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".

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

    £45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

    Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

    £60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

    Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

    £50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

    Java Developer - 1 year contract

    £350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone