SDC335: Quantifying The Linkages Between Soil Health and Organic Farming
Statement of Issues and JustificationOrganic farming is a vibrant and growing sector of the U.S. farm economy. The USDA Economic Research Service reported that U.S. sales of organic foods and beverages grew from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $21 billion in 2008. Growth in the organic food market has slowed recently because of domestic and global economic crises, but trend data suggest that market expansion will continue. Consumer marketing analysts at Packaged Facts predict at least strong single-digit growth in organic food and beverage markets through 2013.
Scientific research directed at providing solutions to the problems encountered when growing crops organically is needed so that market demand can be met. Organic farmers articulated research needs to scientists during several sessions of the Scientific Congress on Organic Agricultural Research between 2000 and 2002. A summary of those sessions was provided in the National Organic Farming Research Agenda, a publication released by the Organic Farming Research Foundation in 2007. The report revealed that organic growers believe a healthy soil is essential for the sustainability of an organic farm. The farmers considered high soil organic matter (SOM) levels, lush crop canopies, reduced soil erosion, and earthworm presence to be among the indicators of healthy soils. Specific recommendations were generated from these surveys, including the need for research that would elucidate the relationship between crop nutrient content and soil health, and determine how organic farming systems can conserve SOM, enhance soil quality, protect soil from erosion, and sequester carbon to help mitigate global climate change. It is important to conduct the research across a diverse range of environmental conditions to extend the inference domain of the management tactics being investigated.
Organic amendments, crop rotations, and cover crops are used to improve soil health in organic farming systems, but the intensive tillage relied on for weed control in typical organic farming systems can compromise these gains. Conservation-tillage, organic farming systems are being explored, but the coordination of this research across a range of climates and farming systems is a key need to improve the environmental and economic sustainability of organic farming.
While comparisons of food quality between organic and conventional farming systems have been emphasized in response to consumer perceptions, specific factors contributing to enhancement of food quality within organic systems have not been examined thoroughly. In particular, little is known concerning the fundamental impact of soil biodiversity and biological activity on nutritional quality attributes and the health-promoting phytochemicals of food crops. This information is needed to determine the causal linkages between alternative organic farming practices and food quality.
Previous and ongoing research has quantified, or is quantifying, the impact of organic farming on soil health. These independent research efforts have made important contributions to our understanding of some of the linkages between soil health and organic farming at the local level. However, a more coordinated approach is needed to enhance our understanding of the relationship between soil health and specific practices used by organic farmers. This effort should include agricultural scientists with organic farming research experience representing an array of agricultural disciplines and agroecoregions. This project is designed to foster collaboration among organic farming scientists already involved, or planning to become involved in research quantifying the soil health impacts of different organic farming practices. The project also will provide a mechanism for the engagement of food scientists in new organic farming research projects exploring relationships between food quality, soil health, and organic farming methods. In addition, the project will stimulate networking between new and experienced scientists engaged in understanding how organic farming practices, soil health, and food quality.
This information will have broad and immediate application on most, if not all, organic farms since a common goal is to enhance the quality of the soil that is managed and the food that is produced. Project outcomes will address several SAAESD Priority Areas, including developing AN AGRICULTURAL SYSTEM THAT IS HIGHLY COMPETITIVE IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY (Goal 1, A. Integrated and sustainable agricultural production systems), contributing to A HEALTHY AND WELL NOURISHED POPULATION (Goal 3, A. Nutritional quality of plant and animal food products), and creating GREATER HARMONY BETWEEN AGRICULTURE AND THE ENVIRONMENT (Goal 3, A. Air, soil, and water resources conservation and enhancement; B. Natural resource and ecosystem management; D. Environmentally benign agricultural operations; E. Nutrient management in agricultural systems; and F. Integrated pest management systems, including biologically-based tactics).
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