Organic future

Peter Melchett

28 October 2009

Peter Melchett examines the findings of a University of Reading report looking at how much food would be produced if the whole of England and Wales' farmland was converted to organic agriculture.

Over the next 20 years we will experience some of the most fundamental changes in food and farming since the Industrial Revolution. The looming worldwide crisis of diet-related ill-health will drive Governments to encourage the sort of dietary changes recommended by the World Health Organisation, thereby reducing demand for meat, sugar, fats and dairy products, and increasing demand for cereals, potatoes and other root crops, fruit and vegetables. We will also have to wean ourselves off over half a century’s dependence on oil and gas to provide the soil fertility we need to grow our food. We will instead have to use renewable energy, the power of the sun, to supply soil nutrients through nitrogen fixing crops like red clover.

Sixty years ago the organic movement started on this course. We do not have a perfect system, but organic farming techniques already make a significant contribution towards the climate-friendly food production that we will all have to adopt. Critics of organic farming claim it could never feed the world, suggesting food production would fall by half or more. We do not believe that the current system – turning oil into food – will be available in future. The real question we all have to answer is, how can we feed the world from systems of farming that do not rely on fossil fuels, and that do not make a massive contribution to climate change?

Over a year ago, a senior civil servant in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) asked me whether the Soil Association knew what English agriculture would look like – and what it would produce – if it was all organic. I had to reply that we didn’t know. Since then, Simon Fairlie produced a fascinating report in the journal The Land, suggesting that – particularly if we reduced our meat consumption so that better pasture land could be turned over to arable – the UK could more than feed itself with organic systems. In response to the enquiry from Defra, the Soil Association took the question to the Centre for Agricultural Strategy (CAS) of the University of Reading. Their subsequent report – England and Wales Under Organic Agriculture: How much food could be produced? – is a first step at looking at what food we would produce if England and Wales switched to organic farming. It is based on official data from a sample of current organic farms in the Farm Business Survey, taking their outputs and input use and multiplying them up to the national level. As the report explains, any process of this sort inevitably simplifies what would actually happen, and has to be subject to many qualifications, but it provides an excellent starting point for further investigation.

Organic farming doesn’t claim to be a high output system, but rather aims to be an ‘optimal’ output system, producing sufficient quantities of great quality food, with fewer environmental or animal welfare compromises. Having said that, in many parts of the world, modern organic systems can – and do – produce as much or more food than both oil/chemical based non-organic farming, and traditional systems. However, in the UK, in common with most of the rest of Western Europe, high levels of fossil-fuel-based nitrogen fertiliser are commonly used, giving high yields from non-organic crops. Farming commentators generally assume that, for many commodities, organic yields in Europe are somewhere around a half to two thirds of non-organic systems, with critics of organic usually opting for the lower estimate.

At present we are not self-sufficient in food in the UK – we import a lot of what we and our farm animals eat. We have not been completely self-sufficient for hundreds of years. We always have, and always will, import food we cannot grow here. Currently, we import about 40% of our food, including large quantities of grains and protein for livestock feed. We import 25% of the food that could be grown in this country, and nearly half of the nitrogen fertiliser needed to grow non-organic crops. Aside from cutting all imports of nitrogen fertiliser, converting our farming to organic would not make us more self-sufficient unless our diet also changed substantially.

In practice, it would take many years for British farming to go fully organic, and many things would have to change as this happened, particularly our eating habits. We would buy most of our food seasonally and locally. We would eat less – but better quality – eggs and dairy products, more grass-fed beef and lamb, more fruit and vegetables, and far less energy-intensive, grain-fed and industrially-reared chickens and pigs, ending practices that raise significant animal welfare concerns. The consequence would be that we would enjoy a far healthier national diet, and one that the CAS report suggests organic farming could deliver just as well as non-organic farming delivers our current, frequently unhealthy diet.

If we want to continue to eat huge quantities of cheap chicken, pork, dairy products and other mass produced foodstuffs, organic farming cannot deliver. But continuing this diet, with its potentially severe consequences for human health, would saddle us with huge human, economic and environmental costs. For example, the Government reports that the crisis of diet-related ill health and obesity is already costing the NHS £7.7 billion a year, and the cost to society as a whole is put at £20 billion. Our diets must, and inevitably will, change.

