Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

New study confirms the ecological virtues of organic farming

08.03.2006


Organic farming has long been touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional agriculture. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) provides strong evidence to support that claim.




Writing in the March 6 online edition of PNAS, Stanford University graduate student Sasha B. Kramer and her colleagues found that fertilizing apple trees with synthetic chemicals produced more adverse environmental effects than feeding them with organic manure or alfalfa.

"The intensification of agricultural production over the past 60 years and the subsequent increase in global nitrogen inputs have resulted in substantial nitrogen pollution and ecological damage," Kramer and her colleagues write. "The primary source of nitrogen pollution comes from nitrogen-based agricultural fertilizers, whose use is forecasted to double or almost triple by 2050."


Nitrogen compounds from fertilizer can enter the atmosphere and contribute to global warming, adds Harold A. Mooney, the Paul S. Achilles Professor of Environmental Biology at Stanford and co-author of the study.

"Nitrogen compounds also enter our watersheds and have effects quite distant from the fields in which they are applied, as for example in contaminating water tables and causing biological dead zones at the mouths of major rivers," he says. "This study shows that the use of organic versus chemical fertilizers can play a role in reducing these adverse effects."

Nitrogen treatments

The PNAS study was conducted in an established apple orchard on a 4-acre site in the Yakima Valley of central Washington, one of the premiere apple-growing regions in the United States. Some trees used in the experiment had been raised with conventional synthetic fertilizers. Others were grown organically without pesticides, herbicides or artificial fertilization. A third group was raised by a method called integrated farming, which combines organic and conventional agricultural techniques.

"Conventional agriculture has made tremendous improvements in crop yield but at large costs to the environment," the authors write. "In response to environmental concerns, organic agriculture has become an increasingly popular option."

During the yearlong experiment, organically grown trees were fed either composted chicken manure or alfalfa meal, while conventionally raised plants were given calcium nitrate, a synthetic fertilizer widely used by commercial apple growers. Trees raised using the integrated system were given a blend of equal parts chicken manure and calcium nitrate.

Each tree was fertilized twice, in October and May, and given the same amount of nitrogen at both feedings no matter what the source--alfalfa, chicken manure, calcium nitrate or the manure/calcium nitrate blend.

Groundwater contamination

One goal of the PNAS experiment was to compare how much excess nitrogen leached into the soil using the four fertilizer treatments--one conventional, two organic (manure and alfalfa) and one integrated. When applied to the soil, nitrogen fertilizers release or break down into nitrates--chemical compounds that plants need to build proteins. However, excess nitrates can percolate through the soil and contaminate surface and groundwater supplies.

Besides having detrimental impacts on aquatic life, high nitrate levels in drinking water can cause serious illness in humans, particularly small children. According to the PNAS study, nearly one of 10 domestic wells in the United States sampled between 1993 and 2000 had nitrate concentrations that exceeded the EPA’s drinking water standards.

To measure nitrate levels during the experiment, water was collected in resin bags buried about 40 inches below the trees and then analyzed in the laboratory. The results were dramatic. "We measured nitrate leaching over an entire year and found that it was 4.4 to 5.6 times higher in the conventional treatment than in the two organic treatments, with the integrated treatment in between," says John B. Reganold, Regents Professor of Soil Science at Washington State University and co-author of the study.

Nitrogen gas emissions

The research team also compared the amount of nitrogen gas that was released into the atmosphere by the four treatments. Air samples collected in the orchard after the fall and spring fertilizations revealed that organic and integrated soils emitted larger quantities of an environmentally benign gas called dinitrogen (N2), than soils treated with conventional synthetic fertilizer. One explanation for this disparity is that the organic and integrated soils contained active concentrations of denitrifying bacteria--naturally occurring microbes that convert excess nitrates in the soil into N2 gas. However, denitrifier microbial communities were much smaller and far less active and efficient in conventionally treated soils.

The research team also measured emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O)--a potent greenhouse gas that’s 300 times more effective at heating the atmosphere than carbon dioxide gas, the leading cause of global warming. The results showed that nitrous oxide emissions were similar among the four treatments.

"We found that higher gas emissions from organic and integrated soils do not result in increased production of harmful nitrous oxide but rather enhanced emission of non-detrimental dinitrogen (N2)," Reganold says. "These results demonstrate that organic and integrated fertilization practices support more active and efficient denitrifier microbial communities, which may shift some of the potential nitrate leaching losses in the soil into harmless dinitrogen gas losses in the atmosphere."

