The Independent recently published an article on organic farming by science writer and doctor, Rob Johnston. A brave man frankly; he was challenging the benefits of organic farming. However within a week I was please to see the Soil Association’s, Lord Melchett, coming back with his take on the benefits. I’ve read both articles and pulled out some points that relate to the environment and pesticides.
Is organic farming good for the environment?
Rob Johnston looks at the environmental aspects of organic farming from the increased amount of land needed to produce organic food, quoting a staggering 80% more land needed to produce one litre of organic milk compared to conventional milk. He doesn’t say why exactly but I’m assuming that the organic cows only eat grass, were as the grass diet of conventional milk cows is supplemented with a milk enhancing feed. Then added to this organic cows digestive systems are working at full speed after all that grass causing the release of 20 times more methane than the non-organic herd. 20 times sounds frightening but 20 times what exactly? This fact needs to be put into context otherwise it’s no different than the complaints made against the organics who quote a yearly increase of 20% in organic demand but don’t mention that the overall organic market only accounts for 1% of food production.
Interestingly though Lord Melchett, didn’t argue the quantity of land needed which, right now I would say is an issue, as we nose-dive into a global food crisis and need to produce as much food as possible. Nor did he argue the methane-challenged climate-changing cows in organic farming but is choosing to sight the benefits to wildlife on farms which he backs up with UK government research. “Better wildlife, lower pollution from sprays, produces fewer dangerous wastes and less carbon dioxide”. So lower CO2 but much higher greenhouse gases in the form of methane – sounds at best like a score draw to me.
Lord Melchett is an organic farmer after many years of conventional farming. He made the switch to encourage more wildlife on his farm. I maybe wrong, but I get the impression that his need to earn a living was not a key factor in his decision to go organic, which is not the case for the vast majority of farmers. Quoting another Independent article from January 2008 by Martin Hickman, consumer affairs writer, “Many farmers were reluctant to convert their land because they were concerned that the popularity of organic food would be short-lived.”
Do organic farmers use pesticides?
Well I felt like I was riding a wild horse after reading Johnson’s view of organics and pesticides. He makes some pretty big statements about organic pesticides. For example he writes “The difference is that “organic” pesticides are “so dangerous” that they have been “grandfathered” with current regulations and do not have to pass stringent modern safety tests”. It’s true that pesticides used by organic farmers, like copper and sulphur, are currently excluded from having to pass years of testing that conventional pesticides undergo before being allowed on the market. It’s also a fact that copper might be naturally occurring, it’s still poisonous. Having said that if we look at Lord Melchett’s figures, he says only 3% of Soil Association farmers used pesticides in 2007, during one of Britain’s worse potato blights in years. Lord Melchett should know because organic farmers have to ask permission from the Soil Association before using pesticides. So again let’s put this into perspective, organic farming is 1% of all farming and only 3 organic farmers in 100 used a chemical on their organic crops to stop disease or pests. If these figures are correct I think we have more important things to worry about than pesticides in organic farming, starting with the 97% of organic potato growers who probably lost their whole crop last year, and with it, a good income. And let’s not forget that like conventional farming, copper etc also have maximum residue limits set on them to ensure residues on organic crops remain low.
Are pesticides levels in conventional food dangerous?
Lord Melchett believes pesticides are “certainly risky, and potentially dangerous” saying that a third of our fruit and veg contain pesticide levels above legal limits. I don’t know where he got that figure from but it conflicts with the European Commission’s annual maximum residue (MRL) tests on conventionally grown fruit and vegetables. Each year they choose the most likely pesticide offenders, like strawberries and lettuce, and each year they only find about 5% that exceed European legal limits…. I repeat legal limits, this has nothing to do with human safety limits. There is an enormous margin of safety factored in between the legal limit and the safety limit. The fact is that the conventionally grown food we buy in Europe is completely safe and is supplying 99% of the population, which Johnston points out.
It’s also true that the knowledge we have today on chemicals is far better than 10 years ago and along with it the testing methods which can now detect the tiniest traces of pesticides which were previously undetectable. Melchett is correct to say many pesticides have been withdrawn from the market by companies themselves or due to improvements in legislation over the past 10 years. However Lord Melchett made the usual unproven link between male fertility and pesticides claiming that “average male fertility has fallen by 50% coinciding with the use of pesticides”. It’s such an easy “link” to make without having any data to back it up, when the fact remains we today are living longer and healthier lives than 50 years ago.
I encourage you to read both articles as this is only my view point. Clearly there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution or answer, but I think there’s not enough talked about conventional farmers who use organic methods too, it’s called Integrated Farming or Integrated Pest Management. I believe there’s a preconceived idea that it’s either organic or pesticide farming methods with nothing inbetween. But farmers all over Europe are using the best of both. See this amusing video which highlights this point from International Food Information Council in America “What’s for lunch?”Author : Helen Dunnett