Oxford Study Finds a Farming Method “Greener than Organic”

An Oxford University study from earlier this month has found that “integrated farming,” or farming that emphasizes both high crop production and eco-friendly practices, beats both organic and conventional methods, filling fields, wallets, and energy reports alike with green.

Slated to appear in science journal Agricultural Systems, the study examined different methods of farming and compared their environmental impacts. What authors found was that the best type of farming fused the best of both traditional and organic worlds—crop maximization, crop rotation, minimal pesticide use, organic fertilizers, and “cover crops” for the winter. Combining these attributes into one approach, the “integrated” system produced more for less: more crops with less energy and greenhouse gas emission per unit of production.

As explained in a press release from Oxford University:

“Farming in a way that’s good for the environment doesn’t have to mean accepting a dramatic drop in food production,” said Dr. Hanna Tuomisto, who led the research at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU). “Our research suggests that integrated farming systems, which combine the best practices for producing high yields with low negative environmental impacts, can be more beneficial for the environment than either organic or conventional farming.”

More beneficial for the environment, and more beneficial for humans as well. As Dr. Tuomisto went on to note, organic farming practices often require more acres of land, creating a tradeoff between quality and quantity of food. However, by blending techniques and exploiting alternative land uses, we can have our carrot-cake and eat it too.

Not everyone, however, is impressed by the news.

Peter Melchett, policy director for the Soil Association, a farming organization, said the research is flawed, and on the whole, irrelevant to the real world. Taken from his comments to Farmers Guardian:

“Anyone could make up a system which is better than both conventional and organic farming by picking the best parts of each, which is all this author has done.

“This research is not based on any actual benefits or new measurements, but on models. Even then, the researchers have used Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) data which is out of date and wrong.

“In contrast, the review of evidence on wildlife on farms is based on actual scientific data collected by other scientists which shows higher levels of wildlife on organic farms.

“The paper contains a number of basic misunderstandings about organic farming such as not including livestock in the system, and treating organic clover leys as ‘intensive’ grassland.

“This research is of no interest or use to consumers, as there is no formal definition, legal or otherwise, of the ‘integrated’ system made up by the researchers.”

Others prefer to view the research as a step, however small, in the right direction. Studies of methods’ effectiveness and environmental impacts advance the realm of farming, pushing the age-old practice to new millennium heights.

As Oxford’s Professor David Macdonald, who directed the research, explains, “integrating the needs of food production and wildlife conservation is a major 21st Century challenge – humanity needs both, and it’s only by taking account of all the costs and benefits that the best compromises can be found.”

Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Corn_Zea_mays_Field_Rows_2000px.jpg

New Study May Increase Number of Organic Poultry Farms

When a human suffers from a bacterial infection, a doctor will prescribe an anti-biotic to kill the bacteria. After years of certain bacteria being treated with the same antibiotic, some bacteria begin to develop a resistance to the treatment. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can lead to uncontrollable widespread disease.

One major concern regarding antibiotic use is its presence in animal farming in the United States. The use of antibiotics in the food of animals raised for consumption has been proven to add to the increase of antibiotic-resistance bacteria.

A recent study from the University of Maryland School of Public Health presents data indicating that traditional poultry farms that have switched to organic farming and no longer use antibiotics have lower amounts of antibiotic resistant bacteria.  This is the first study to arise at this result.

Dr. Amy R. Sapkota, the lead researcher on the project, compared levels of enterococci bacteria on a conventional farm to those on a convention farm that has become an organic farm. The original hypothesis was that there would be some difference in the level, but nothing as significant as what was found. 

Enterococci bacteria was chosen because it is found in most poultry and they are pathogens that are often found in hospital patients. Also, the antibiotics given to the poultry on a traditional farm actively fight against the Enterococci.

“We initially hypothesized that we would see some differences in on-farm levels of antibiotic-resistant enterococci when poultry farms transitioned to organic practices. But we were surprised to see that the differences were so significant across several different classes of antibiotics even in the very first flock that was produced after the transition to organic standards,” says Sapkota.

To test their hypothesis, the team of researchers from Pennsylvania State University, University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University led by Sapkota studied ten traditional farms and ten farms that recently became organic farms. The team checked for the enterococci bacteria in litter, feed, and water, followed by checking the resistance of the bacteria to 17 antibiotics.

According to the study, enterococci bacteria were found in the litter, feed, and water on all farms participating in the test. It found that the percentages of antibiotic resistant bacteria were statistically significantly lower among newly converted organic farms compared to traditional farming practices.  Forty-two percent of the E. faecalis strain of enterococci bacteria from traditional poultry farms was resistant to multiple antibiotics, while ten percent of the strain was resistant on the organic farms. The other strain, E. faecium, showed an antibiotic resistance of eighty-four percent and seventeen percent in traditional and organic farms respectively.

“While we know that the dynamics of antibiotic resistance differ by bacterium and antibiotic, these findings show that, at least in the case of enterococci, we begin to reverse resistance on farms even among the first group of animals that are grown without antibiotics. Now we need to look forward and see what happens over 5 years, 10 years in time,” explains Sapkota.

These bacteria are of concern because they could be resistant to all available antibiotics and become a public health hazard. This means that if an animal or human becomes infected, it is difficult to treat.

In 2008, there were approximately 4.8 million acres of farmland dedicated to organic farming. Of 4.8 million acres, 2.1 million of the acres were dedicated to rangeland and pasture, the category where organic poultry farms fit. Ultimately, this study shows that transitioning from traditional farms to organic farms may be safer for public health. There was a fifteen percent average increase in organic farming between 2002 and 2008. This study bodes well for an increase in the number of traditional farms transitioning to organic farms.

Photo credit: ars.usda.gov/is/np/fnrb/fnrb0106.htm