By Angela Singleton
An independent report suggesting that organic farming has huge potential and could even be ‘mainstream agriculture in waiting’ has been welcomed by the Soil Association, the UK’s leading environmental charity campaigning for sustainable, organic farming and healthy food.
Peter Melchett, policy director for the Soil Association, said: “Organic farming does not have all the answers to the challenges of climate change and diet-related ill-health and there is still a lot of work to do to improve organic systems. But the report shows the positive impact that organic farming could have.”
The key findings include increased beef production by 68 per cent and lamb by 55 per cent; a fall in energy-intensive inputs: fertiliser inputs could be cut by 95 per cent and sprays by 98 per cent; and an estimated 73 per cent increase in farm employment.
The survey also argues that organic farming has many benefits over conventional farming practices – water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions would reduce, spray use would be cut by 98 per cent and fertilisers by 95 per cent. With adjustments, organic farming could yield as much produce as conventional farming.
The report – England and Wales under organic agriculture: how much food could be produced? – shows the positive impact that such farming could have. It was carried out by Philip Jones and Richard Crane at the University of Reading, and was funded by independent trust the HCD Memorial Fund, and the Soil Association.
While the survey acknowledges that organic farming aims to be an optimal output system rather than a high output system, it suggests that, as consumers, we need to consider what food we will eat in the future, and what farming will look like under these changed circumstances.
“In the face of the rising prices and scarcity of key fossil fuel and mineral inputs, and the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 per cent by 2050, food and farming systems will have to go through revolutionary changes in the next few decades,” said Melchett.
He added: “We face a choice between non-organic farming turning oil and gas into food, growing crops with nitrogen taken from the air and used in fertiliser made with fossil fuels, or organic farming growing crops with nitrogen taken from the air using the power of the sun and plants that fix nitrogen naturally.”
The organic movement began 60 years ago and, according to the report, there are massive challenges for the food and farming sectors in the future.
Melchett said: “Over the next 20 years we are going to experience the most fundamental changes in food and farming since the industrial revolution. The worldwide crisis of diet-related ill-health will drive us to make the sort of changes recommended by the World Health Organization, reducing demand for meat, sugar, fats and dairy products, and increasing demand for cereals, potatoes and other root crops, fruit and vegetables. We also have to wean ourselves off over half-a-century’s dependence on oil and gas to provide the fertility we need to grow our food.”
The UK imports about 40 per cent of its food, including tea, coffee and spices, and fruit and vegetables that it is unable to grow. This figure also includes large quantities of grains and protein to be fed to livestock.
Melchett said: “We import 25 per cent of the food that could grow in this country and nearly half of the nitrogen fertiliser needed to grow non-organic crops. Apart from cutting all imports of nitrogen fertiliser, converting our farming to organic will not make us more self-sufficient unless our diet also changes substantially.”
It would take many years for UK farming to go fully organic. And if this were to happen, many things would need to change, particularly the nationÕs eating habits.
According to the report, consumers would buy most food seasonally and locally; they would eat fewer but better quality eggs and dairy products; there would be more grass-fed beef and lamb; more fruit and vegetables, and far fewer energy-intensive, grain-fed and industrially reared chickens and pigs.
Peter Melchett concluded: “The Soil Association hopes this report will prove a useful starting point for a debate about how we can all have healthy, good quality and enjoyable food without destroying the planet.”