to increases of 150% for a range of upland crops.

Projects in Senegal involving 2000 farmers promoted stall-fed livestock, composting systems, use of green manures, water harvesting systems and rock phosphate. Yields of millet and peanuts increased dramatically, by 75-195% and 75-165% respectively. Because the soils have greater water retaining capacity, fluctuations in yields are less pronounced between high and low rainfall years. A project in Honduras, which emphasized soil conservation practices and organic fertilizers, saw a tripling or quadrupling of yields.

In Santa Catarina, Brazil, focus has been placed on soil and water conservation, using contour grass barriers, contour plowing and green manures. Some 60 different crop species, leguminous and non-leguminous, have been inter-cropped or planted during fallow periods. These have had major impacts on yields, soil quality, levels of biological activity and water-retaining capacity. Yields of maize and soybeans have increased by 66%.

… in Peru the restoration of traditional Incan terracing has led to increases of 150% for a range of upland crops.

The world’s longest-running experiment comparing organic and conventional farming pronounced the former a success. The 21-year study found that soils nourished with manure were more fertile and produced more crops for a given input of nitrogen or other fertilizer. Nutrient input in the organic systems was 34 to 51% lower than in the conventional systems, whereas mean crop yield was only 20% lower over 21 years, indicating efficient production and use of resources. The ecological and efficiency gains more than made up for lower yields.

The biggest bonus was improved quality of the soil under organic cultivation. Organic soils had up to 3.2 times as much biomass and abundance of earthworms, twice as many arthropods (important predators and indicators of soil fertility) and 40% more mycorrhizal fungi colonizing plant roots. Mycorrhizal fungi are important in helping roots obtain more nutrients and water from the soil.

Indeed, organic agriculture is helping to conserve and improve farmers’ most precious resource—the topsoil. To counter the problems of hardening, nutrient loss and erosion, organic farmers in the South are using trees, shrubs and leguminous plants to stabilize soil, dung and compost to provide nutrients, and terracing or check dams to prevent erosion and conserve groundwater.

Critics of organic farming have disingenuously pointed to the possible human health effects of using manure. But untreated manure is not allowed in certified organic culture, and treated manure (known widely as compost) is safe—this is what is used in organic farming. Unlike conventional regimes (where manure might be used), mandatory organic certification bodies inspect farms to ensure standards are met.

Another means to restore soil fertility in organic systems is through legumes. A 15-year study compared three maize/soybean agro-ecosystems. One was a conventional system using mineral N fertilizer and pesticides. The other two systems were managed organically. One was manure-based, where grasses and legumes, grown as part of a crop rotation, were fed to cattle. The manure provided N for maize production. The other did not have livestock; N fixed by legumes was incorporated into soil.

Amazingly, the 10-year-average maize yields differed by less than 1% among the three systems. Soil organic matter and N content increased markedly in the manure system and, to a lesser degree, in the legume system, but were unchanged or declined in the conventional system. The latter had greater environmental impacts—60% more nitrate leached into groundwater over a 5-year period than in the organic systems.

In Honduras, the mucuna bean has improved crop yields on steep, easily eroded hillsides with depleted soils. Farmers first plant mucuna, which produces masses of vigorous growth that suppresses weeds. When the beans are cut down, maize is planted in the resulting mulch. Subsequently, beans and maize are grown together. Very quickly, as the soil improves, yields of grain are doubled, even tripled. Mucuna produces 100 tons of organic material per hectare, creating rich, friable soils in just 2–3 years. Mucuna also produces its own fertilizer, fixing atmospheric N and storing it in the ground where it can be utilized by other plants.

Because organic farms don’t use synthetic pesticides, critics claim that losses due to pests would rise. However, research on California tomato production found that the withdrawal of synthetic insecticides does not lead to increased crop losses as a result of pest damage. There was no significant difference in pest damage levels on 18 commercial farms, half of which were certified organic systems and half conventional operations.

Arthropod biodiversity was on average one-third greater on organic farms than on conventional farms. There was no significant difference between the two for abundance of pests, but densities of natural enemies were more abundant on organic farms, with greater species richness of all functional groups (herbivores, predators, parasitoids). Thus, any particular pest species in organic farms would be diluted by a greater variety of herbivores and subject to a wider variety and greater abundance of potential parasitoids and predators.

