How 'bout them apples?
A six-year apple-farming study provides quantitative data showing organic farming methods to be superior to both conventional and integrated methods (Nature, 2001, vol. 410, pp. 927-930).
"As a scientist, I wanted to find out which of the three systems [organic, conventional or a combination of both, called integrated] is more sustainable," says John Reganold, co-author of the study, "meaning it must produce adequate food of high quality, be environmentally sound, conserve resources, be socially responsible and make a profit."
From 1994 to 1999, Reganold and his colleagues tracked soil quality, yield and crop quality, environmental impact, energy efficiency, and profitability for three apple production systems, using organic, conventional and integrated methods, in Washington state. Results showed that all three systems produced comparable yields; however, the organic and integrated systems showed higher soil quality and lower environmental impact, and the organic system produced sweeter apples, higher profit and greater energy efficiency.
"We see this as a wake-up call," says Reganold. "When you put all the factors together, organic [farming] is a slam-dunk winner, with integrated next. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to see that these are two systems that [farmers] might want to consider."
As critics note, the current financial premium afforded organic growers unfairly affects profitability; however, this government-sponsored benefit kicks in only after three years of applying organic techniques, making the transition a financial burden to small and midsize farmers. "The challenge facing policymakers is to incorporate the value of ecosystem processes into the traditional marketplace," the study concludes, "thereby supporting food producers in their attempts to employ both economically and environmentally sustainable policies."