Organic Foods: A growing need for change?

The invisible costs of traditional farming methods may mean it's time to re-assess the organic alternative.

Organic farming used to be denigrated as "all muck and magic" - a primitive combination of superstition and gobbledegook hopelessly out of place in a world of giant farms and modern agri-business. But perhaps the most telling criticism was that it was not, and could never be, economic.

How could such a system - apparently eschewing all the innovations that produced a new era of cheap food and made British farming the most efficient in Europe - ever hope to feed the world?

With farmers falling over themselves to convert to organic and some experts predicting that up to 30 per cent of Britain's agricultural land could be farmed organically in a decade from now - the current proportion is about 1.5 per cent - such strictures are beginning to look a little hollow. We're also far more aware of the true costs of our "efficient" agriculture: not least a devastated countryside. Take that symbol of the small-scale British rural landscape, the hedgerow.

Forty per cent of our hedgerows have vanished in the past half-century, enough, it has been calculated, to stretch four times round the world. They are still disappearing at the rate of 10,000 miles a year, and with them birds and insects that were characteristic of traditional farmland - the corncrake, for example - have dwindled near, and sometimes beyond, the point of extinction.

You can't, of course, put a value on the corncrake, or on the (now extinct) short-haired bumble bee. But there are other back-of-envelope calculations that you can make. Over the past 10 years, for example, the water industry has invested an extra pounds 31bn on cleaning our water supplies. It is a cost which customers have paid through increased bills but for which conventional farming, as one of the main sources of water pollution, particularly pesticides, is partly responsible.

There's also the steady rise in food poisoning, blamed by many on intensive food production and thought to cost between pounds 1bn and pounds 3bn each year. There's the pounds 4bn bill for the BSE crisis, picked up directly by the taxpayer. According to Dr Carlo Leifert, of Aberdeen University's Centre for Organic Research, if that pounds 4bn had been spent subsidising organic meat sales over the past decade, it would have been cheaper than factory-farmed meat.

There's no doubt that conventional farming carries an often invisible price tag and that organic farming is far kinder to the environment. But will it be able to cope with supplying much more - possibly most - of our food without a lasting increase in prices?

The best answer is that we don't know yet. In fact, we can't know, because there has never been a fair comparison between the two types of farming - but there seems no overwhelming reason why it should not.

The equations are complex, however. Most studies which have tried to compare the two systems as they operate in Western Europe suggest that crop yields are between 20 and 40 per cent less in organic farming; equally many of the overheads - notably chemicals and fertilisers - are lower. Labour costs are higher - up to 30 per cent more people are needed to work organic farms - but this may count as a social benefit: one could equally say that organic farming creates jobs.

A recent 10-year study in the US showed only one per cent difference in maize yields between organic and conventional farming, although there were major differences in environmental impact. Soil fertility increased dramatically under organic management but declined in the industrial trial.

According to a recent study by Greenpeace and the Soil Association, comparisons are impossible because of the small sums spent on organic research. Even now, despite the organic renaissance, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) still spends 60 times more on research into conventional farming. The potential of modern organic farming is thus "largely unrealised", the study argues.

Dr Nic Lampkin, an organic agriculture specialist at the Welsh Institute of Rural Studies, also points out that Western European comparisons may not apply elsewhere. In other parts of the world organic yields are as high or higher than conventional systems. Dr Lampkin argues that poor farmers in developing countries cannot afford expensive feedstocks and chemicals, and that the damage caused by industrial farming means that simply transferring it from the developed to the developing world - what one authority has called "saving the planet with pesticides and plastic" - is "not a sustainable option".

The effect on prices and food security are difficult to assess, however. The world, overall, isn't short of food - malnutrition in developing countries is the result of a complex mix of economic and social factors. In Europe, indeed, we are over-producing: governments are trying to get 10 per cent of arable land taken out of production.

Last year pounds 76m was paid to farmers in England and Wales to "set aside" their land - a form of indirect subsidy to environmental protection which many argue would be better spent on support for organic farming. Some experts also believe that widespread adoption of organic farming might generate more home-grown food in Europe. Land in developing countries now used to grow cash crops for export to the West would then be freed for production for local people.

Given the premium prices now being paid for organic produce, according to MAFF, most types of farm would benefit if they switch from conventional to organic. As organic production expands, this premium may disappear - and prices should fall. But if they don't, and the era of cheap food recedes into the past, is this necessarily a bad thing? We may end up paying more for our food, but less to repair the damage to our health and environment.

Dr Lampkin believes that a large-scale switch to organic could produce better incomes for all farmers and that this can be achieved without compromising international food security. Conventional producers, "far from being threatened by organic farming, should welcome its widespread adoption with open arms".

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

    Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

    £15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

    Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links