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Bridging the Divide On Farm Chemicals

Organic groups, pesticide makers try to meet in the middle

WASPS are Ellen Polishuk's weapon of choice against the Mexican bean beetles that threaten her tomato, pepper, and green bean crop. Rather than apply chemical pesticides, the Virginia organic farmer orders wasps from Rutgers University and receives them via Federal Express.

``It's such a cool system,'' Ms. Polishuk tells visitors to her booth at an ecological practices fair in Austin. ``It's using cleverness instead of hammers.''

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Such is the appeal of organic farming: Problems are solved in a natural way rather than with costly, sometimes dangerous chemicals. But lately, the choice has not been so starkly either/or. Recognizing that each may have a contribution to make, chemical firms and organic advocates have formed tentative alliances. Efforts to bridge the divide between these groups come amid warnings that global food production may be reaching its capacity.

Organic advocates do not like to admit it, Polishuk says, but ``there are some things we can't grow because we haven't figured out how to deal with the pest problems.'' Melons of any kind are impossible, she says.

Even John Haberern, president of Rodale Institute, a pioneering organics advocacy body that is critical of agricultural chemical use, says chemicals are OK as a ``last resort.'' That sounds like a basis for dialogue to Raymond Forney, an executive of chemical giant DuPont.

``My company can agree that that is a reasonable approach that some people, even some of our customers, may want to look at,'' Mr. Forney says. ``To some extent, we subscribe to it already.'' He recommends the European philosophy on chemical fertilizers and pesticides: ``Use as much as needed, but only that much.''

After three years of discussion, Rodale and DuPont began an experiment last year at the company's Remington Farms, which Forney manages. Ninety-two acres have been divided among four management styles involving differing levels of organic practices and chemical products. The five-year project will gather data on the agronomic, economic, and environmental results, all of which are factors in the so-called sustainability equation. The aim is to ``make sustainable farming believable,'' the participants say. And not a moment too soon, if the Worldwatch Institute is correct. Its recent annual report suggests that the planet's ability to generate food for humans has reached its limit. For instance, widespread use of fertilizer after World War II caused a ``Green Revolution'' of soaring farm output. But since 1984, the report says, output per ton of fertilizer has declined.

``I couldn't disagree with [Worldwatch president] Lester Brown more,'' says Kathy O'Hara, spokeswoman for the Fertilizer Institute. ``Certainly on the fertilizer side, there are immense gains to be made.''

But John McCarthy, vice president of the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, agrees with Worldwatch that benefits from chemical fertilizers are declining. The next leap in productivity will come from improved crop varieties, perhaps through genetic engineering, he says.

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Mr. McCarthy and Ms. O'Hara defend the usefulness of chemicals to the environment. They argue that rainforests and wildlife habitats have been spared the plow because fertilizers have made existing farms more productive. ``Fertilizer is one of the great alternatives to environmental degradation and starvation,'' O'Hara asserts.

Adds McCarthy: ``Some say to pull the rug out from under chemicals. Instead, we should build on what we've done.''

Rodale's Mr. Haberern takes a different view. ``I think we'll look back at the Green Revolution as a failure. It was a short-term solution to a long-term problem,'' he says. Haberern says chemicals have damaged the soil and that eliminating their use restores the soil to health.

The catch is, no one has a definition of healthy soil. ``How can we really say we've damaged the soil if we don't know what the baseline is?'' McCarthy asks.

Haberern says Rodale is working on that. DuPont's Forney says the American Society of Agronomy is tackling the same topic.

Forney acknowledges that to groups like Rodale, ``sustainable agriculture means no chemicals.'' But he says the larger goal should be to reduce the risk from pesticides, for instance, not just reduce pesticide use per se.

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