Organic research slowly gaining funds, practitioners and publicity
At the TOFGA conference in January 2005, USDA scientists shared the fruits of a growing organic research agenda

By Skip Connett

Posted March 15, 2005: With increases for organic research in the 2002 Farm Bill and more encouragement from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, scientists are starting to feel more confident about publicizing their results on organic farming studies. Surrounded by several hundred organic farmers and activists attending the annual organic farming conference in Texas, four researchers did just that -- presenting their findings on organic versus conventional approaches to grapefruits and pecans.

Joe Bradford, research leader at the Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center in Weslaco, Texas, kicked off the program by describing a meeting of more than 60 ARS scientists with USDA officials in Austin, Texas, in early January to set priorities for USDA-ARS organic research. While Washington’s support for organic farming research remains lukewarm, the meeting underscored the increased pressure on USDA to do more for the fastest growing segment of the U.S. agriculture sector.

“Two administrators told me, ‘We want you to come out of the closet. We need to get this [research agenda] rolling through the system,' ” said Bradford.

The USDA supports organic research either through departmental budgeting or congressional appropriations. Kika de la Garza SARC is one of only two organic farming research programs supported directly by Congress. Without that funding, pushed through by Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, the research station would be $100,000 in the red each year, Bradford noted.

Obtaining more USDA funding is critical, the researchers said, especially when one considers how many 'inputs,' or factors, make up an organic agriculture production system. Bradford presented a chart listing more than 25 such inputs, from seed technology and post-harvest technology to plant health and human health.

But the most critical input of all, said Mark Lipson, policy director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation, was not on the chart: Knowledge. And without more research to increase that knowledge base, organic farmers will remain at a disadvantage in the marketplace, he said.

The 2002 Farm Bill’s allocation of $15 million in competitive grants over five years is the single largest increase to date for organic research for cooperative research centers. Still, ARS support for research in organics remains grossly inadequate, Lipson said. In 1998, he estimated that the proportion of USDA research dollars going towards organics was just 0.1 percent--even though organic sales made up more than 1 percent of total U.S agricultural sales.

"Two [USDA] administrators told me, ‘We want you to come out of the closet. We need to get this [research agenda] rolling through the system,'” said Bradford.
On his wish list of research projects, Lipson would like to see a cost-benefit analysis of all those inputs for an organic production system compared to a conventional one. "We need an all-encompassing, whole-system science, beyond adding up all the sum of the parts," he said. "Only when we have full-cost accounting will we be able to show the superiority of organic production."

Kika de la Garza researcher Gene Lester argued that one of the biggest challenges facing organic farming research is the need to put more rigor into the science. “We need to make sure the science is done right,” he said.

Examples of weak science are too easy to find in the literature, he said. He mentioned a recent study showing that organic carrots had higher beta-carotene than conventional ones. Yet two different cultivars were used, and research has shown significant difference in beta-carotene from one cultivar to the next. Beta-carotene, a substance found naturally in plants, is converted to vitamin A in the body.

Grapefruit study finds mixed benefits from organic, conventional systems

Creating a good head-to-head comparative study takes time, money, and good planning. Before sharing his results comparing organic and conventional grapefruit production, Lester presented all the variables that were controlled and documented, including percentage soil organic matter, mineral uptake efficiency, micro-environments, system inputs, and year-to-year records.

Grapefruit production in South Texas provided a unique opportunity to compare the two systems after the 1989 freeze killed most of the region's grapefruit trees. Lester found two farms, side by side, that had planted the same Ruby Red variety at the same time and in the same type of soil. Detailed input records were also available.

Only after testing showed that the two plots shared similar soil and mineral profiles, Lester argued, could any observed fruit quality differences be attributed to the two production systems.

The analysis looked at differences in fruit color and size, minerals, vitamins, pectin, taste and flavor, and drug interaction (grapefruit is contraindicated for some medications). Among the study’s findings:

Color and size: Color and size were similar, but the conventional grapefruits showed deeper and more intense red color on the outside, especially those harvested from November to March. However, those differences diminished later in the season. The fact that the organic fruit caught up to conventional fruit underscores the importance of comparison timing. Internally, however, conventional grapefruit color was more uniform and darker red throughout the season.

Sugars: There were no significant differences in pectin, glucose, fructose, sucrose and other fruit sugars throughout the seasons in these two production systems.

Taste: Professional tasters preferred conventional grapefruits but there were no overall significant differences. Organic grapefruits tended to taste more acidic, and this may be attributed to slightly higher sugar levels in conventional grapefruit. (This finding contrasts with research also presented by the Kika de la Garza ARC on organic versus conventional pecans. The major difference found between the two production systems was the superior taste of organic pecans, Bradford reported.)

Human health compounds: Organic grapefruit had significantly more ascorbic acid (vitamin C) than conventional fruit, regardless of the time of season. This difference is attributed mainly to the fact that the soil for conventional grapefruit had higher nitrogen levels of nitrogen, thanks to the application of organic fertilizers.

More nitrogen available to the plant results in less ascorbic acid because it is synthesized from glucose, Lester explained. "And the more nitrogen you have, the less glucose you have."

On the other hand, conventional grapefruit always had higher levels of beta-carotene and lycopene -- two antioxidants that show up as yellow, orange and red pigment in plants. Higher nitrogen utilization by the fruit results in higher beta-carotene and lycopene levels.

"This tells us that more work needs to be done by organic growers to look at ways to improve the nitrogen utilization to the plant and get these color-dependent compounds up higher," Lester said. "So it's not an all or nothing situation."

Two other compounds tested in favor of organic production:

  • Nitrogen Nitrate (NO3). There was significantly less NO3 in the organic grapefruit. An infant's digestive system cannot differentiate between oxygen and NO3, and actually prefers NO3, which can lead to suffocation (blue baby syndrome).
  • Bergamottin. Organic grapefruit had significantly lower levels of this compound, which can interact with blood pressure medicines such as Lipitor.

"The good news for the organics is there are significantly less NO3 and significantly less Bergamottin in organically grown juice," he said.

Lester ended his presentation by mentioning that surveys have found that consumers, both organic and non-organic, agree that food produced without pesticides is healthier and that the risks associated with pesticides are under-recognized. In the latest issue of The Packer, a trade magazine for the produce industry, Lester noted, industry experts forecast that organic sales will ebb and flow based not just on pricing but on food safety.

"Food safety -- that is, pesticides," he said. "They note that after anything related to food safety, you see an increase in organic sales. It will go up and it never goes back down. Finally, any time you get a close price between organic and other produce, more people will make the move toward organics. You've got the cat by the tale. The future is yours."

Skip Connett is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia.