Friday, September 07, 2012

Organic Farming Takes a Knock

FOR TWO DECADES and more farmers have been told that doing it organically is the only 'sustainable' way to farm. In the past few weeks I have read two reports which question the benefits of organic farming.  These are two high profile studies come from the most prestigious sources - the universities of Oxford in the UK and Stanford in the USA. Both have gained considerable media exposure, and they conclude that conventional farming isn't as bad as we've been told.

I conclude that organic farming is beneficial to all farmers, as it provides a premium market for all types of food that has the effect of providing an uplift for the food market as a whole.

The organic movement has been telling us for many years that pouring on chemicals to make some plants grow and others die goes against nature and, more importantly, results in food that is less pure and wholesome. Chemicals are the cause of Rachel Carson's work Silent Spring. They say that organic crops and livestock may be harder to grow and rear, but the pain of doing so is worth while. Now we have two university departments telling us the reverse, one focussing on food and the other on the environment.

The Stamford Study

The Stanford Centre for Health Policy compared the health, nutritional and safety characteristics of organic and conventional foods and concluded there was a 'lack of strong evidence' that the organic foods were 'significantly more nutritious' than conventional. They may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but not by much. The researchers were surprised at the findings that there was so little difference between the two.
Organic food is a $26 million business in the U.S. The organic stamp on grocery goods oftentimes doubles the cost, but despite a slow economy, the organic industry grew by more than 8% in 2010. The demand for knowing your food and where it comes from has amplified our conversations about agriculture to a whole new level. Although today’s consumer is three or more generations removed from the farm, these communities that support local, organic farmers and getting back to the basics and are paying top dollar for food they believe is superior -- both in safety and nutrition.

Oxford Looks at Environment Effects

Meanwhile at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University, Dr Hanna Tuomisto who led the research says:
'Whilst some organic farming practices do have less environmental impact than conventional ones, the published evidence suggests that others are actually worse for some aspects of the environment. People need to realise that an "organic" label is not a straightforward guarantee of the most environmentally-friendly product."
The researchers suggest that reducing the environmental impacts of farming is a priority, as is biodiversity conservation on farmland. They also conclude that introducing new techniques could help to reduce the environmental impact of all types of farms: anaerobic digesters could be used to convert animal waste into biogas for heating and electricity, livestock could be selectively bred to reduce nitrogen and methane emissions, and new crops could be developed to reduce the need for pesticides or harness nutrients more efficiently.
Development of these technologies would be in addition to the crucially important task of better understanding the ecology of nature on farmland and so how to manage the landscape for the best outcomes for farming, biodiversity and the wider environment.
The researchers believe that ensuring food production while minimising damage to the environment and safeguarding wildlife is a priority. The happiest outcome would be to develop farming systems that produce high yields with low environmental impacts and that also take into account alternative land uses – such as setting land aside for wildlife habitats and sustainable forestry.

Organic Farmers Need to Take Action

The reports suggest the Organic movement needs to take action to counter these claims.

1. By widening its appeal and putting emphasis on taste and quality, and downplaying the line that conventional foods are somehow dangerous.
2. Commissioning research to find aspects of organic foods which have an significant benefits for consumers.
3. Publicising these as widely as possible.

Organic growers are in it for more than the money. The demands of the job are greater than those of conventional farming, which in themselves are tough enough. Organic producers have a real belief their products are better, purer, and safer for consumers, and this belief has been developed and reinforced by the Soil Association, Organic Farmers and Growers and the other governing bodies for many years.

All farmers have benefited from the organic movement, which has created a premium market in most foods, providing consumers with the opportunity to spend a bit more for perceived benefits. The premium market raises the ceiling for conventional food, and increases the overall food spend.

So while conventional farmers might be tempted to crow "I told you so", there's another side to the story.

Converting to organic production can be a long and tough road. It's taken by people farming land of all different qualities, from deep fertile soil that needs little help, to thin and shallow ground that is constantly hungry. Farmers who are converting focus on the ethics and rarely take these considerations into account. Perhaps these two reports will help them consider their own farm's potential to produce without chemical help. Maybe more will consider experimenting with one of their typical fields, and see how they get on before signing up for life.


Oxford report
Stamford report

Practical Farm Ideas

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