ALTHOUGH DEBATE will continue over the benefits of organic versus conventional farming, Washington State University scientists have established that organic production of apples is more sustainable than conventional apple production. Soil scientist John Reganold, soils graduate student Jerry Glover, horticulturist Preston Andrews, and agricultural economist Herbert Hinman reported the results of a six-year study comparing organic, integrated, and conventional apple production in the cover article of the April 19, 2001 Nature.

In 1994 the researchers planted four acres of Golden Delicious apples within a Yakima Valley commercial orchard. Plots of equal size were managed according to organic, conventional, and integrated farming practices. Integrated farming draws on practices from both organic and conventional farming. Organic management emphasizes building up soil with compost and animal and green manure additions, crop rotation, and crop and livestock diversity. Organic growers avoid synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

The purpose of the study was to compare the sustainability of each system. Although the concept is complex, it is generally agreed that to be sustainable a farm must “produce adequate yields of high quality, be profitable, protect the environment, conserve resources and be socially responsible in the long term.”

Although organic growers and consumers tout the environmental and health benefits of organic produce, many analysts have criticized organic production as not being economically feasible.

To the contrary, Reganold’s study establishes that, with the price premiums generally awarded to organic produce, the organic apples were more profitable than the conventional and integrated systems. Yields of organic, conventional, and integrated fruit over the six-year study period were equal. However, the organic plots ranked first in environmental sustainability, which is based on measures of soil health and the effects of various inputs. Finally, according to a panel of tasters, the organic apples were sweeter and less tart.

The cover photograph of Nature was of a Washington apple, taken by photographer John Marshall. Also, the inside blurb about the cover acknowledged Washington as home of the “Best Apples on Earth™”—which is the slogan of the Washington Apple Commission.