…research has shown that pest control is achievable without pesticides, reversing crop losses.

At the same time, research has shown that pest control is achievable without pesticides, reversing crop losses. For example, in East Africa, maize and sorghum face two major pests—stemborer and Striga, a parasitic plant. Field margins are planted with “trap crops” that attract stemborer, such as Napier grass. Pests are lured away from the crop into a trap—the grass produces a sticky substance that kills stemborer larvae. The crops are inter-planted with molasses grass (Desmodium uncinatum) and two legumes: silverleaf and greenleaf. The legumes bind N, enriching the soil. But that’s not all. Desmodium also repels stemborers and Striga.

Korean researchers recently reported that avoiding pesticides in paddy fields encourages the muddy loach fish, which effectively control mosquitoes that spread malaria and Japanese encephalitis. The larvae numbers of the mosquito vectors were significantly lower in organic sites. Maintaining agricultural biodiversity is vital to ensuring long-term food security. Organic farms often exhibit greater biodiversity than conventional farms, with more trees, a wider diversity of crops and many different natural predators, which control pests and help prevent disease.

Proving with stunning results that planting a diversity of crops is beneficial compared with monocultures, thousands of Chinese rice farmers have doubled yields and nearly eliminated its most devastating disease, without using chemicals or spending more. Under the direction of scientists, farmers in Yunnan implemented a simple change that radically restricted the incidence of rice blast. Instead of planting large stands of a single type of rice, they planted a mixture of two different kinds: a standard rice that does not usually succumb to rice blast disease and a much more valuable sticky rice known to be very susceptible.

As more farmers participated, positive effects began to multiply. Not only were spores not blowing in from the next row, they were no longer coming from the next farmer’s field either, rapidly halting the disease’s spread.

Maintaining agricultural biodiversity is vital to ensuring long-term food security. Organic farms often exhibit greater biodiversity…

Furthermore, empirical evidence from a study conducted since 1994 shows that biodiverse ecosystems are 2–3 times more productive than monocultures. In experimental plots, both aboveground and total biomass increased significantly with species number. The high diversity plots were fairly immune to the invasion and growth of weeds, but this was not so for monocultures and low diversity plots.

Research published in Nature investigated the sustainability of organic, conventional and integrated (combining organic and conventional methods) apple production systems in Washington from 1994–1999. All three gave comparable yields, with no observable differences in physiological disorders or pest and disease damage.

The organic system ranked first in environmental and economic sustainability, the integrated system second and the conventional system last. Soil quality ratings in 1998 and 1999 for the organic and integrated systems were significantly higher than for the conventional system, due to the addition of compost and mulch. There were satisfactory levels of nutrients among all three systems. A consumer taste test found organic apples less tart at harvest and sweeter than conventional apples after six months of storage.

Organic apples were the most profitable due to price premiums and quicker investment return. Despite lower receipts in the first three years, due to the time taken to convert to certified organic farming, the price premium to the grower of organic fruit in the next three years averaged 50% above conventional prices. In the long term, the organic system recovered initial costs faster. The study projected that the organic system would break even after 9 years, but that the conventional system would do so only after 15 years, and the integrated system, after 17 years.

The environmental impact of the three systems was assessed by a rating index related to the potential adverse impacts of pesticides and fruit thinners: the higher the rating, the greater the negative impact. The conventional system index was 6.2 times that of the organic system. Despite higher labor needs, the organic system expended less energy on fertilizer, weed control and biological control of pests, making it the most energy efficient.

Despite adequate global food production, many still go hungry because increased food supply does not automatically mean increased food security for all. What’s important is who produces the food, who has access to the technology and knowledge to produce it, and who has the purchasing power to acquire it. Agriculture that is high-input, intensive and dependent on genetic engineering wrests control over agriculture, and ultimately food security, out of the hands of farming communities, into the hands of a few corporations. This model has to change.

Sustainable agriculture can deliver substantial increases in food production at low cost. It can be economically, environmentally and socially viable. There is thus urgent need to concentrate effort, research, funds and policy support on proven sustainable agricultural practices

This version is a compilation of articles that can be found at http://www.i-sis.org.uk/OrganicAgriculture.php.

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