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Science behind organic systems gains ground

Organic agriculture’s critics routinely claim the practice is more philosophy than agronomy — and the worst cut of all — lacking in “sound science.”

Not anymore. Organic is pushing back one peer-reviewed research paper at a time.

“We can claim science and we are,” declared Ralph Martin at the opening of the first Canadian Organic Science Conference held at the University of Manitoba Feb. 21-23.

The University of Guelph professor and Loblaw chair in sustainable food production, said scientific research shows organic agriculture has benefits, consumers are demanding it and farmers are finding new opportunities by producing it. Ted Zettel, president of the Organic Federation of Canada, called the meeting of 160 Canadian and international research scientists, farmers, students and industry officials, historic.

“This is huge,” he said. “This is very big. The people out there on the land need this research. They need it in order to come up with a methodology that’s efficient enough that it can replace the existing paradigm.”

The conference stems from the Canadian Organic Science Cluster, created under Agriculture and Agri-Food’s Growing Forward program. Ag Canada will contribute $6 million for organic research over four years ending March 31, 2013, and industry will contribute $2 million.

The money is funding 28 projects and 45 scientists at Agriculture Canada and university research stations across the country, said conference co-chair Andy Hammermeister.

“It’s all about building credibility for organic agriculture,” said Hammermeister, an assistant professor at Nova Scotia Agricultural College and manager of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada. “It supports producers, it supports policy-makers and it supports the other stakeholders.”

Can do

Critics say organic agriculture can’t feed the world.

“We see the sustainability and the holistic approach of organic as the future of food production,” Zettel said.

It’s certainly a good “plan B,” said University of Iowa researcher Kathleen Delate. Fossil fuels, which are used to make nitrogen fertilizer, will run out. Before that prices will skyrocket.

Already, most of the world’s farmers can’t afford synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, Delate said in an interview.

One study shows applying a small amount of composted manure would double crop production in developing countries. Other studies conclude there’s enough food, the problem is distribution.

If the world’s population reaches the nine billion to 10 billion being forecast for 2050, food production will have to double over the next 40 years, according to some experts.

Or will it? There’s lots of slack in the system due to wasted and spoiled food, Marten said. Meanwhile, the current food system is failing. One billion people are malnourished and 1.6 billion are obese. An estimated two-thirds of health spending is related to unhealthy eating.

“The question to me isn’t so much ‘how do we feed the world?’ the question is ‘how will we eat well in our resilient communities?’”

Organic agriculture produces better food and is better for the environment, said Martin Entz, conference co-chair and University of Manitoba Professor of cropping systems and agronomy.

“I can show you peer-reviewed proceedings where things like the antioxidants and the secondary plant metabolite concentrations are definitely higher in organic foods,” he said.

“History has shown us that the methods based on biology and ecology are setting us on a much better trajectory for food security than the current system where nature is subdued and ignored.”

The “organic” in “organic agriculture” refers to the emphasis on building up organic matter in the soil. Its practitioners look at food production in a holistic way.

“If we’re simply adding nitrogen fertilizers in the synthetic form it does nothing to encourage the biology (micro-organisms) in the soil,” Hammermeister said. “It does nothing to encourage the roots to explore the soil fully and develop more fine root systems.

“When we add back organic matter to the soil we’re stimulating biology and when you add the nutrients in an organic form we stimulate that whole process.”

Better soil and yields

After 13 years of organic research in Iowa, Delate found the soil had improved, while corn and soybean yields were above or equal to the county average.

Other papers concluded the following about organic agriculture:

  • It contributes to greater biodiversity in fields and in nearby hedgerows.
  • Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi naturally mobilize soil minerals for plant uptake and protect roots from pathogen attacks.
  • Traditional soil test methods sometimes show low phosphorus levels in organic fields but in many cases the fields still yield well.
  • Crop rotation significantly improves soil health.
  • Longer crop rotations decrease weeds.
  • Organic production boosts nitrogen and phosphorus cycling, potentially reducing the amount of nitrogen available to leach into groundwater.
  • Organic production can potentially sequester more carbon than conventional agriculture.

Suggestions for new areas of research include:

  • Designing new tillage tools.
  • Find how cover crops can heal the land after tillage.
  • Studying organic food quality in Canada.
  • Biological insecticides for greenhouses.

Germany spends 10 million euros annually on organic research, without matching funds from industry, Entz said.

“There are things being discovered here that are usable for all of agriculture,” he said. “There’s very little downside to investing in organic agriculture research science.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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