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It's Worth Paying More: The Benefits of Alternative Agriculture

By Gwen Bane

Statement 'The exposure consumers receive from pesticide residues is tiny compared with the doses used in rodent studies.... These residues are usually hundreds of thousands times longer than the maximum tolerated doses used in rodent tests for carcinogenicity. "

Response. Moving towards a more sustainable agriculture system, one that does not depend on inputs of synthetic chemicals, provides many different ecological, health, and social benefits. Supporting sustainable agriculture is a way for food consumers to increase the quality of life, not just a means of reducing cancer risks. --Ed.

The statue of the health and wealth of our rural communities, our far ms. , our farm workers, our consumers, our naturel resources, and our planes has spurred many farmers to seek alternatives to the conventional methods of food production. Inherent in this process of seeking alternatives is a call for change, not only in how we produce our food but how we perceive farming, the farm economy, and the farm community.

In a nine year case study of alternative farming practices clone by the World Resources Institute, the Rodale Research Center, Purdue University, and the University of Nebraska, it was reported that organic farming rotations are superior to conventional, chemical intensive, corn and corn-soybean production. Alternative agricultural practices cut production costs by 25 percent, eliminated inorganic fertilizer and pesticide use, reduced soil erosion, and increased yields after the transition from conventional systems had been completed.2 "Well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemicals pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics .... Reduced use of these inputs lowers production costs and lessens agriculture's potential for adverse environmental and health affects...," according to an assessment by the National Research Council.3

Approximately 450 million to 500 million pounds of pesticides are applied to row crops in the United States every year.3 Reducing this pesticide use brings all of us, farmers and nonfarmers alike, ecological, health, and social benefits.

Ecological Benefits. Water and Soil

Clean Water:

Agricultural run-off has been identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the most common contributor to pollution of lakes and rivers from nonpoint sources.4 It has been estimated that about five percent of the millions of pounds of pesticides applied in row crops each year reach bodies of water.5 These bodies of water include rivers which may serve as sources for drinking water; when pesticides occur in the surface-water the concentrations tend to be higher than in groundwater.6 For example, in areas of intense agricultural production like Iowa, all of the public water supplies from surface water sources tested (a total of 33), had detectable pesticide residues. Seventy-three percent had residues of three or more pesticides (Figure 1). All of the water tested had gone through the normal treatment procedure before testing.7

Groundwater is the source of drinking water for 75 million people. Nearly 50 percent of all drinking water, 97 percent of all rural drinking water, and 55 percent of livestock water is from underground sources.89 The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 1,437 counties, or 46 percent of all U.S. counties. contain groundwater susceptible to contamination from fertilizers and pesticides. In 1987, 361 counties had "high contamination potential" from 38 pesticides. Another 757 counties were classified as having "medium contamination potential''.The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency' estimates that approximately 52.1 percent of the 94,600 community water system wells contain nitrate; 10.4 percent contain one or more pesticides, and about 3.2 percent contain both. Twelve pesticides were detected above the Survey's minimum detection limits; DCPA acid metabolites and atrazine were detected most frequently. DCPA acid metabolites are degradates of DCPA, which is used primarily as an herbicide in turf and also on a variety of fruits, and vegetables.

Productive Soils:

The United States roses about 3 billion tons of its topsoil from cropland every year.2 Agricultural practices have a marked effect on soil not only through erosion but by impacting the soil's ability to hold water and nutrients for plant growth. These combined factors decrease soil productivity. Studies in, Hays, Kansas, showed, as early as 1933, that rotations including legumes exhibit less of a loss of soil nitrogen than a continuous row cropping system. Soil nitrogen loss was more or less linear over a 31 year period. Recent long-term studies conclude that alternative cropping rotations deplete soil nitrogen levers at a significantly longer rate than do conventional practices. Also long-term applications of manure have been shown to increase soil nitrogen.

