For the past 50 years, pesticides have been poisoning our soil and our wildlife -- even our children. Will organic farming be able to reverse this toxic trend?

If you walk through the produce section of many supermarkets today you will see, next to one pile of perfect red tomatoes, another pile of perfect red tomatoes. The more expensive pile is labeled "organic." Before you choose the cheaper tomatoes, consider how they were grown.

Many conventional tomatoes begin life in a greenhouse with a starter solution of synthetic fertilizer, then are transplanted to a field that has been treated with 400 to 600 pounds per acre of 10-20-20 fertilizer. (The numbers represent the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.) The field has been fumigated with methyl bromide gas-an ozone-depleting chemical that is so toxic it is scheduled to be banned in 2005. The gas kills weed seeds and virtually everything else in the soil, but just in case, some growers use preemergence herbicides or paraquat, another highly toxic chemical, to destroy any weeds that do emerge. Many tomato crops are sprayed every week or two with fungicides such as chlorothalonil or mancozeb (chemicals highly toxic to fish) to control diseases. These chemicals are often mixed with insecticides such as endosulfan or metho-myl-pesticides that have caused die-offs in birds.

If all this sounds a little too unappetizing, consider those sweet, vine-ripened organic tomatoes, grown by someone like Stefan Hartmann and his wife, Carmen Buechel-Hartmann. At their Black River Organic Farm, in eastern North Carolina, the Hartmanns grow more than a dozen vegetables, from eggplant to winter squash. Every year their tomatoes win the taste-testing contest at Raleigh's trendy Wellspring Grocery.

The Hartmanns' growing process sounds downright bucolic. In the fall Stefan plants a cover crop of rye and vetch on his fields to provide nutrients and organic matter to the soil. He then chooses a tomato variety based on its resistance to disease and nematodes. The young plants are raised in a greenhouse using a home-brewed mixture of compost, peat moss, fish emulsion, and seaweed extract. The Hartmanns collect ladybugs and release them in the greenhouse to feed on the aphids that often appear. Instead of using chemical fertilizer, Stefan makes his own, using composted chicken litter, limestone, and potash. After planting, he covers the beds with wheat-straw mulch to control weeds.

"Basically, at that point I stand back and let them go," Hartmann says. Tomato fruitworms are his biggest concern. At the first sign of them, he sprays a biopesticide containing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring insect pathogen that controls lepidopterous insects but has no adverse impact on the environment. Last year, when the larvae were particularly bad, he sprayed only twice, a total of half a gallon on a half-acre plot. He never grows tomatoes in the same field until five years have passed; that keeps soil diseases and nematodes in check.

"When you buy organic produce, you buy the whole package," Hartmann says. "You are buying the concept that the farming system is good for the environment. This is what we're constantly telling consumers, and we as farmers have to constantly make sure that's so. Organic farmers are held accountable. Conventional farmers are not."

The difference between organic and conventional farming is the subject of a growing debate on the future of U.S. agriculture. The health of the nation's soil, waterways, wildlife, and even citizens hangs in the balance. Few human endeavors have more impact on our environment than the process by which we grow food. From the clearing of the eastern forests to the plowing of the Great Plains to the damming of western rivers for irrigation, agriculture has been a driving force in altering our landscape. As you read this, U.S. farmers are gearing up for another growing season. They will plant 70 percent of the nation's fields in just four crops-corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton-and will lose precious topsoil at an average of 10 times its rate of replenishment. They will apply 24 million tons of fertilizer and nearly 1 billion pounds of pesticides on their land. Some of these chemicals will invariably wind up in our groundwater, rivers, and estuaries. Some will also wind up in our food, our body fat, even the breast milk we feed our babies. An estimated 300,000 farmworkers will be poisoned by exposure to pesticides.

