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An 'all or nothing' approach to organics won't get us anywhere

Simon Fairlie

16th April, 2010

We wouldn't ask pedestrians to prove that they weren't using a car, then charge them for a certificate to say as much. So why do it to organic farmers?

Through no great fault of its own, the organic movement has painted itself into a corner.

Its predicament can be glimpsed in the long-awaited report on Soil Carbon and Organic Farming from the Soil Association, released in December 2009, which attempts to show that organic agriculture has something to offer the fight against global warming.

In many ways this is a good piece of work, exhaustively researched. It shows, fairly convincingly, that organic agriculture (and especially biodynamic agriculture) does sequester more carbon in the soil than 'conventional' chemical agriculture. If the UK went organic, we could return nearly a quarter of our agricultural carbon emissions back to the soil.

The trouble with the report is that it fudges the fact if the UK went organic we would produce less food, because organic grain yields are lower, and more land would be under grass. We would therefore either have to import food from abroad (probably incurring soil carbon loss that negated the gains made in this country), or else eat less meat. Unfortunately this second option is barely mentioned in the report, presumably because it is a controversial message that the Soil Association don’t want associated with organic farming.

Relaxing the rules

There are, however, alternatives to wholesale organic conversion: for example, the UK could adopt a basically organic form of farming, involving mixed farms with grass leys, legumes and use of solid manure and compost rather than slurry, but top up yields with a judicious amount of chemical fertilisers, where appropriate or necessary. Whether this would combine similar levels of soil carbon sequestration with higher yields is not certain, but the Soil Association don’t look very far into the matter. They are purists who have no interest in looking into it: for them it is organic or 'conventional', all or nothing.

It is not the Soil Association’s fault that they are purists, it is the way that the industry is currently structured that forces them to be so. We have a system where any agrochemical product or procedure that cannot be proved to be life-threatening is regarded as 'conventional', while farmers who wish to produce to a higher environmental standard have to be certified (a reflection of the neo-liberal preference for 'consumer choice', as opposed to regulation). Organic farmers have to prove they are spotlessly organic, a process which involves much paperwork and expense, while chemical farmers just get on the phone and order a tonne of NPK or a drum of weedkiller.

Got a licence for that?

Penalising good practice with bureaucracy and certification fees is a bizarre way to encourage it. Normally it is the other way round. We don’t, for example, make bicyclists and pedestrians prove that they don’t drive, and then award them a certificate — we make motorists pass a driving test, buy a licence and pay fuel tax. Why don’t we do this in the farming sector?

If organic farming were regarded as 'conventional' farming (which of course it once was), then the tables would be turned. If farmers had to apply for a licence to use chemicals, and food in supermarkets was assumed to be organic unless it had a label on it saying 'produced with the aid of artificial fertilisers and pesticides', then chemical farmers would face the bureaucracy and expense, and organic food would be correspondingly cheaper. Without in any way restricting the public’s right to choose, organically produced food would become the norm, with the result that farmers would manage manure and organic nutrients more efficiently, and be inclined to adopt systems that stored carbon. Small producers would not be priced out of organic status, and they would be able to get organic manure, feed and hay locally rather than driving miles to acquire it. Fertiliser and pesticide use would increase whenever food supplies were so low that prices rose to a point where it was worth the additional hassle and expense of using them.

If this system were adopted, the Soil Association would have a different role. Instead of earning its money by charging organic farmers for the certification process, it could be financed from payments for licences issued for the use of agrochemicals. And instead of having to plug organic farming in order to secure a higher level of affiliation (a role not easily reconciled with impartial objectivity), the Soil Association might have more resources to spend on research into improving organic yields, with the aim of our one day being able, if necessary, to feed 60 million people in this country without resorting to fossil fuels and poisons. The way the market is structured at the moment, the Soil Association has no choice but to operate as an interest group fighting for a greater share of the market. But it could nonetheless be putting forward cogent arguments that the system should be structured differently. Why isn’t it doing this? Or is it? Perhaps someone from the Soil Association would like to reply?

Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association, has replied to this article. You can read his response here

Simon Fairlie is a former deputy-editor of the Ecologist and currently editor of The Land magazine. This article is reprinted with kind permission from the winter 2009/10 issue of The Land

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