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Subject: Organic

19:00 30 May 02
Fred Pearce

The world's longest running experiment in comparing organic and
conventional farming side-by-side has pronounced chemical-free farming a

"We have shown that organic farming is efficient, saves energy, maintains
biodiversity and keeps soils healthy for future generations," says Paul
Mader of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Frick,
Switzerland, which carried out the 21-year study.

Although crop yields on organic plots in the experiment were on average 20
per cent lower than those on conventional plots, the ecological and
efficiency gains more than made up for it, Mader says.

Soils nourished with manure were more fertile and produced more crops for a
given input of nitrogen or other fertiliser. "The input of nutrients like
nitrogen were as much as 50 per cent lower, so overall the organic system
was more efficient," he told New Scientist.

Not all crops did equally well. Potato yields on organic plots were only 60
per cent of those on conventional plots. But organic winter wheat achieved
90 per cent, and grasses fed on manure did just as well as those fed on

Mader argues that the biggest bonus is the improved quality of the soil
under organic cultivation, which should ensure good crops for decades to

Earthworms and fungi

Organic soils had up to three times as many earthworms, twice as many
insects and 40 per cent more mycorrhizal fungi colonising plant roots.
Soils microbes went into overdrive, transforming organic material into new
plant biomass faster than microbes in conventional plots.

More predictably perhaps, organic plots contained up to 10 times as many
weed species as conventional plots sprayed with herbicides.

"Under European conditions, we can clearly grow our food with much less
chemical input than we do now," says Mader. "But of course a 20 per cent
yield reduction in a country like India would have fatal consequences."

However, in practice, where poor farmers cannot afford expensive
agrochemicals, switching to organic methods boost yields, he says: "Last
year I visited a project in India, the Maikaal Project near Indore, where
more than a thousand farmers are growing food organically - and increasing
their yields compared to neighbouring conventional farmers."

Jules Pretty, director of the Centre for Environment and Society at the
University of Essex, who recently completed a global study of organic
farming, said the findings confirmed his conclusion that "organic farming
is more efficient and in many circumstances can increase yields for

Journal reference: Science (vol 296, p 1694)

19:00 30 May 02

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