Let Them Eat Organic

Baron Wolfgang Von Munchhausen gets a premium price for his premium crops. Ten years ago, after getting ill from some of the 125 different pesticides he was spraying on his 300 acres of wheat, rye and other grains, he converted his farm in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein to organic agriculture, eschewing chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides in favor of crop rotation, farmyard manure and other traditional measures. Today he delivers his produce to "bio" bakeries, where well-heeled Germans pay extra for the privilege of eating organic bread. So what if Munchhausen's yields are 50 percent lower than those of chemical-happy colleagues'?

At least that's how critics of organic farming see it. Organic farmers are just skimming the cream. Agrochemicals, the argument goes, were an essential part of the "green revolution" of the 1950s and 1960s that made it possible for Third World countries like India to feed their fast-growing populations. But is this really true? No, say scientists at two Swiss agricultural research institutes. Their study, published recently in the journal Science, shows that organic farming may make more economic sense than conventional farming for medium and small farms.

For the past 21 years, the researchers closely monitored four different cultivation methods, from organic to full-blown chemically fertilized to mixtures of the two. Organic methods, they say, turned out to be "more efficient and more sustainable" than conventional farming. Crop yields were lower, but by less than anticipated--about 20 percent. The organically grown plants needed disproportionately fewer resources: 40 percent fewer nutrients and 97 percent fewer pesticides (a limited use of chemicals was allowed). Since fewer chemicals were needed, the organic crops required 56 percent less energy. Microbes present in the soil helped the plants take in nutrients more efficiently, which meant about half the nutrients were needed to produce the same amount of crop. Soils appeared to be healthier--they contained more fungi that help plants take in water, and earthworms and spiders were more prevalent. "In the end, organic farming is more economical," says Andreas Fliessbach of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, an author of the report.

If so, it may help organic farming make it out of the luxury niche. In Europe, interest shot up after the scares over mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease, but the "radical change in the way we produce our food" promised by Germany's minister of Consumer Protection, Renate Kunast, and other politicians never materialized. Most consumers won't shell out the extra euros for more naturally produced food. Even in Western Europe, where demand is highest, organic food still makes up no more than 3 percent of the market for agricultural products. The Swiss study suggests that it may be possible to put organics on a more competitive footing.

But can organic farming feed the world? Critics have argued that the lower yields would require a proportionate increase in land under cultivation, which would cause an environmental nightmare. But the Swiss study undermines that argument. So does the experience of the world's largest organic cooperative, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where 1,100 farmers in 77 villages have stopped using expensive chemicals and reverted to traditional methods and Western organic techniques. Instead of killing aphids and bollworms with poison, they use crushed neem seeds and pheromone traps. Planting a larger variety of crops has increased the diversity of natural predators such as wasps and spiders, which feed on pests. And after years of losing topsoil to erosion, the increased use of compost and manure has built it back up.

Farmers say they actually harvest more now than they did before. "When the farmers stopped fertilizing, the yields dropped the first three years," says Rajeev Baruah, who heads the project--called Maikaal BioRe--and trains the farmers. "Then they stabilized and started going up." Baruah says yields of cotton, the main cash crop, are about 20 percent higher now than at neighboring conventional farms, with the farmers' own food crops up as well. "It's a matter of looking after the land and making sure the soil is healthy instead of just buying instant fertilizer and pesticides," he says. That's a luxury the Third World can afford.

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