American farmers have a serious chemical addiction, and we're all paying the price. The overuse of fertilizers produces dead zones in bays and estuaries. Many agricultural pesticides are proven neurotoxins, as well as likely carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. The manufacture of these chemicals requires vast quantities of fossil fuels.
But what if the chemicals are not only harmful but unnecessary -- even unscientific? What if it's organic rather than industrial farming that has the hard data on its side?
Traditional farmers generally believe there's a basic trade-off: Applying synthetic fertilizers triggers rapid growth in crops but also encourages bug infestations. This perceived tradeoff has been extremely lucrative for giant chemical manufacturers like Syngenta, Bayer AG, Dow Chemical, DuPont, and Monsanto, from whom American farmers buy about $2.4 billion worth of insecticides and fungicides each year. These corporations offer farmers a kind of one-stop shopping, selling them not only fertilizers and pesticides but, better yet, seed stock that is genetically engineered to produce insecticides as well.
For almost half a century, these same companies have nurtured chemical-intensive agriculture through lavish funding of academic research, especially in the land-grant colleges, which were set up by the federal government in the late 1800s to meet the demand for practical agricultural education. Since the 1960s chemical manufacturers have spent more and more on the development and use of farm chemicals, to the point where such funding now accounts for nearly 40 percent of private industry's annual agricultural research budget of about $5 billion. This investment has encouraged the view at the land-grant colleges that organic farming is "unscientific," a boutique niche pursued by a bunch of ex-hippies.
But agricultural researcher Larry Phelan has questioned this pervasive bias. When he arrived at Ohio State University in 1986, he tried to interest local organic corn and soybean growers in his ongoing research into natural pesticides. They told him repeatedly that while their yields were equal to those of conventional growers, their insect problems weren't serious enough to warrant spending money on pesticides, natural or otherwise. Phelan was intrigued: Was there a link between organic crops and reduced insect damage? When he found that very little peer-reviewed work had been done on the subject, he decided to take a look for himself at what the Ohio farmers were saying to see whether it had any scientific basis.
Phelan began by planting corn in two sets of pots containing soil from neighboring organic and conventional farms. As the plants matured, he released female moths of the European corn borer (Ostrinia nubilalis) into his greenhouse. The larvae of this insect feed on the leaves of the corn plant and tunnel into its stalk and ear shank. In fact, the corn borer is such a pest that it was the first target of corn genetically modified to produce the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxin.
Phelan found that the female moths laid, on average, nearly 18 times as many eggs on the corn grown in soil from conventional farms as on corn grown in organically managed soil. This led him to wonder if the high levels of decomposing plant and animal matter in organic soil affected the interaction between plants and insects. After analyzing individual plant tissues, Phelan suggested that this organic matter reduces insect outbreaks by releasing nutrients at rates and in proportions that best meet the plants' needs; synthetic fertilizers, on the other hand, create a nutritional imbalance that leaves plants more vulnerable to bugs. For example, a large dose of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium increases a plant's production of sugars and free amino acids, but fails to provide the other nutrients needed to convert these simple compounds into more complex proteins, lignins, and starches. Insects, meanwhile, readily metabolize free amino acids and sugars and so seek them out. The female European corn borer, for instance, will drag her rear end (which is equipped with taste receptors) across the leaves of corn plants until she detects these compounds. And that's where she will lay her eggs -- where her larvae will have plenty to eat.
Phelan's research suggests that U.S. farmers' reliance on synthetic fertilizers and insecticides may be based on an outdated understanding of plant chemistry, and that organic farming methods can be validated by hard science. Charles Benbrook, a former executive director of the National Academy of Science's board on agriculture, says that Phelan was one of the first well-trained scientists to use "state-of-the-art tools to explore what it is about organic farming systems that might explain how well these systems often work."
As Benbrook says, "It's extremely risky for scientists to step out of the accepted research structure." It's hard to get funding and promotions, hard to gain access to peer-reviewed journals whose editorial boards are dominated by corporate interests. But organic research is gaining legitimacy and, with it, dollars. Armed with studies like Phelan's, organic farming lobbyists secured the first-ever direct funding of organic research in the FarmSecurity and Rural Investment Act of 2002. By 2005 federal funding had climbed to about $10 million. That's only a sliver of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's $2 billion research and extension budget, but it's enough to prime the pump. "Credible, hard science on organic systems is crucial to justifying more funding," says Mark Lipson of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, "and with more funding we'll enlarge our body of science. Growing that cycle of funding and research is essential."
-- Deborah Richt