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Newsletter 23rd February 2007

- The pros and cons of organic agriculture - Accounting for carbon - Road pricing - The Chilling Stars

The pros and cons of organic agriculture
In recent days, a number of rather unexpected headlines have appeared in the press. For example, according to the Times “Buying organic food ‘can harm the planet’”. The Daily Mail’s take on the same story is “Going organic could cost the Earth”. Perhaps David Miliband’s comment of a few months ago that buying organic was a “lifestyle choice” has started a critical trend? In fact, the stories are based on a report commissioned by Defra from the Manchester Business School and published rather quietly in December. We covered this briefly in our newsletter of 10th February, but it is worthwhile looking at its implications again.
The researchers are quite clear about their scope: they did a Life Cycle Analysis of a nominal basket of 150 products, and looked at the total environmental impact of getting them to the consumer. They say that they have not placed a price on such things as biodiversity or landscape. Instead, they made an objective comparison of foodstuffs produced either “conventionally” or organically. The found, for example, that raising chickens organically produced significantly more carbon dioxide per kilo of meat. A similar pattern was found for milk production, with organic dairying also needing about 80% more land.
The Soil Association is, according to the Times, “furious”. Is this because their cherished beliefs are being challenged by facts? We should be clear that there is nothing intrinsically “good” or “bad” about either conventional or organic food. There are cases where organic methods do have advantages which most people would recognise, for example better animal welfare in many instances. However, there are others where benefits are difficult to recognise: the need to bring more land into production or to spray potatoes with copper salts to control late blight seem to fall in this category.
It is not just the current obsession with carbon intensity that makes things complex; many other factors come into play. For example, is it better to farm more extensively and encourage farmland biodiversity, or to produce higher yields on less land and leave different wildlife habitats to develop on uncultivated areas? There is no black and white answer.
Another aspect is the issue of food miles. Encouraging people to buy only seasonal, local produce – which sounds sensible if the aim is to cut carbon emissions –  effectively cuts off the trade in agricultural produce from developing countries. Apart from the ethical angle, the situation is less clear cut than at first sight. Despite fresh produce being flown thousands of miles to reach European supermarkets and the vast numbers of food delivery lorries on our roads, the report’s authors conclude that the main transport contribution to food system carbon emissions is from consumers driving to supermarkets. In today’s world, such things are difficult to control, no matter how much we may worry about them.
We have to conclude that there are no easy answers (unless you happen to be the Soil Association, which states quite flatly in the Times report that “Organic farming is much better for the environment than industrial methods”). Things are just too complicated for that. But we would encourage all readers to look at their food buying habits with as open a mind as possible. The Food Standards Agency still takes the view that there is no demonstrable nutritional or safety benefit to eating organic food. Choosing organic is a matter of ethics and belief in the environmental benefits. If some of those environmental benefits are illusory, then David Miliband’s words ring truer than ever.
For those of you who want to read the report and make up your own minds, it can be found at:
Accounting for carbon
This week, Christian Aid published a report called Coming Clean, in which they claim that UK business is responsible for some 12-15% of the world’s carbon emissions, even though the domestic economy reports a contribution of only some 2.1%. The difference, in the charity’s view, is that global operations of UK-based companies (and international lending by UK banks) lead indirectly to far greater emissions than are reported, and that these companies should account for them centrally.
The aim, of course, is to reinforce Christian Aid’s campaign on climate change. In their view, the industrialised world is to blame for pushing up CO2 levels in the atmosphere to such an extent that rising sea levels, drought and extreme weather will cause even more misery for developing countries than they already have to bear. By claiming that companies on the London Stock Exchange carry far more of the guilt than they are prepared to admit, they hope to put pressure on both companies and politicians to do something about it.
But there are many pressing problems in developing countries, most of which could be improved greatly by encouraging economic development. And those more fundamental problems such as lack of access to clean water or basic healthcare can be targeted (via properly directed and controlled aid in many cases) far quicker and more cost effectively than achieving results through massive programmes aimed at controlling climate in the longer term. Charities such as Christian Aid do an excellent job helping poor people in many ways but, in our opinion, spending donors’ money on political campaigning is not one of them.
Road pricing
In an attempt to engage voters, the staff at Number 10 introduced on-line petitions, and are now rather wishing they hadn’t. This week, some 1.8 million people have signed one objecting to the government’s proposal to introduce a national road pricing scheme. Not that this will necessarily stop anything happening, but it is nonetheless embarrassing.
Road pricing has turned into another of those unfortunate polarised but sterile debates. On one side, campaigners (and politicians anxious to do something about congestion) suggest an economic measure to encourage people not to use cars on busy roads at peak times. On the other side, the majority of people object to what they see as something which will cost them more and give them no benefit.
The truth of the matter is that it is all but impossible to price people off the roads, however good public transport may be. In crowded city centres, there will be some effect, and the experience in London is that congestion is somewhat reduced, but this is in a city where buses and the Tube can get you pretty much anywhere and most people would not dream of getting in a car unless they had to. Other solutions are possible in urban areas. The network of Park and Ride schemes in Cambridge and other cities take a noticeable amount of traffic off crowded roads.
But to consider that more general road pricing would ease congestion is, to put it mildly, unrealistic. No sane person chooses to sit in traffic jams on a regular basis. They do it because they have to get from A to B (often home to work) at certain times. To suggest that they can be priced away from this, even if the journey was possible by public transport, is sheer folly. The question of private transport has to be addressed in a far more open and radical way than this. All suggestions welcome.
The Chilling Stars
Finally, an important book has been published this week. Henrik Svensmark, of the Danish Space Research Centre and Nigel Calder, ex-editor of the New Scientist, have collaborated on an account of the work undertaken by Svensmark over a number of years on the effect of changes in the Sun’s magnetic field on cosmic rays, cloud formation and temperature. The hypothesis – that it is the Sun which is the major determinant of climate – is a plausible one, but has been dismissed by the scientific establishment. We encourage you to read the book and come to your own conclusions.
The Chilling Stars: A New Theory of Climate Change; Svensmark and Calder; published by Icon Books at £9.99 (or £4.50 from Amazon).