THE National Academy of Sciences study on farm chemicals marks a turning point for modern agriculture. Briefly put, it concludes that an arsenal of poisons is not needed to make a profit down on the farm. Critics, especially in the farm-chemical industry, are calling the study simplistic. They claim that it is based on the most favorable examples of ``natural'' farming and neglects the harsh realities of trying to feed a food-short world. That sounds like the special pleading of special interests. But even if the report by the academy's Board of Agriculture is open to such criticism, it is a timely document. A trend away from chemical farming has clearly set in - especially in the United States - and the academy report points the way toward making this the dominant agricultural strategy.
Massive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers has undoubtedly boosted productivity to the point of becoming the main farming way of life. It also exacts a heavy cost in environmental pollution and in the constant threat that one poison residue or another will slip past the safeguards and onto your plate.
These dangers are encouraging resistance to chemical farming from such disparate groups as water-supply authorities concerned about farm runoff and consumers alarmed over Alar on apples.
Major manufacturers are showing sensitivity to this changing climate of opinion. In an unprecedented action, they have voluntarily suspended many uses of the chemicals on which the Environmental Protection Agency is considering imposing new restrictions. An earlier academy study had identified these fungicides as among the most dangerous of farm poisons.
The participation of several supermarket chains in the National Toxics Campaign Fund program to stop sale of produce grown with suspect pesticides is another sign of such sensitivity. Produce distributors and the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Agricultural Department condemn this action as infringing the government's responsibility for food safety. But the grocers involved have obviously gotten a message from their customers.
All those concerned with food supply should take this latest academy report seriously and not carp at it. The day of thoughtless use of farm chemicals is over. We will continue to need some chemicals. But they will have to be used judiciously, in environmentally sound ways.
It will take a change in priorities and incentives, and in state and federal regulations to accomplish this. As the academy details, the emphasis in agricultural research needs to tip in favor of alternative farm methods. Subsidies and other incentives that now encourage massive chemical applications also have to favor alternatives.
This is a complex and thorny challenge. Yet it is a challenge the American - and ultimately the world - food-supply community can no longer avoid.