Published on
the Winnipeg Free Press (Canada)

Research Shows Organics are No Longer Marginal

Organic farmers and their customers have had to put up with a lot of crap from their fellow producers over the years.

The labels are one thing, such as "crunchy granola set" or "hippie dippies" or "organic freaks."

But by far, the biggest insult was simply being dismissed as inefficient and ineffective when it comes to the serious question of how to best feed the world's growing population.

The mainstream industry and research establishment have long written off organic agriculture because of the widely held belief it can't keep up to the productivity of conventional systems. And a few years ago that was right.

The reason organic foods could command a hefty premium in the marketplace, and why some argued they were only accessible to the wealthy elite, was yields have tended to be lower.

Critics could justifiably claim that to feed the world using organic agriculture, more of the earth's surface would have to be converted to crops, and that would be bad for the environment.

For example, a recent report CropLife Canada financed concluded that without pesticides, fertilizers and biotechnology, Canada would need another 37 million acres of cropland -- the equivalent of the total annual cropped area of Saskatchewan, or four times that of Ontario -- to produce the same amount of food.

The report says crop-protection products, fertilizer and biotechnology advancements add a whopping $7.9 billion to the Canadian economy.

Plus, organic agriculture's traditional reliance on tillage to control weeds instead of herbicides was believed to make it more energy-dependent as well as contributing to the global problem of soil erosion.

There was also the quality issue. Who wants to eat apples that have insect marks or scabs?

But that's not necessarily the case anymore. Just as conventional agriculture has made gains, notably due to huge investments in research and development from both the private and public sectors, so has organic through shoestring research budgets allocated from non-government foundations, universities and public funding.

New research is emerging, based on long-term, scientifically valid trials, to show that organic yields of field crops can mimic conventional yields and in some cases, overtake them. And they can do this while consuming less energy.

The latest such effort has emerged from the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, which released a report last month based on a 30-year research trial comparing conventional and organic production methods.

"Organic farming is far superior to conventional systems when it comes to building, maintaining and replenishing the health of the soil," the institute reports. "For soil health alone, organic agriculture is more sustainable than conventional. When one also considers yields, economic viability, energy usage and human health, it's clear that organic farming is sustainable, while current conventional practices are not."

The trials, which were based on corn and soybean crops, found over the 30-year period organic yields not only surpassed conventional systems, the organic trials outperformed conventional during drought conditions, they consumed 45 per cent less energy and they were more profitable. The study also found the conventional approach produced 40 per cent more greenhouse gases.

That's all well and good in Pennsylvania and using dominant U.S. crops, but what about here on the Canadian Prairies, where farmers grow a wider range of crops in a more challenging climate?

Energy-efficiency findings are similar in a long-term research study at the University of Manitoba's Glenlea Research Farm south of Winnipeg that dates back to 1992, but yields aren't yet as high as conventional systems. It's also a younger trial.

The Rodale trials found the productivity of organic systems improved over time as soil micro-organisms became more active. Conventional systems feed and protect the crop. Organic systems focus on building the soil.

It's highly unlikely all producers are achieving these levels of productivity, but the promise is there and far more tangible than some of the claims made by researchers focused on genetically modified solutions.

And of course, this is a good-news, bad-news story. If organic production systems can match the productivity of conventional systems, it won't be long before consumers start questioning the premiums for organic products they pay at the grocer's. But if organic farmers don't have to buy all of those products, they can receive the same prices and still be ahead on money.

The market keeps growing, too. The Canadian organic market has grown from $2 billion in 2008 to more than $2.6 billion in 2010.

The fact that this is National Organic Week in Canada suggests organic agriculture still ranks among the marginalized in society. But its hippie-dippie days are over.

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about farm and rural issues for nearly 30 years. She grew up on a farm in southern Manitoba and has lived in rural communities for most of her career. Laura is currently editor of the Manitoba Co-operator and a business columnist with the Winnipeg Free Press.

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