Organic farming has been given a boost, following the results of a 21-year study, which showed that it is more efficient than conventional agriculture. Organic yields were lower, but crops required far less fertiliser and made better use of the soil.
The study, carried out by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), vindicates proponents of organic farming, who have long argued that it is a feasible alternative to conventional farming, which relies heavily on fertilisers and pesticides.
The study found that, although organic crop yields were on average 20 per cent lower than those on conventional farms, organic farms required substantially less outside input to produce the same quantity of crops, and were therefore more efficient.
The authors concluded: "organic management systems allow for a sustainable agricultural production, with lower input and lower yields."
They pointed out that the lower yields needed to be balanced against several other factors, including the effects on the soil and biodiversity.
The study found that organic agriculture increased soil activity, reducing the risk of erosion, and it promoted the development of earthworms and other beneficial organisms, improving the growth conditions of crops.
The authors said: "earthworms work hand in hand with fungi, bacteria and numerous other micro-organisms in soil. In organically managed soils, the activity of these organisms is higher. Thus, nutrients are recycled faster and soil structure is improved."
The study also put paid to conventional notions about pesticides. In organic soils the density of arthropods (predators which feed on pests) was almost twice that of conventional soils, reducing the need for pesticides.
The authors confirmed too that organic farming encourages biodiversity. They said the increased presence of plants, animals and micro-organisms made organic systems "more resistant to stress and disturbance [and] improved the utilisation of the available energy and resources".
The field study was commissioned by the Federal Office for Agriculture in the early 1970s and began in 1978 at Therwil in canton Basel Country.
Today Switzerland has some 5,000 organic farms.