ABC: CSIRO support for organics questioned

Anna Salleh Friday, 23 March 2007    ABC Science Online

Australia’s national science agency says it is sticking with research into organic and biological farming, in response to recent comments suggesting it is abandoning the field. Despite CSIRO’s reassurance, some critics are concerned the organisation is effectively sidelining such research by not identifying organic farmers’ potentially useful agricultural innovations. 


Debate about the future of research into biological and organic farming was ignited this week as Dr Maarten Stapper, an organic farming advocate and GM critic, was made redundant from his position as a CSIRO agronomist.

A report in The Canberra Times said Stapper was CSIRO’s “last scientist working on organic and biological farming systems”. According to the report, Dr Jeremy Burdon of CSIRO Plant Industry said the organisation does not consider biological and organic farming to be “a long-term viable strategy”.

And he was quoted as saying Stapper’s research is “not an area the division feels it can support any more”. Burdon has since told ABC Science Online that he has been misunderstood. “If I did make that statement it was a slip of the tongue,” he says. “My comments certainly weren’t meant to imply that organic biological farming systems aren’t viable. They clearly are.”

Burdon says the division will continue to do generic agricultural research that is useful for farmers, no matter which farming system they use. Dr Alastair Robertson, CSIRO’s group executive for agribusiness, agrees. “CSIRO’s research is equally applicable to those farmers who choose organic/biological systems of agricultural production as it is to conventional systems,” he says.”

Some examples of research underpinning agricultural production systems by CSIRO currently include developing better farm management practices to minimise environmental impacts of agriculture, improve the quality of our soils and reduce the use of farm chemicals.”

Missing innovation by organic farmers?
Despite these reassurances, sustainable agriculture expert Jason Alexandra says CSIRO may be missing out by advances made by organic farmers because of its research approach. Alexandra, who co-authored a 2004 report on organic farming for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, says CSIRO will find it hard to identify important ecological relationships that could be the secret to successful organic farming.

For example, organic farmers have a lower problem with some pests and diseases, says Alexandra, who is currently the executive director of the Earthwatch Institute in Australia. One theory is that this is because organic farmers don’t use nitrogen rich fertilisers that are thought to trigger pest and disease attack in plants, an idea supported by the redundant agronomist Stapper.

Comparative farm scale experiments
Alexandra says at the very least, CSIRO should be carrying out “farm scale” experiments comparing organic farms with conventional farms, as is done in Europe. Such studies could compare the ecological processes as well as other factors like productivity, under different farming regimes, says Alexandra.

And he says the findings from such studies could provide tools useful for conventional farmers. But CSIRO has confirmed it is not doing any comparative research of this kind. CSIRO’s Robertson suggests this would not be in line with the organisation’s focus on “strategic and enabling research”. He says CSIRO works with other organisations, such as Co-operative Research Centres (CRCs) and farmers’ groups to apply scientific research in the field.

But CSIRO chose not to participate in a 2004 proposal for an organic farming CRC, much to the disappointment of some. Robertson says he would be willing to consider a future CRC proposal as long as it was in line with CSIRO’s strategy and capabilities, and did not overlap with research by the Future Farm Industries CRC.

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