Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Opening a can of organic worms

As a forum for the science behind the soil conservation movement, the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation regularly provides analysis and guidance related to no-till farming. No-till has been shown to result in significantly less soil erosion than conventional tillage.

The journal recently published a pair of stories related to tillage and organic farming systems. Organic farming is not a tillage system, but tillage is typically used in organic farming for weed control since chemical herbicides are not employed.

The first article was a summary of research conducted by the USDA (Teasdale 2007). The article explained that many organic farmers and no-till farmers share the same goals—using a production system that maintains soil fertility and sustainability. In the study, organic farming systems generally provided greater soil health than nonorganic no-till systems largely due to increased soil organic matter.

The second article presented two case studies of producers who switched from conventional farming to organic farming with minimum tillage (Rainford 2008). The farmers believed this change was environmentally beneficial. In addition, they have experienced a number of economic and productivity benefits as a result.

These seemingly simple articles have resulted in more letters to the editor and controversy than any other topic in recent months. The comments cover the spectrum from those who were upset to see the articles because they believe organic farming is an “environmental disaster” (because of its reliance on tillage) to those who thought the articles were an important new contribution to the literature.

“Organic” has certainly become a politically charged word. Some claim the basis for the antagonism is competition for financial assistance; some claim it is a misunderstanding of terminology. Is there more to it? Are both sides really only interested in protecting the environment? Do conservationists dare touch the topic? Is there a place for nonpolitical, science-based discussion of organic agriculture and natural resources? Do the pro-organic and anti-organic voices drown out the neutral, analytical ones?

Rainford, C. 2008. Soil health and productivity benefits of low-tillage organic systems. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 63(1):19A-21A.
Teasdale, J. 2007. Strategies for soil conservation in no-tillage and organic farming systems. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 62(6):144A-147A.

1 comment:

Physicus said...

A system of agricultural production that is organic and relies on tillage, or one that is non-organic and relies on no tillage, should not be goals...but rather creating a production system that results in the continued improvement of soil function and is sustainable for both the farmer and the farm. There are examples of sustainable and unsustainable organic-tillage systems and non-organic no-till systems. The devil is in the details. Sustainability of either type of system lies in an understanding of soil function (aka soil quality or soil health)and how management affects it.