Researchers at Cornell University estimate that at least 67 million birds die each year from pesticides sprayed on U.S. fields; the annual number of fish killed is conservatively estimated at 6 to 14 million. Pesticides have also been implicated in numerous cases of wildlife deformities, including the shrunken reproductive organs of alligators in Florida and grotesque abnormalities of the eyes and limbs of frogs around the country. DDT, one of the greatest bird killers of all time, was banned in the United States in 1972, but it is still manufactured and exported overseas, particularly to Latin America, where many U.S. birds overwinter. Between 1992 and 1996 the U.S. Geological Survey sampled thousands of wells and streams around the nation and discovered that half the wells and nearly all the streams contained at least one pesticide.

What makes these figures even more dramatic is the fact that chemical-intensive agriculture is a fairly recent phenomenon. Many modern pesticides are the descendants of chemical weapons developed in World War II and were not widely used until the 1950s. Some insecticides used today act exactly like VX or sarin nerve gas: They inhibit the production of cholines-terase, causing the nervous system to backfire. Birds feeding in treated fields may exhibit quivering facial muscles and excessive tearing and salivation. At high doses their respiratory muscles begin to contract, and they die of asphyxiation.

Most farmers, however, saw pesticides as silver bullets, providing relatively cheap, extremely effective control of their worst problems. Even the professors at land grant universities seemed to give up on alternatives to chemical pest control-especially since chemical companies and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were shelling out millions of dollars for pesticide research. The trend continues: Of 30,000 research projects supported by the USDA in 1995 and 1996, only 34 focused on organic production, according to the Organic Farming Research Foundation, in Santa Cruz, California.

"The majority of farmers really want to do the right thing for the environment," says Fred Kirschenmann, a leader in the organic movement. "But they don't know how. They don't know where to get the information, and the companies they buy their chemicals from are certainly not helping them."

There are alternatives. In 1940, J. I. Rodale, the Pennsylvania agriculturist and publisher, was the first in the United States to use the word organic to describe a method of farming that en-hanced the health of consumers, the soil, and the planet. Rodale's method, promoted in his Organic Gardening and Prevention magazines, involves intense composting. At the other end of the spectrum, biodynamic gardening, developed in Germany by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s, was based on more cosmic concepts: Planting and harvesting were timed to coincide with phases of the moon and the planets. Other methods of organic farming evolved in the 1970s, focusing on production as well as philosophy. John Jeavons, a California master gardener, and John Seymour, an Irish self-sufficiency guru, both developed small-scale, high-yielding organic-gardening techniques that use deep beds of fertile, well-aerated soil. Their philosophies stress self-sufficiency as well as a lifestyle in harmony with nature. In Japan, Masanobu Fukuoka, a plant pathologist turned farmer, developed a technique for growing rice, vegetables, and oranges without chemicals, tillage, or fertilizer, while minimizing human effort. The most recent branch of organic agriculture is known as permaculture. Developed by Tasmanian Bill Mollison, it integrates every aspect of life, including water, energy, and waste.

Though methods vary, the tenets of each philosophy remain the same. Organic farmers eschew synthetic fertilizers in favor of compost and green manure crops, such as ryegrass and clovers, that enrich the soil. In lieu of pesticides, they control insects and weeds with techniques that have been around for eons: rotating crops to break soil-disease and nematode life cycles; mulching with straws that suppress weed-seed germination; and promoting insects such as ladybugs and lacewings, which prey on aphids and other pests. Some organic growers do use biopesticides derived from plants or bacteria, as well as soaps and various metals and minerals deemed natural. Some of these materials-such as rotenone from cubé roots and pyrethrum from chrysanthemums-can be as toxic as synthetic pesticides, so farmers use them as a last resort.

Most distributors and buyers of organic food demand some form of certification. Currently, 15 state agencies and dozens of private groups police the organic-food market in more than 40 states by certifying foods according to varying standards. The Department of Agriculture is now hammering out the final draft of national standards that would bring organic labeling under federal law.

It hasn't been easy. The USDA created a firestorm within the organic community in December 1997 with its first draft proposal, which left open the possibility of using irradiation, sewage sludge, and genetic engineering to produce "organic" foods. These processes and materials, rarely if ever used by organic growers, have strong supporters in the food industry. Irradiation involves bombarding food with gamma rays, which kills most bacteria, but because of public concerns over safety and radioactive waste, it hasn't become widespread. Though human waste is used as fertilizer in other countries, sewage sludge in the United States is often contaminated with toxic heavy metals and hundreds of synthetic chemicals. Even major conventional food processors such as Del Monte and Heinz have refused to allow sludge on their crops.

Genetic engineering -- the high-tech shuffling of genes between species -- in theory has great potential, such as using a tropical-fish gene to help wheat survive in warmer climates. In practice, it sometimes does little more than help sell more pesticides. Over the past few years the chemical giant Monsanto has introduced genetically engineered soybean and cotton varieties called Roundup Ready, which are allegedly impervious to the popular herbicide Roundup, also made by Monsanto. Other companies have introduced transgenic varieties implanted with Bt-which many organic growers and environmentalists contend will only increase pest resistance to the valuable bacterium, disabling an effective and relatively benign biopesticide.

After the release of its draft proposal, the USDA was deluged by more than 280,000 public comments, causing Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman to drop the controversial methods from the proposed standards.

"Honest to God, we thought they just didn't get it," says Robert Anderson, chairman of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory group appointed by Glickman that recommended strict standards for organic food. "I don't think any secretary of agriculture would have poked anybody in the eye that intentionally."

Some experts, however, are starting to come around. A few years ago Anderson took experts from Pennsylvania State University's agricultural college on a tour of his 600-acre organic farm, near Penns Creek, Pennsylvania. Anderson was extremely nervous. But the scientists soon jumped off the wagon and began to grab handfuls of rich soil. One entomologist found insects he hadn't seen in years, not to mention pheasants, grosbeaks, finches, phoebes, and wrens living in the area. Last year one of the school's strongest proponents of chemical agriculture finally admitted to Anderson that it was time to start looking at alternatives. When Glickman invited Anderson and other NOSB members to his office to discuss organic standards, the enthusiastic farmer took it as a sign that organic agriculture had finally come of age.

"We've gone from the lunatic fringe to one of the leading edges," Anderson says with a laugh. "We're getting yields that meet or exceed conventional yields, and we employ 100 people in the area. We're not weird. We're good businesspeople."

Anderson is one of an estimated 10,000 certified organic farmers in the United States. They tend less than 1 percent of its farmland, but their impact is growing like the proverbial weed. Organic food is the fastest-growing segment of retail food sales, having increased more than 20 percent a year since 1989. Upscale natural-foods grocery stores such as Whole Foods and Wild Oats can now be found in almost every major metropolitan area. In 1996 American shoppers spent an estimated $3.5 billion on organic foods. Though this represents less than 1 percent of the U.S. food market, a recent survey showed that 60 percent of consumers were interested in buying organic products because they felt those were better for their health and for the environment.

"The emergence and growth of organic agriculture is very important," says Margaret Mellon, director of agriculture and biotechnology for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Boston-based research and lobbying group. "It is the vanguard of the transition in agriculture toward sustainability. It can't be overemphasized how courageous the folks who started organic agriculture really were. The conventional wisdom was that in order to have abundant, reasonably priced agricultural products, you had to depend on the pesticide inputs of industrial agriculture. These folks said no."

Can organic farming reverse some of the ills wrought in the past 50 years? Does it produce healthier food? Will it ever be an economically viable alternative to conventional farming?

At the 1996 meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme's Convention on Biological Diversity, held in Buenos Aires, representatives from 148 countries and the European Union agreed on this statement: "Inappropriate reliance on monoculture, overmechanization, and misuse of agricultural chemicals diminishes the diversity of fauna, flora, and microorganisms, including beneficial organisms. Those practices normally lead to a simplification of the components of the environment and to unstable production systems."

Numerous studies have shown that organic farming, on the other hand, increases biodiversity and benefits soil microorganisms that break down organic matter, earthworms that build soil structure, and soil arthropods that prey on insect pests. It may take 10 to 15 years for microorganisms to return to equilibrium after a conversion from conventional to organic farming. Small creatures are not the only ones to benefit. A recent study in England showed significantly higher populations of birds on organic farms than on neighboring conventional farms. One farm that converted to organic methods had a 10 percent increase in bird species. The increase was attributed to larger hedgerows, the types of crops grown, and in-crop diversity (planting two or more crops in the same field).

