Letter: We're upfront about organic farming's yields in the UK

muck spreading
What about when muck just don't cut it?
Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett takes issue with The Land editor Simon Fairlie's characterisation of its policy towards organic yields and meat consumption

Dear editor,

Simon Fairlie is generous in his praise about the Soil Association's report on Soil Carbon. I might quibble with his suggestion that our report 'attempts' to show organic farming has something to offer the fight against global warming. It clearly demonstrates this, through an exhaustive analysis of 39 studies and over 100 comparisons of the carbon stored in the soil under different farming systems

However, I think Simon loses the plot when he suggests that our report 'fudges' the fact that organic farming has lower yields in the UK. It doesn't cover the issue at all, because we covered it extensively in a report we commissioned from Reading University ('England and Wales under organic Agriculture: how much food could be produced?', Centre for Agricultural Strategy, November, 2008), which contains (for the first time) hard data on what could be produced if all England and Wales was organic. We know that organic farming can match output compared to other farming systems in some parts of the world, including North America and in many developing countries. In Europe, with exceptionally high use of artificial fertiliser, cereal yields are 30-40 per cent lower in organic systems, but Reading University's report, based on data from existing organic farms in England and Wales, showed that we would be pretty close to matching existing non-organic production in many areas, we would have the same or more vegetables and fruit, and significantly higher quantities of beef and lamb.

I said in my introduction to the Reading Report that changing to organic systems would result in dramatic reductions to the production of white meat (chicken and pork), and a significant reduction in dairy products. This is in line with what health experts say we should do - eat less meat and dairy (and what we do eat should be mainly grass-fed and organic), as well as cutting out the wasteful feeding of grain and imported soya (often grown on cleared primary habitats) to intensively farmed pigs, poultry and dairy cattle.

This makes it all the odder that Simon goes on to allege that the Soil Association is avoiding the message that we need to eat less meat. We have been saying this endlessly for several years now. It has formed part of our work on school food which began in 2002, our work on hospital food, and of course is central to what we say on climate change, food and farming.

Simon goes on to discuss what the world would be like if all, or almost all the world was farmed organically, and industrial, intensive farming based on pesticides and artificial fertiliser was reduced to a declining rump. That is certainly what we expect to happen, and again we've been quite clear about that in numerous publications. Non-organic farming relies on fossil fuel-based artificial fertiliser to provide the fertility to grow crops. As oil prices rise, so does the price of artificial nitrogen fertiliser. Some time ago, we published a report that showed that when oil reached about $200 a barrel, non-organic farming starts to become uneconomic compared to organic.

So, to answer Simon's specific question, we are putting forward arguments, and providing detailed evidence, that we think will lead over some time to all food and farming being produced from organic systems. I agree with Simon that in due course, all farming will be organic, and then we will need to re-think the role of organic standards, and certification. Where I think I would still differ with him is wanting to ensure that farming never again goes off down the wrong track it has followed since the second world war, using chemicals and treating animals as commodities in ways that the public would never agree to if they knew what was going on. Organic standards and certification have, as their main purpose, the ability to inspire trust and confidence from the public in organic farming and food, and whatever the future holds, the Soil Association is dedicated to working to ensure that trust is justified. 

Peter Melchett
Policy Director
The Soil Association

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