With a Little Help, Organic Holds Promise for Nontoxic Farming Solutions

<i> Mark Lipson has farmed organic vegetables near Davenport since 1983. He is the policy program director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation and serves on the California Organic Foods Advisory Board</i>

Can agriculture in California remain economically viable while coexisting with schools and growing communities?

Escalating conflicts over agricultural chemical use near schools seem to be at an impasse. Without conversion toward nontoxic production methods, agriculture will eventually be forced out. That would be tragic because alternatives do exist. Organic agriculture offers the core of a long-term solution, but this will require substantial public investment in research and education.

Ventura County has 35 growers registered to sell organic products, working about 1,700 acres of cropland. These farms encompass all the traditional crops of the area, including strawberries, citrus, nuts, vegetables and even organic flowers. Ventura’s organic production sector includes some of the county’s most prominent agribusiness operators and successful pioneers of small-scale intensive production.

Organic agriculture has already proven to be economically and agronomically viable at every scale of production, with competitive yields. We know that growers would prefer to farm profitably without toxic consequences. Are they getting any help from our public institutions to reach that goal? Are the government research labs and university departments developing and distributing knowledge about organic agriculture? With some tiny exceptions, they are not.


The Organic Farming Research Foundation recently published “Searching for the ‘O-Word,’ ” the results of a two-year study on federal funding for organic farming research. Out of 30,000 agricultural research projects receiving federal funds, we found only 34 specifically dedicated to investigating organic systems. Out of nearly $1.8 billion in U.S. Department of Agriculture research and extension funding (for fiscal year 1995), less than one-tenth of 1% was spent to study a viable alternative that can help protect our children and communities while keeping America’s family farmers in business.

In fact, organic farming has been not just ignored, but treated with deliberate hostility by our agricultural research system. Scientists have put their reputations and careers at risk by attempting to study organic systems. As a result, the organic paradigm has never been seriously and systematically explored by the scientific community. Instead it has been actively discouraged and unscientifically disparaged by the highest levels of government and academia. The myth that “organic farming means mass starvation” is still vigorously spouted by influential think-tanks and Washington policy shapers, along with the new, equally unsupported version: “Organic farming produces microbial hazards.”

Some parts of the agricultural research system have made a notable effort to develop “softer” chemical technologies and gene-splicing schemes to breed pesticides into plants. But almost all of this research takes place within the context of chemical-dependent systems, ignoring the possibility of a fundamentally different approach to profitable farming. Research stations and crop-breeding programs geared to the different assumptions of organic management are almost nonexistent. Without dedicated research programs specific to organic systems, this positive alternative will not become widespread.

There are a few hopeful signs. A small but growing number of scientists and research administrators are taking organic farming seriously and starting to study successful organic operators. During the recent comment period for proposed new organic marketing regulations, the public showed overwhelming support for rigorous standards behind the organic label.


Congress has taken note of the Organic Farming Research Foundation study and recently passed the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative authorizing federal support for organic research. This landmark action challenges the historical taboo against organic farming that has been entrenched in federal policy for 50 years. It remains to be seen whether the Clinton Administration will respond with a budget allocation for this.

Despite the historic lack of scientific and educational support, thousands of organic farmers are building an alternative pattern of successful farm management. The organic marketplace continues to grow and thrive, attracting new producers and spurring on-farm innovation. We can only imagine what the redirected efforts of our nation’s awesome system of agricultural science could accomplish in partnership with these trailblazers.

There may always be conflicts between farms and residential neighbors, but the risk of toxic pollution does not have to be one of them. Organic farming still has many unknowns and imperfections, and organic methods should not be imposed on farmers as mandatory. If farms are to be a healthy part of our communities, as they should be, instead of threats to our safety and well-being, they must voluntarily go in the direction of organic management. We should demand that our public resources help to provide research and education for farmers to pursue that goal.