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In the study, the organic system did not use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers and relied on compost, mulch, pheromone-mating disruption (PMD), Bacillus thuringiensis and thinning fruit by hand. By contrast, the conventional system used synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, PMD and chemical fruit thinner; the integrated farming system used compost, synthetic fertilizers, mulch and herbicides.
Cumulative yields were comparable and there were no observable differences in physiological disorders or pest and disease damage across the three apple production systems. However, the study found that the organic apple system had the highest soil quality, profitability, energy efficiency and taste appeal. The organic apple system also had the least adverse environmental impact.
Although sustainability is a difficult concept to measure, the researchers included both ecological and economic factors in their analysis. They noted that to be sustainable a farm must produce adequate high-quality yields, be profitable, protect the environment, conserve resources and be socially responsible in the long term. Specifically, the indicators of sustainability used in the study were soil quality, horticultural performance, orchard profitability, environmental quality and energy efficiency.
Organic apples were the most profitable due to price premiums and quicker investment return. The price premiums reflect consumer willingness to pay extra for organically grown produce. Production costs of organic and conventional systems varied by year. In the long term, the organic apple system recovered initial costs faster than the conventional system. The study projected that the organic system would break even economically (net returns equaling costs) after nine years, but that the conventional system would break even only after fifteen years.
Despite higher labor needs, the organic system expended less energy on fertilizer, weed control and biological control of pests than the conventional and integrated systems. By using the least amount of inputs overall, the organic system was the most energy efficient of the three systems.
A consumer taste test found that organic apples were less tart at harvest than both conventional and integrated apples. They were also found to be sweeter than conventional apples after six months of storage.
The study's data indicate that the organic system ranked first in environmental and economic sustainability, the integrated system second and the conventional system last. The authors suggest that perennial food crops such as apples may prove to be more sustainable to produce over the long term than annual crops. Perennial crops currently comprise a significant portion of the world's agricultural production.
Organic farming became one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. and European agriculture during the 1990s.
Sources: John P. Reganold, Jerry D. Glover, Preston K. Andrews and Herbert R. Hinman, "Sustainability of three apple production systems," Nature Vol. 410, April 19, 2001; Reuters "Organic Apples Get Top Rating in Comparative Study," April 18, 2001.
PANUPS is a weekly email news service providing resource guides and reporting on pesticide issues that don't always get coverage by the mainstream media. It's produced by Pesticide Action Network North America, a non-profit and non-governmental organization working to advance sustainable alternatives to pesticides worldwide.