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A Fresh Look At Our Organic Roots

Janine Gibson isn t surprised when she hears about studies that find organic farming to be as productive as conventional production methods.

To think that it couldn t be, well that s just garbage, said the organic inspector and cofounder of the Organic Food Council of Manitoba.

According to an American study released this year, organic yields match or surpass those of conventional farming, but that comes as no surprise to those who practise and promote natural cropping systems.

Gibson, who lives at the Northern Sun Farm Co-op near Steinbach, said organic farming isn t just possible, it s necessary.

People are starting to look at climate change, and the issues with food and see there is a need to do things differently, she said.

A 30-year-long study at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, known as the Farming Systems Trial, supports that view. The trial examined organic systems and found conventional farming methods produce 40 per cent more greenhouse gases than organic ones and produce lower yields during periods of drought.

The trial also found organic methods build up key microbes, and retain necessary organic matter in the soil.

A Canadian study co-authored by a York University professor this spring came to the same conclusion after looking at 130 studies to compare the energy use and global warming potential of organic versus conventional farming. It found organic farms were more energy efficient on both a per-hectare and per-product basis, with the exception of fruit farming and poultry production, where sufficient data was unavailable.

These findings shake up the concept that bigger is always better. Higher crop yields, bigger equipment, less genetic diversity, and more fertilizer and pesticides do not equal a more energy-efficient operation, said Rod MacRae, assistant professor in York s faculty of environmental studies, in a news release.

Glenlea study

University of Manitoba agronomist Martin Entz has visited the Farming Systems Trial and finds the research credible. He said changes in natural cropping systems over the last few decades have enabled increased yields.

In terms of total food production it is very close, said Entz. I don t think they could have always said it was as productive as conventional systems, but there have been a lot of changes.

He said plots at the Glenlea Research Station s organic crops field study begun 19 years ago have produced organic wheat with a yield about 20 to 25 per cent lower than conventional methods.

But organic systems often include a forage phase, so in terms of total caloric production organic is higher, said Entz.

Recent trials at Glenlea have averaged yields of 71 bushels an acre for barley and 46 bushels an acre for fall rye, while also exploring the advantages of grazed green manures and cover crops.

Entz said interest in organic production is increasing, noting benefits extend beyond yield for products like grass-fed livestock which produces more beneficial omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

That makes it perfect for humans, we need it to live, said Entz.

The agronomist said organic producers can have challenges with nutrients, but that they can be overcome by adding things such as composted manure, while fixing nitrogen through green manure, such as legumes, is fairly straightforward.

Priscilla Reimer heads the Manitoba Organic Alliance, an umbrella organization for organic associations and producers. The organic inspector said sound scientific research is an important aspect of promoting organic production methods, but added current findings are not unexpected.

To me it s a non-argument … yes, we can feed the world using organic systems, she said. And National Organic Week, taking place now, is a way to get the public engaged.

If people are encouraged to take a closer look at what organics are out there, have an organic meal, maybe a glass of organic wine, and think about the food we eat, I would be delighted, said Reimer.

Organics week is also an opportunity for organic retailers such as Vita Health in Winnipeg.

We re using it for a lot of good product awareness, and it s a good way to get people interested, said Mathew Holtmann, vice-president of Vita Health Fresh Market. Our sales have been growing every year, and the industry still has a lot of room for potential growth.

He said interest in organics is growing among major retailers as well, with stores like Safeway, Loblaws and others now carrying organic products.

We see that as really positive, we don t look at it as competition because we all benefit, said Holtmann.

He added Manitoba doesn t always have access to the same spectrum of products that Ontario or British Columbia might because its population is smaller and less dense, but said recent changes to certification standards have increased the availability of organic products.

According to Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, the world market for organic food has grown significantly over the last 15 years. Growth of retail sales in North America is predicted to continue at 10 to 20 per cent per year during the next few years. In 2008, the retail organic food market in Canada was estimated at over $1.5 billion and $22.9 billion in the U.S.

But Reimer and Gibson say more could be done to support organic practices in Manitoba.

Currently there are no provincial programs in place for organic producers, although the three-year-long Manitoba Organic Transition Program wrapped up in 2010, after paying out $70,400 toward annual certification costs for 90 producers and 10 processors.

Gibson also noted organic farms are inspected yearly, while only one or two per cent of conventional farms are inspected in any given year.

We have been under attack by this government policy for a long time, she said.

Hopeful about the future of organic agriculture, Entz doesn t see the growing interest in organics as just a passing fad.

I think herbicides are the fad, he emphasized. Monoculture, the amount we spend on herbicides; these methods are not sustainable. But I m confident in organics, we have 9,000 years of agricultural history on our side.

He noted current trends in advertising for pesticides and herbicides point the discussion in the wrong direction by using militant language, portraying weed control as a fight and the farm as a battleground.

But this isn t a war, and it s not a matter of who is right or wrong, it s a matter of creating resilience and building sustain-ability, Entz said.

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Danielle Caners stocks the shelves at Vita Health Fresh Market s Osborne St. location with organic produce.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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