The results of two new studies support the claim that organic farming is more economically and environmentally sustainable compared with conventional methods.
The study on apples, lead by John Reganold of Washington State University in the US, is reported in Nature Magazine. The other study, on wheat in Australia, is in a yet to be published report to the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation by David Dumaresq of the Australian National University.
The Reganold study compared three different farming systems (organic, conventional and integrated) in experimental plots over five years, measuring specific indicators of sustainability including soil quality, horticultural performance, orchard profitability, environmental quality and energy efficiency.
Yields in the organic plots were comparable to the conventional ones and by the end of the study the organic system ranked first on both environmental and economic measures. A team of untrained volunteers also reported that organic apples tasted better.
In the study of Australian wheat, ANU agricultural systems researcher David Dumaresq measured the same indicators and also rated organic farming first. Rather than a randomised plot trial, however, Dumaresq compared an existing organic farm which had been functioning for 40 years with comparable conventional farms.
"We found that while organic yields were lower than conventional crops, costs per hectare were lower and returns were much higher because of the premium for organic produce", he told ABC Science Online. "If we assume that the farms are run in a similar way, organic wheat is substantially more profitable than conventionally grown wheat".
Dumaresq said that the majority of studies done on organic farming around the world had found that yields were similar to or lower than conventional farming. His study found that organic wheat farm yields were 65% of those of conventional farms.
Feeding the world
Professor John Lovett from the Grains Research and Development Corporation said he was "open-minded" about organic agriculture but suggested production levels would not be sufficient to feed the world.
"Organic premiums are great for the organic farmer but lousy for the thousands of starving people in the world," he told ABC Science Online.
However Dumaresq says research into increasing organic yields has barely begun. Reganold also suggests the cost of organic farming could be brought down by valuing the environmental benefits such as better soil quality.
"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," writes Reganold.
"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".
Melbourne-based environmental consultant, Jason Alexandra, who himself runs organic apple orchards, suggests "Instead of the consumer paying more for organic farming, one option would be to tax the chemical inputs into conventional systems to incorporate the costs which would make such production more expensive and this would be reflected in the price."
Alexandra says the real strength of the Reganold study is its "objective measures of sustainability".
"It helps to get away from the philosophical argument," he said.
However, he said there needs to be a rigorous debate about the measures used to assess ecological sustainability.
"It's not just about the indicators you use, it's how you weight them," he said. "There's a lot of assumptions about what's good for the environment".
Lovett adds that apples might be more amenable to organic growing than wheat.
"The situation in horticulture may well be more favourable for organic production because if you've got a high value product you might be able to substitute manual pest control for chemical control, " he said. "Whereas it is difficult to grow broadacre crops without chemicals and get the same productivity".
Written by: Anna Salleh, ABC Science Online
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