The benefits to humans are less clear. A recent study by Consumer Reports found that nutritional value and flavor were roughly the same, no matter how a product had been grown. But organic products consistently had much lower toxic pesticide residues than conventionally grown food. Organic doesn't always mean pesticide-free, however. Traces of pesticides were found on 25 percent of the organic samples-compared with 77 percent of the conventional samples. It wasn't known whether the pesticides were intentionally sprayed on the organic produce or whether it was contaminated in other ways, such as by drift from nearby fields. Nonetheless, the magazine concluded, eating organic foods ensures the least amount of pesticide residues in the diet, while also supporting an agricultural system that is much less harmful to the environment.

Organic foods still cost an average of 57 percent more than their conventional counterparts, though seasonal, locally grown produce is often more competitively priced. "People wonder why organic food costs so much," says Peter Martinelli of Fresh Run Farms, an organic farm in Bolinas, California. "Instead, they should ask why other food is so cheap. You pay for the other stuff in other ways" -- including, he says, through soil erosion, water pollution, health care, and subsidies to conventional farmers.

Critics of organic agriculture also maintain that yields are lower, production costs are higher, and it can't be done in all parts of the country. Many large-scale organic farms look much the same as conventional farms, they point out, merely replacing chemical inputs with approved organic substitutes. Perhaps the most common criticism is the one voiced by the American Farm Bureau and other proponents of conventional agriculture: It will never feed the world.

"High-yield agriculture is already saving 10 million square miles per year of global wildlands," claims Dennis Avery, a senior fellow at the pro-technology Hudson Institute, in Indianapolis, and author of Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastics. "Current cropping levels are estimated to be 5.8 million square miles. Based on 1950s production levels, before the widespread use of pesticides, we would need 15 to 16 million square miles of land to meet present-day global food requirements. . . . The unfortunate implication of organic agriculture is that we would be clearing more natural areas around the world to feed the planet."

Organic growers like Kirschenmann disagree. He says, "The industrial-agriculture folks are trying to gain the moral high ground by saying if we don't continue increasing production, we can't feed the world. There are more than 800 million malnourished people on this planet today, and grain surpluses in many countries. Production is not the problem. Access and the tools for these people to feed themselves-that's the cause of hunger."

Lower yields may also be a thing of the past. In the nation's longest-running study of conventional and organic systems, researchers at Pennsylvania's Rodale Institute have found that over the past 13 years, yields of organic corn and soybeans have consistently equaled those of conventionally grown crops and have been substantially higher in dry years. More important, the study suggested that increased organic matter in composted fields could play an important role in reducing atmospheric carbon, a major constituent of greenhouse gases.

On his own land, Kirschenmann has proven that diversified organic agriculture can be practiced on a large scale year after year. Since 1980 he and his family have produced beef and at least 10 different organic grains on 3,100 acres near Windsor, North Dakota. The prairie potholes that dot the farm provide habitat for white pelicans and plovers, whooping cranes and sandhill cranes, even the occasional moose. For Kirschenmann, the shift from industrial agriculture to a system based on landscape ecology is critical to restoring the biodiversity lost over the past 50 years.

"In the industrial model, we've been clearing nature out of the way," Kirschenmann says. "Thoughtful scientists now know that's a dead end. What we didn't recognize is that farms aren't factories. They are ecosystems."

At black river organic farm last fall, the vegetables were harvested, the cover crop had been planted, and Stefan and Carmen Hartmann sat at their kitchen table talking about the year they'd had. While conventional farmers may have groused about which pesticides might be banned or the perennially low price of corn, wheat, or hogs, the Hartmanns spoke enthusiastically of expanding local markets and of tasty varieties of tomatoes and sweet corn.

"This is how we wanted to farm," says Stefan, who moved from Germany to take over his grandparents' small farm in 1984. "I couldn't imagine using all those chemicals. How could you sell something you wouldn't eat yourself?"

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Written by: Joel Bourne, Joel Bourne, who has a degree in agronomy, grew up on a conventional farm.


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