Doing the right thing can be profitable after allat least when it comes to growing apples. That's the conclusion of a new study in today's issue of Nature, which compared the economics of organic apple farms and conventional ones. "The organic system was more energy efficient, it was better for the environment, it had better soil quality, its yields were as good as the other systems, it was more profitable, and its apples were slightly sweeter and firmer," says co-author John Reganold of Washington State University.

His team began their study by doing a little planting themselves. The essential difference between organic and conventional farming lies in the fertilizers and pesticides used. Whereas conventional farms tend to use chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizer, organic farms employ cover crops, mulching and mechanical methods for pest control, and composts and manure as fertilizers. So the researchers planted Golden Delicious apples on a four-acre site in central Washington, and farmed four plots conventionally, four organically and four in a way that combined both approaches. They then measured the resulting soil quality, horticultural performance and environmental quality of the plots and also their energy efficiency and profitability.

As it turned out, the soil quality in the organic fields was far better than in the conventional fields, and the apples tasted sweeter. High yields came as a surprise: "There's been criticism that organic yields are lower than conventional yields," Reganold says. "In general that is true, but not always. This study showed that with apples, organic yields can compare favorably with integrated and conventional systems." The organic fields were also more energy efficientand, by far, the most profitable. Whereas the conventional and integrated systems are expected to break even after 16 and 15 years, respectively, the organic field will do so in nin