In a comparison of Amish horse powered agriculture to conventional no-till practices in Holmes County, Ohio, water infiltration rates were approximately seven times higher in the Amish system. There was also little erosion or rue-off recorded. Researchers concluded from the nine ~year case study of farming practices in Pennsylvania mentioned above that when all resource costs associated with soil erosion are included, resource-conserving practices outperform conventional approaches by almost a two-to-one margin in net economic value per acre. Also, future declines in soil productivity would be reduced. The researchers conclude, "When 'conventional' and 'alternative' farming systems are evaluated with complete accounting for their on-farm and off-farm environmental costs and without distorting the effects of base fine agricultural policies, farming systems that make maximum use of rotations and biological nutrients are economically competitive even where environmental costs are low, and markedly superior where environmental costs are high."2

Health Benefits: Fewer Poisoned Workers

A decrease in agricultural pesticide use also directly affects the safety and health of farm workers and the farm community. Just how much of a reduction in pesticide use is seen in alternative farming systems depends upon the farm practices and management skills of the farmer. What alternative farmers do share is a basic concern for soil tilth, which contributes to general plant health, and a concern for the environment which leads to an integrated approach to pest management. Healthy plants, proper soil management and integrated pest management lead to less need to apply pesticides. Less applications of pesticides translates simply into less risk of exposure.

David Pimentel, an entomologist and ecologist at the New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell, and his associates estimated illnesses from pesticide poisonings to be in the tens of thousands. Estimated deaths from pesticides by accident, homicide, and suicide were several hundred per year in the 1970s. Between 1980 and 1982, an average of 35 deaths per year were reported due to pesticides. For many reasons these figures are known to be low. In 1985, an estimated 20,000 persons were taken to U.S. emergency rooms due to suspected pesticide exposure. Globally, annual pesticide exposure incidents are estimated at approximately 3 million cases hospitalized and approximately 220,000 deaths.

Pierre Crosson and Janet Ostrov, from Resources for the Future, conclude that the human and economic costs of pesticide poisoning are significant. "The fact that alternative agriculture would drastically reduce, if not eliminate, this cost would seem to be its most important environmental advantage related to conventional agriculture."6

Social Benefits

The need to integrate economic, social , and environmental values in to agriculture translates into new farming practices, new goals for our farm policies, and new definitions of "quality of life." Some examples include the following developments:

Improved equipment: Implementation of alternative farming practices creates the demand for new, appropriate tools and supplies. This demand not only boosts the agricultural industry, it also creates a market for innovation. This includes development of farm machinery for use with alternative practices; production of alternative soil amendments; production of beneficial organisms; production of more specific, less toxic, pesticides; and development of crop varieties that are disease- and insect-resistant and suited to multiple cropping systems.

New Research: Appropriate agricultural research will implement and facilitate adoption and adaptation of the tools of alternative agriculture. Research into agricultural ecology (the study of the interrelationships among all the components in an agricultural ecosystem) is being promoted. It emphasizes looking at the total picture for the farm, a systems approach.

As Bill Liebhart, the Director of the University of California's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Project, states, "this [systems] approach is more likely to produce longterm, thorough results..."

Systems research incorporates a multidisciplinary approach to studying farm systems. It takes into account the interrelationships that occur in the field instead of isolating one factor. For example, testing for the "best" nitrogen source for corn under a systems approach would look at economics, availability, and leachability. Other aspects to consider would be the timing of application, the implications on pest and soil management, as well as the levers of available nitrogen.

A multidisciplinary, systems approach takes a more proactive role in addressing alternative farming research and policy. Patrick Madden, director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education -Program NSARE, once called LISA, Low Input Sustainable Agriculture) states, "The posture of the LISA program is to prevent a cola turkey catastrophe, which could result with new regulations driven by concern over groundwater, food safety and the environment in general. Our position is let's not wait until the train wreck to pick up the pieces. Let's get going now to improve agriculture's options."21

Empowerment Perhaps one of the most exciting social benefits of alternative agriculture is the growing empowerment of the farm community. Farmers' grassroots organizations have been financing and conducting their own on-farm research, developing their own markets and credit unions, lobbying for sustainable agricultural policies and farmland preservation, adopting environmental guidelines, and disseminating practical information to other farmers.

