Organic food: why?

Organic farming is no safer than modern agriculture, and it certainly couldn't feed the world. So why is it so popular - even among European governments?

Jan Bowman

Topics Politics

A recent NOP poll found that 82 percent of UK consumers want a return to traditional farming, even if it means paying more for food. Thirty-seven percent of us apparently blame industrial farming for foot-and-mouth disease (1).

Today, many sins are laid at the feet of conventional farming. BSE, foot-and-mouth, pollution, obesity and the disappearance of sparrows have all been blamed on modern agriculture.

And governments across Europe are keen to show they care. They are increasingly keen to be seen promoting not conventional farming methods, but the new-age version: organic.

Europe is now the biggest market for organic food in the world, expanding by 25 percent a year over the past 10 years. The German agriculture minister wants to make 20 percent of German agriculture organic by 2010, and Denmark’s agriculture minister is herself an organic farmer. According to the Soil Association, the UK market for organic food grew by 55 percent in 2000, while the food market as a whole grew by only one percent. Yet barely seven percent of British shoppers account for nearly 60 percent of organic sales: however popular the idea of organic farming is, it is still a minority interest.

So what makes the idea of organic farming so popular? Organic farming means farming with natural, rather than man-made, fertilisers and pesticides. Organic farmers rely on various techniques – such as crop rotation and the use of resistant varieties – that are used to some extent in conventional farming, but which are vital for organic farmers to compensate for the absence of man-made chemicals.

The goal is to minimise external inputs and create a ‘self-sufficient, closed system’ – rather as if you were stuck alone on a croft in Wales. Self-sufficiency, in this sense, has romantic associations that attract many jaded city-dwellers – although it is not inherent to organic farming.

Organic farming is often claimed to be safer than conventional farming – for the environment, for our children and for us. Yet after lengthy and ongoing research into organic farming worldwide for a number of years, science continues to reject this claim. In January 2001 the UK’s cross-party House of Commons committee on agriculture announced that, despite exhaustive investigation, it had failed to find any scientific evidence to prove ‘that any of the many claims made for organic farming are always and invariably true’.

Nonetheless, the debate about the merits of organic farming goes on. This is partly because so much depends on the individual farm, the soil, the weather, and so on. Research results therefore tend to vary, depending on the subjective inclinations of those carrying it out.

For example, supporters of organic farming claim that man-made fertiliser is environmentally damaging; and it is not hard to find examples of badly managed conventional farms or land that have been wrecked by over-reliance on fertilisers. But today granular nitrogen – which is extracted from the air – can be applied to the land through sophisticated spreaders at the time and in the exact quantities required by plants, thus minimising leaching into water supplies. It is also less toxic and smelly than dung.

Likewise, the nutritional value and flavour of a carrot has less to do with whether it was fertilised with manure or something out of a plastic sack, than with the variety of carrot, how long ago it was dug up, how it was stored, and the weather while it was growing.

The notion that organic food is safer than ‘normal’ food is also contradicted by the fact that many of our most common foods are full of natural toxins. Parsnips cause blisters on the skin of agricultural workers. Toasting bread creates carcinogens. Cassava – a staple in North Africa – has to be laboriously processed before cooking to destroy its lethal poisons.

Yet educated Europeans are more scared of eating traces of a few, strictly regulated, man-made chemicals than they are of eating the ones that nature created directly. Why?

To a certain extent, the kind of food we prefer eating reflects how we relate to nature. For most of human history the more artificial and elaborate your diet, the better; when dominating nature was a constant battle, it was a sign of cultured living. The ancient Romans distinguished between foods not as proteins v carbohydrates, or even meat v vegetables, but as cultivated v wild. Farmed animals were a more civilised food than game. Wine and bread, because they were created by man, were symbols of cultured living – only barbarians ate wild plants.

To medieval city-dwellers, especially the poor, rural squalor was a terrible and recent memory. Only the poorest peasants ate black bread. Any risk of a return to rural conditions was a sign of social regression, and when inferior cereals replaced wheat in the markets, city authorities would be forced to requisition supplies elsewhere for fear of riots.

Today, Europeans surrounded by plentiful food fear, not nature, but science. Our obsessions with the ethics and safety of what we eat – with antibiotics in animals, additives in everything, the export of veal calves, BSE, GM foods, and so on – are symptomatic of a highly technological society that has lost faith in its ability to put technology to a positive end. In this context, the less touched by the human hand something is, the more virtue we see in it.

A dominant contemporary fear is that people are wrecking nature. This is the real significance of the NOP poll. It is not a vote of positive support for ‘traditional’ or organic farming – something about which most of us are blissfully ignorant – but rather a vote against human intervention in the countryside.

That there exists this general, rather backward-looking, attachment to organic farming is one thing. But why do European governments endorse it?

European agriculture is among the safest in the world. While there are serious problems with European farming, these involve funding, distribution and subsidies; they do not directly affect consumers, and they are not remotely about dangerous substances lurking in our food.

Foot-and-mouth disease, while an economic disaster for farmers, presents no risk to human health. This livestock disease is endemic in countries unable to afford intensive agriculture, yet has been absent from Europe for three decades. The fear of BSE is rampant in Europe, but there is still no hard proof of a link between BSE and human fatalities (including several long-term vegetarians) from CJD or its variant. And any West European over 40 years of age who remembers better variety, quality, and freshness – let alone safety – in the food they ate as children, must have lived a very different childhood from the rest of us.

But Europe does not need the number of farms it has in order to produce the food it needs, whether for domestic consumption or trade abroad. In this context, encouraging organic farming makes some sense.

Subsidising desperate, bankrupt farmers to convert their farms to a system that, because of its inherent inefficiency, will mop up surplus farmworkers, produce less food, and keep the countryside suitably bucolic for the rest of us to play in, has a political rationale. Organic farming is a gentle way of retiring farmland. European governments can pacify farmers while appearing in tune with public demand for more ‘natural’ food.

The organic farming movement is a luxury for people in safe, well-manicured Europe. For less-developed parts of the world, it is irrelevant. To European environmentalists, the fact that organic methods require more labour and land than conventional ones to get the same yields is a Good Thing; to a farmer in rural Mozambique it is a disaster. Here land tends to be so starved and crop yields so low that there simply is not enough organic matter to put back into the soil.

Yet bizarrely, while people continue to die of hunger, disease and backward, inefficient technology in the South, organic activists in the North are not demanding that these countries should be given access to the most advanced agricultural techniques. Rather, they seem to want us all to go back to the harshest basics.
Read on:

Unearthing the truth about organic food, by Alex Avery and Dennis Avery

spiked-issue: Modern life

spiked-issue: Food scares

spiked-issue: Foot and mouth issue

(1) Sunday Times, 18 March 2001

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Topics Politics


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