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Wednesday, 18 April, 2001, 20:29 GMT 21:29 UK
Organic apples tickle tastebuds
Apples on display BBC
Organic apples are better all round, scientists say
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Growing apples organically is not only better for the environment than other methods but makes them taste better than normal apples, US scientists say.

The study is among the first to give scientific credence to the claim that organic farming really is the better option.

The researchers found organic cultivation was more sustainable than either conventional or integrated farming, which cuts the use of chemicals.

The scientists, from Washington State University in Pullman, found the organic apples were rated highest for sweetness by amateur tasting panels.

They reported: "Escalating production costs, heavy reliance on non-renewable resources, reduced biodiversity, water contamination, chemical residues in food, soil degradation and health risks to farm workers handling pesticides all bring into question the sustainability of conventional farming systems."

Lengthy comparison

But they noted that organic farming systems were "less efficient, pose greater health risks and produce half the yields of conventional farming".

Demonstrator on pile of apples AP
Apple economics are often doubtful
Despite this organic farming grew rapidly in the US and Europe during the last decade. Many Europeans have opted for integrated farming, which combines organic and conventional techniques to reduce chemical use.

The team, led by Dr John Reganold, compared organic, integrated and conventional systems of growing apples in experimental plots over a five-year period.

It measured the "sustainability indicators of soil quality, horticultural performance, orchard profitability, environmental quality and energy efficiency".

Horticultural performance

Soil quality was measured by analysing physical, chemical and biological soil properties and incorporating the results into an index.

This registered "significantly higher" ratings for the organic and integrated systems, mainly because of the addition of compost and mulch.

The scientists write: "Organic matter has a profound impact on soil quality, enhancing structure and fertility and increasing water infiltration and storage."

They assessed horticultural performance by measuring fruit yields, size and grade; tree growth; leaf and fruit mineral contents; fruit maturity; and consumer taste preference.

The authors found the most significant differences in this category emerged in taste, determined in several ways.

Sweetness marked

They write: "Ratios of soluble solids (sugar) content to acidity (tartness), an indication of sweetness, were most often highest in organic fruit.

"These data were confirmed in taste tests by untrained sensory panels that found the organic apples to be sweeter after six months of storage than conventional apples, and less tart at harvest and after six months' storage than conventional and integrated apples."

But the tests "found no differences among organic, conventional and integrated apples in texture or overall acceptance".

On orchard profitability, the scientists say the organic system would be likely to break even first and the conventional second.

They assessed the environmental impact of the three systems with a rating index used by scientists and growers to establish the potential damage from pesticides and other chemicals. A higher rating indicates more damage.

Incentives needed

They put the total environmental impact rating of the conventional apples at 6.2 times that of the organic fruit, and the integrated apples at 4.7 times greater.

Apples on fruit stall BBC
Consumers liked the organic fruit
The organic system also emerged as the most energy-efficient of the three.

The authors conclude: "Our results show that organic and integrated apple production systems in Washington state are not only better for soil and the environment than their conventional counterpart, they also have comparable yields and, for the organic system, higher profits and greater energy efficiency."

But they end with a warning: "Growers of more sustainable systems may be unable to maintain profitable enterprises without economic incentives, such as price premiums or subsidies for organic and integrated products."

Their findings are reported in the magazine Nature.

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See also:

28 Feb 01 | Europe
Germany's green revolution
24 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Organic food industry 'out of control'
03 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Organic food 'proven' healthier
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