For example, the Center for Rural Affairs in Hartington, Nebraska has been providing a forum to discuss ecological, social, and environ mental issues effecting rural America since 1973. Through their work with farmers they have discovered a "traditional wisdom" that puts more emphasis on farmer's skills and resources than technologies and purchased inputs.22 As farmers seek solutions to their own problems they are becoming more confident in their own resources. They are choosing alternatives that are helping to keep their farms viable and sustainable and changing the health and wealth of our rural community and agricultural industry


1. Ames. Bruce and Lois Gold. 1991. Natural plant pesticides pose greater risk than synthetic ones. Chemical and Engineering News(January 7): 4849.

2. Faeth, P., R Repetto, K. Kroll, Q. Dai, C. Helmers. 1991. Paying the farm bill: US. agricultural policy and the transition to sustainable agriculture. Washington, D.C.: World Resources Institute

3. National Research Council, Committee on 20 the Role of Alternative Farming Methods In Modem Production Agriculture. 1989. 21 Alternative Agriculture, p.9. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.

4. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2Z 1987. National water quality inventory 1986 report to Congress. Washington, D.C.: Office of Water. Cited in Weinberg, AC. Low input agriculture reduces nonpoint source pollution. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 45(1):48~50.

5. Phipps, T.T. and P.R Crosson. 1986. Agriculture and the environment: An overview. In T.T. Phipps, P.R Crosson, and K A. Price, - eds. Agriculture and the environment Annual policy review, pp. 3~31. Washington D.C.: The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, Resources for the Future

6. Crosson, P. and J.E. Ostrov. 1990. Sorting out the environmental benefits of alternative agriculture Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 45(1):34 41.

7. Wnuk, M., et al. 1987. Pesticides in water supplies using surface water samples. Iowa City, Iowa Department of Natural Resources and University Hygienic Laboratory. Cited in reference #3, p. 104.

8. U.S. Department of Agriculture 1987. cultural resources: Inputs situation ,and outlook report. AR-5. Washington, D.C.: Economic Research Service

9. US. Department of Agriculture. 1987.; US irrigation Extent and importance Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 523. Washington D.C.: Economic Research Service

10. National Research Council. 1986. Pesticides and groundwater quality: Issues and problems in four states. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.

11. Nielsen, E., and L Lee 1987 The magnitude and costs of groundwater contamination from agricultural chemicals. AER no. 576. Washington D.C: US. Department of Agriculture

12. US. Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Water and Office of Pesticides and Toxic Substances. 1990. National survey of pesticides in drinking water wells: Phase I report. Washington, D.C.

13. Stevenson, F.J. 1986. Cycles of the sod carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, micronutrients. (Chapter 2, pp. 55~60) New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.

14.Jackson, M. 1988. Amish agriculture and no-till: The hazards of applying the USLE to unusual farms. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 43:483~86.

15. Pimentel, D., et al. 1980. Environmental and social costs of pesticides: A preliminary assessment. Oikos 34(2)

16.Wilk, V.A. 1986. The occupational health of migrant and seasonal farm workers in the `United States. Washington, D.C.: Farm worker Justice Fund, Inc.:

17. U.S. Public Health Service National Center for Health Statistics: Vital statistics of the United States (for the years 1980-82) Volume 11. Part A. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

18. Blondell, I.M. Pesticide related Injuries treated In the U.S. hospital emergency rooms (calendar year reports for 1981 through 1986) Washington, D.C.: US. Environmental Protection Agency.

19. Jeyaratnam, J. 1990. Acute pesticide poisoning A major global health problem. Wld Health Statist Quart. 43:139-44.

20.Liebhart, W.C. 1990. An agricultural agenda. HortScience 25(5): 506-7.

21.Marking, S. and C. Hillyer. 1989. Research linking solutions to farmer's questions. Soybean Digest(Aug/Sept): 10-12

22 Center for Rural Affairs. 1987. Resourceful farmer: A primer for family farmers. Hartington, NB.: Center for Rural Affairs.

Citation for this article: Bane, Gwen, 1991, "It's worth paying more : the benefits of alternative agriculture", Vol. 11, No. 2, Summer 1991, pp. 21-23.

Copyright 1991 Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.

Reprinted with permission.

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