Some scientists are calling for cuts in meat production to reduce the massive contribution that agriculture makes to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, some meat production systems are more benign than others. Industrial, indoor livestock systems have high emissions because they use large amounts of energy (principally to grow the grain and protein crops needed for animal feed). Big cuts here would both reduce the amount of grain fed to animals and cut greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, low intensity grassland captures carbon and stores it, just like the rainforests do. It is, therefore, vital that these carbon sinks, and the grazing animals they support, are maintained. Fully or mainly grass-fed cattle and sheep, such as are common under organic systems, also produce healthier milk and meat, protect the nation’s most cherished landscapes and some of our most important areas for wildlife, while allowing for high standards of animal welfare.

In the Soil Association’s view, other changes would be required to meet the Government’s targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and to improve food security. More people would grow some of their own food (and there are signs of this happening already). More small-holders and farmers may keep small flocks of poultry and even a few pigs (both chickens and pigs used to be fed largely on waste food, and, in a more resource constrained future, could be again).

For the last 60 years, little research has been done that would benefit organic farmers. Crops have been developed that produce high yields when treated with oil-based fertilisers and sprays. Farm animals have been bred to grow faster or larger, or to produce more milk or eggs, based on higher levels of inputs. Issues of food quality, taste, or the value of traditional breeds of farm animals have had a much lower priority. There are signs of this situation just beginning to change and, as organic farming comes to play a larger role in food production, more resources will be put into scientific research to help organic farmers improve their efficiency, output and the quality of the food they produce.

The best we can do in looking at what things might be like in the future is to make an informed ‘guess’. The CAS report aims to inform that guess by taking official data on the current spread of organic farms and what they produce, and simply assuming that this pattern of farming covered the whole of England and Wales. The report focuses on the main farming outputs – cereals, potatoes, meat and dairy products. Looking solely at the projections contained in the report, and ignoring for a moment other changes that we might expect to see in the future, there are some surprising results. A wholly organic agriculture could actually produce more (and healthier) beef and lamb than we do now. Beef and lamb production would rise to around 168% and 155% of current levels, respectively. Chicken, egg and pork production would fall to roughly a quarter of current levels, with resulting massive reductions in energy used in food production, and a reduction in the quantity of grain that goes to feed animals rather than people. The amount of wheat and barley we produce would drop by around 30%. However, because we would be feeding far less grain to animals (currently half the cereals we grow are fed to animals), we could have as much wheat and barley for human consumption under an organic system as we have now. On yield comparisons, production of field peas and beans would be similar to now, and total production of oats and some other cereals might rise from current levels. If we stop growing sugar beet (the area produced is already declining due to recent changes in European agricultural policy), we could grow a similar tonnage of potatoes as at present. Dairy production would fall by around 30%–40%, unless herds were re-established and dairies re-opened in parts of the country which have lost them. Output of fruit and vegetables would be maintained and could increase should extra volumes be demanded, as organic yields are generally similar to non-organic.

There would be many other benefits associated with a wholly organic agriculture. We would dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution. Energy intensive inputs to farming would fall and jobs in the countryside would increase – the CAS report says fertiliser inputs would drop by 95% and sprays by 98%, while farm employment would increase by 73%. Water use would fall, and farmland’s capacity to act as a buffer to reduce flooding would increase. We would be building not eroding our precious soil, and would see roughly 50% more wildlife in our countryside. This would involve a revolution in farming. As the report says “organic agriculture is not simply conventional agriculture in miniature, it is different in management philosophy, scale and system”.
It hardly needs stating that oil and gas prices have risen, and are likely to stay high. Even after recent price falls, oil costing $10 a barrel is as unthinkable now as oil $100 a barrel was just a few years ago. We face a choice between non-organic farming turning expensive oil and gas into food, and organic farming growing crops using the power of the sun and plants that fix nitrogen naturally. For this reason alone, it is important that we start to think about what food we will eat, and what farming will look like under these changed circumstances. The CAS report is intended to provide a useful factual starting point for the crucial debate about how we can all have healthy, good quality and enjoyable food without destroying the planet. The Soil Association welcomes comments and criticisms of the report, as we do further work on these vital issues.

Peter Melchett is policy director at the Soil Association, and runs an organic farm in Norfolk

The full report –England and Wales Under Organic Agriculture: How much food could be produced? – is available from the Centre for Agricultural Strategy at £11.50. To order call 0118 378 8152 or click here.

Join to help us stop the use of neonicotinoids and save our living landscapes

Donate to help us create healthy farmland and countryside without pesticides