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Organic Farming: a Fertile Field of Research


Organic farming may involve a lot of manure, but with organic products occupying more and more shelf space in our supermarkets, a session at this year's BA Festival of Science set out to show that organic farming doesn't deserve its low-tech image. In fact, claimed the session's speakers, these days a lot of scientific research is going into the development of organic systems.

Organic practitioners regard the farm as a macroorganism in which all the parts--the soil minerals, organic matter, microorganisms, insects, plants, animals, and humans--interact to create a coherent and stable whole. David Atkinson from the Scottish Agricultural College ( SAC) explained the role that science is playing in understanding soil ecology--the interaction of plants and microorganisms with the soil itself. For example, by measuring nitrogen fixation by plants, scientists hope to help farmers optimise their crop rotations and manage the soil effectively. The amount of nitrogen being fixed from the atmosphere can be accurately measured by mass spectrometry, because the ratio of nitrogen isotopes is constant in the atmosphere but not in soil.

Christine Watson of SAC explained how scientists are using the minirhizotron camera, originally developed to look at cracks in pipelines, to study the longevity of plant roots. This can have a direct effect on the amount of atmospheric carbon incorporated into the soil. By using the portable camera attached to a palm-top computer, they are able to look at roots literally 'in the field'.

Researchers are also getting down and dirty with the fungi associated with 95% of crop roots. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) influence the ability of crops to absorb nutrients and water, as well as their ability to resist disease. Matching the right crop to the right fungal species would be extremely beneficial, and molecular biologists are using molecular fingerprinting to identify different AMF species and genotypes so as to track their presence within various cropping systems. Functional genomics will also help scientists understand how AMF interact with their plant symbionts at the molecular level.

Plants are not receiving all the attention, however. Organic livestock producers aim to achieve high standards in animal health and welfare, and science is helping to meet this challenge, explained Geoff Simm of SAC. There are restrictions on the type of drugs and diet that can be given to animals, so it's important to discover which breeds or crosses are best suited to organic systems. Recent research at SAC and the University of Edinburgh on cattle breeding has shown that selection on the basis of disease resistance as well as productivity is more profitable for organic farmers. Alternative methods of disease prevention are also being investigated. Some plant extracts can help control parasites, for example.

Not surprisingly, institutions with extensive organic research programmes are not that common. Much of the education and research in this (muddy) field takes place at the SAC, which has campuses at Aberdeen, Ayr, and Edinburgh. A postgraduate diploma/MSc in organic farming is based at their Aberdeen campus, but the normal entry requirement is a degree in agriculture. The Institute of Rural Studies at the University of Wales, Aberystwth, offers fulltime BSc and postgraduate courses in organic agriculture.

The major expansion in organic farming (currently the most buoyant sector of the agricultural industry in the UK and Europe) means there is a real shortage of graduates with the necessary skills and knowledge and, potentially, a rich harvest of career opportunities, according to Norman Stephen, who runs the postgrad course at SAC. Organic certification bodies and advisory services are finding it difficult to cope with demands for inspectors and advisers--and down on the farm, managers, agronomists, and livestock specialists with organic farming expertise are all needed. And it seems likely that research in this area is only going to grow, so there should be plenty of opportunities for research scientists who fancy a taste of the Good Life.

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