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Newsletter 1st June 2007

The politics of organic food

This week the Soil Association, the UK’s leading organic farming campaigning and accreditation organisation, published a consultation paper on the air freighting of organic produce. One option proposed is a withdrawal of the Soil Association’s approval for organic status for such imports. And the reason? You’ve guessed: climate change. The Association is concerned about the contribution air travel makes to greenhouse gas emissions, and does not think that the organic movement should be associated with this.

In many ways, this is an entirely natural (I use the word in its proper sense) position for the organic movement to take. In essence, it is about localised, back to Nature farming, with the implication that “traditional” farming, responsible for the deforestation of most of Europe over many centuries, is intrinsically less damaging to the environment than modern, high yield agriculture. Tacked on to this are a range of beliefs which have yet to be proven: that organic food is more nutritious, healthier and tastes better.

Undoubtedly, there is some very good quality organic produce available, and there is a rational basis for suggesting that organic meat may be of generally high quality because of the more extensive way the animals are raised. But, we venture to suggest that this has little or nothing to do with the banning of synthetic fertilisers and crop protection products. Instead, it is about varieties, growing conditions and freshness.

The gap between organic and modern “conventional” farming is not in fact as wide as it may seem at first sight, with one major exception: the use or not of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. Integrated Pest Management, using biological control mechanisms where possible and pesticides where necessary, is the norm for many farmers. All farmers are being rewarded for environmental initiatives such as management of field margins or beetle banks.

But the big difference remains in yield. Although high yields of particular crops are claimed for organic, this can only be as part of a rotation which adds nitrogen to the soil via use of green manure crops. The important comparative measure is overall farm productivity on a year-on-year basis, and this is inevitably lower because most plants are not able to fix their own nitrogen, which then becomes the limiting factor for growth. The reality is that a complete move to organic farming – which is what some enthusiasts are advocating – would see food production plummet, with mass famine resulting. This would bring us back to a situation we have not seen since the 1960s, when the world’s population was 3 billion. Forty years later, with more than 6.5 billion, we are producing far more food on a barely greater area of cultivated land.

Which brings us back to the Soil Association’s latest initiative. They take as fact that air freighting produce is bad. They want local production: probably very local, as they aren’t keen on “food miles” in general. This would mean an effective re-engineering of society, which most would see as a regressive step and is hardly likely to be acceptable in democratic countries. And, more iniquitous still would be the loss of export markets for developing countries. For some, the ability to grow crops out of season for rich Northern countries is their primary comparative advantage at present, and the organic movement would be happy to take that away to suit their principles. Surely this cannot be right.

The Stansted expansion planning enquiry

On a related topic, the public enquiry into the planned expansion of Stansted airport’s capacity started this week. The aim of BAA, the owners, is to increase passenger numbers from a current cap of 25 million to 35 million annually, using the single existing runway, expanding the terminal facilities and increasing flights to some extent. The next stage, still some way ahead, is to add a second runway.

This comes at a time when Heathrow’s Terminal 5 is at last about to open. This looks like to be on time and on budget: the silver lining of the long drawn-out planning enquiry in this case was plenty of time to make an excellent and well costed plan, which has been put into effect very smoothly, despite the many practical difficulties.

These events again highlight the dilemma for politicians. On one hand, citizens (and voters) enjoy the freedom to travel, expanded to a large degree by the success of the low-cost airline model. On the other, environmentalists and others decry the growth in air traffic and its effect on the environment, with a current focus on the fashionable topic of climate change. Governments at present are trying to please everyone by talking tough on emissions reductions while encouraging expansion of airport capacity, both as a driver for the economy and to keep the voters happy (apart from those near the airports, of course).

Governments do not always have to do the populist thing: they are elected to lead and sometimes will move ahead of public opinion. But, ultimately, they must carry the public with them, or risk electoral defeat. It will be interesting to see what happens if either the current or next UK government seriously impedes the growth of aviation in this country.

Energy policy: will the government let the lights go out?

Energy policy remains a hot topic. The government has embraced nuclear as part of the solution to reduced-carbon energy security, and cooled somewhat towards renewables – particularly on-shore wind – in face of public opposition. The UK is overly dependent on imported gas and short of storage capacity. Many aging nuclear and coal-fired stations are due to be decommissioned in the next decade.

Out of this mix, the government’s primary duty is to assure energy security (and affordability) for its citizens. This means getting steel in the ground sooner rather than later, and making sure we do not have an uncomfortable gap to bridge where supplies cannot be guaranteed. The technologies are available, the construction companies are ready and need is apparent. Significant investment in nuclear, clean coal, biomass and whatever else makes economic sense needs to be made before it is too late.

REACH

The Registration, Evaluation and Approval of Chemicals regulation comes into force today across the EU. This imposes an obligation on chemical companies to test thousands of compounds which have been in apparently safe use for many years. Large numbers of laboratory animals will be sacrificed, large costs will be incurred (ultimately passed on to the consumer) and health benefits are hypothetical. More precautionary legislation will surely follow in other areas.

There will be no Scientific Alliance newsletter on 8th June