Sustainable agriculture

Washington State produces more than half of the nation’s apples. In 2004, the state crop was worth about $963 million, with organically grown apples representing between 5 and 10 percent of the total value. But the results of the PNAS study may apply to other high-valued crops as well, according to the authors.

"This study is an important contribution to the debate surrounding the sustainability of organic agriculture, one of the most contentious topics in agricultural science worldwide," Reganold says. "Our findings not only score another beneficial point for organic agriculture but give credibility to the middle-ground approach of integrated farming, which uses both organic and conventional nitrogen fertilizers and other practices. It is this middle-ground approach that we may see more farmers adopting than even the rapidly growing organic approach."

Adds Mooney, "Organic farming cannot provide for all of our food needs, but it is certainly one important tool for use in our striving for sustainable agricultural systems. We need to explore and utilize all possible agricultural management techniques and technologies to reduce the very large global footprint of the needs to feed a population of over six billion people."

Other co-authors of the PNAS study are agroecologist Jerry D. Glover of The Land Institute in Salina, Ks., and Brendan J. M. Bohannan, associate professor of biological sciences at Stanford.

Mark Shwartz | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.stanford.edu

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Europe’s Demographic Future. Where the Regions Are Heading after a Decade of Crises
10.08.2017 | Berlin-Institut für Bevölkerung und Entwicklung

nachricht Scientists reveal source of human heartbeat in 3-D
07.08.2017 | University of Manchester

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Fizzy soda water could be key to clean manufacture of flat wonder material: Graphene

Whether you call it effervescent, fizzy, or sparkling, carbonated water is making a comeback as a beverage. Aside from quenching thirst, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered a new use for these "bubbly" concoctions that will have major impact on the manufacturer of the world's thinnest, flattest, and one most useful materials -- graphene.

As graphene's popularity grows as an advanced "wonder" material, the speed and quality at which it can be manufactured will be paramount. With that in mind,...

Im Focus: Exotic quantum states made from light: Physicists create optical “wells” for a super-photon

Physicists at the University of Bonn have managed to create optical hollows and more complex patterns into which the light of a Bose-Einstein condensate flows. The creation of such highly low-loss structures for light is a prerequisite for complex light circuits, such as for quantum information processing for a new generation of computers. The researchers are now presenting their results in the journal Nature Photonics.

Light particles (photons) occur as tiny, indivisible portions. Many thousands of these light portions can be merged to form a single super-photon if they are...

Im Focus: Circular RNA linked to brain function

For the first time, scientists have shown that circular RNA is linked to brain function. When a RNA molecule called Cdr1as was deleted from the genome of mice, the animals had problems filtering out unnecessary information – like patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders.

While hundreds of circular RNAs (circRNAs) are abundant in mammalian brains, one big question has remained unanswered: What are they actually good for? In the...

Im Focus: RAVAN CubeSat measures Earth's outgoing energy

An experimental small satellite has successfully collected and delivered data on a key measurement for predicting changes in Earth's climate.

The Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes (RAVAN) CubeSat was launched into low-Earth orbit on Nov. 11, 2016, in order to test new...

Im Focus: Scientists shine new light on the “other high temperature superconductor”

A study led by scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg presents evidence of the coexistence of superconductivity and “charge-density-waves” in compounds of the poorly-studied family of bismuthates. This observation opens up new perspectives for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of high-temperature superconductivity, a topic which is at the core of condensed matter research since more than 30 years. The paper by Nicoletti et al has been published in the PNAS.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, superconductivity had been observed in some metals at temperatures only a few degrees above the absolute zero (minus...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Call for Papers – ICNFT 2018, 5th International Conference on New Forming Technology

16.08.2017 | Event News

Sustainability is the business model of tomorrow

04.08.2017 | Event News

Clash of Realities 2017: Registration now open. International Conference at TH Köln

26.07.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Cholesterol-lowering drugs may fight infectious disease

22.08.2017 | Health and Medicine

Meter-sized single-crystal graphene growth becomes possible

22.08.2017 | Materials Sciences

Repairing damaged hearts with self-healing heart cells

22.08.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>