Uses 30% Less Energy and Water
Organic production produces the same corn and soybean yields as conventional farming, but consumes 30 percent less energy and uses no pesticides, according to a revealing new study.

David Pimentel, a Cornell University professor of ecology and agriculture, concluded that the 22-year Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial, the longest running comparison of organic vs. conventional farming in the United States, showed that “organic farming offers real advantages for such crops as corn and soybeans.”

Pimentel used the report to analyze the environmental, energy and economic costs and benefits of growing soybeans and corn organically versus conventionally.

“Organic farming approaches for these crops not only use an average of 30 percent less fossil energy but also conserve more water in the soil, induce less erosion, maintain soil quality and conserve more biological resources than conventional farming does,” he said.

These findings could help further bolster the US organic sector, which has been breaking through into mainstream food production. This year, retail sales of organic foods are expected to exceed $15 billion, with more than $32 billion projected by 2009.

While the conventional food industry still dwarfs the organic sector with $550 billion in yearly sales, it is only growing by 2 to 3 percent annually, while the organic industry enjoys annual growth rates of 17 to 20 percent.

There a number of restraints on the organic sector however. Pimentel says that although the study shows that organic farming can compete effectively in growing corn, soybeans, wheat, barley and other grains it might not be as favorable for growing such crops as grapes, apples, cherries and potatoes, which have greater pest problems.

In addition, there are worries that a district court ruling in Maine banning all synthetic ingredients in products labeled organic could slow the sector’s growth. US District Judge D. Brock Hornby’s decision to ban such ingredients and oblige dairy farmers to feed their cows 100 percent organic feed during the transition to organic could make the industry prohibitively expensive.

“My concern is that if food makers are no longer about to label their products as organic because they use, say, sugar that has been produced synthetically, they might be tempted to use less organic material,” George Siemon, chief executive of organic food maker Organic Valley told recently.

Nonetheless, things look good overall fro the sector. The Rodale study, which compared a conventional farm that used recommended fertilizer and pesticide applications with two organic systems with no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, found that corn and soybean yields were the same across all three systems.

Although organic corn yields were about one-third lower during the first four years of the study, over time the organic systems produced higher yields, especially under drought conditions.

The reason was that wind and water erosion degraded the soil on the conventional farm while the soil on the organic farms steadily improved in organic matter, moisture, microbial activity and other soil quality indicators.

The fact that organic agriculture systems also absorb and retain significant amounts of carbon in the soil has implications for global warming, Pimentel said, pointing out that soil carbon in the organic systems increased by 15 to 28 percent, the equivalent of taking about 3,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per hectare out of the air.

The study was funded by the Rodale Institute and included a review of current literature on organic and conventional agriculture comparisons. According to Pimentel, dozens of scientific papers reporting on research from the Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial have been published over the past 20 years.

From The Food

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