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Two questions for Monty Don about organic farming

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I should start by stressing that organic farming is not an area of particular interest. I only have a superficial understanding and knowledge of the subject, but I think it is clear that:

  1. In relation to fruit and veg, one of the main reasons for the growth in the market for organic products is that the public believes the produce is healthier, safer and more nutritious. However, according to the Food Standards Agency (2009) and the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Switzerland (2009), the overall balance of evidence does not support this view. Personally, I suspect that organic food is less healthy. I probably prefer the risk of pesticides traces rather the risk of bacteria traces, but let’s just assume that the price premium on organic does not buy any health/safety bonus.

  2. Another reason for the growth in the organic fruit and veg market is that the public believes that organic is good for the environment, and that the UK would be a better place if crop production shifted from modern intensive farming to organic.

I will return to point (2) later and challenge it, but, first, this is what happened a couple of days ago to trigger this blog.

On Wednesday 11 July, @mark_lynas tweeted about a proposition in California (funded by Big Quacka) to demand labelling of genetically engineered foods. I shared the view that this was just an attempt to scaremonger, as there is no significant risk associated with such products according to the Royal Society of Medicine (2008). Also, the US National Academies of Sciences (2004), stated: “To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”

Mark Lynas, who is an environmentalist activist who takes a scientific and balanced view, went on to tweet: “It’s unnecessary. Organic lobby trying to get a skull and crossbones on competitors’ produce.”

Then Mark Lynas tweeted: “How about a label on organic foods: ‘Warning, land-inefficient product, may cause damage to the environment’”

This tweet challenges point (2), which I stated earlier, which is that organic farmers claim their way of growing crops is better for the environment. Mark’s counterargument is that organic must be bad for the environment if crops require, let’s say, 25% more land to generate the same yield.

Unfortunately Mark’s tweet and my retweeting upset Monty Don, President of the Soil Association. Monty tweeted in response:

@TheMontyDon come on Simon, you can do better than that. That is just pathetic.

That struck me as somewhat harsh and rather lacking in a sense of humour, so I tried to engage with Monty. We worked together on “Tomorrow’s World” back in 1994/1995 and even went on a filming trip to Australia, and I know he is a decent chap. Here is the twitter exchange that followed.

@TheMontyDon come on Simon, you can do better than that.
That is just pathetic.

@SLSingh Hello Monty, good to hear from you. What exactly are you objecting too? Very happy to chat on the phone if that is easier.

@TheMontyDon Objecting to mischeivous, ridiculous, truly unhelpful remark Simon. Adds nothing to any debate. And I know you as a very bloke.

@SLSingh Which tweet? I had a busy tweeting day today. genuinely keen to understand your concern.

@TheMontyDon the one about labelling organic products ‘land inefficient’ Simon. Just plain silly.

@SLSingh Semi-joke but based on evidence http://bit.ly/JsELwF  “overall, organic yields are significantly lower than conventional yields”

@TheMontyDon yields in relationship to inputs? to health? to ecology? to diversity? No. Picking at a corner of this subject is silly

The exchange was a bit more complicated than the slightly edited version above, but these are the main and interesting points.

In short, Monty (supported by some tweets from @suebeesley) was arguing that the yield per acre point in isolation is not significant, and that it is only possible to discuss organic farming in a holistic manner. For example, @suebeesley seemed to argue that organic crops may require more land to generate the same yield, but this did not matter in the bigger pictures because: “So, once you add in the land ‘cost’ of externalities for non-organic, and reduce meat consumption in organic, the gap is bridged?”

So part of the organic argument seems to be that we should eat less meat to free up land currently occupied by cows in order to be able to grow more organic crops. This would mean that we could feed ourselves organically without having to turn more of the countryside into farmland.

That’s a fair point, but it relies on a major change in eating habits. A start would be for the organic movement to stop selling meat, but I think many supporters of organic are not vegetarians.

In any case, even if we all eat less meat, then I would argue that we should continue with intensive farming of crops and that any land that is recouped from cows, sheep, pigs and chickens could be used for more intensive farming for export or GM biofuel crops or wind turbines or house-building or returned to nature. Basically, I would argue that the land could be used for anything except inefficient organic crops.

I accept that the argument is more complicated than I could convey in a handful of tweets, but I think that my core point (copied from Mark Lynas) is still valid, which is that the public do not realise that if we were to increase our consumption of organic crops, then it would mean turning more of the countryside into fields.

I think it is fair to say that we could say goodbye to between 5% and 10% of the countryside if we were to hand over crop production to the organic industry.

In conclusion, I don’t think my tweet was “pathetic”, “mischievous, ridiculous, truly unhelpful”, “plain silly” and “silly” again,

Finally, Monty, can I ask you two questions?

  1. Do you agree with the conclusions of the meta-analysis in Nature (2012), which reviewed 66 studies comparing the yields of 34 different crop species, and which concluded that the yield per acre for organic farming is 3% less for fruit, 11% less for legumes, 26% less for cereals and 33% less for vegetables. So, while organic fruit production is fairly efficient, everything else performs poorly to very poorly. By all means say that there are other factors to be considered when considering organic farming, but was this a good piece of research on the issue of yield per acre? If not, why not?
  1. While I have the ear of the President of the Soil, Monty, what is all the nonsense about supporting homeopathy for farm animals? Really? No, seriously, really? Chris Atkinson, your Head of Standards, wrote in 2011: “Encouraging healthy farm animals can be supported by using complementary therapies – which include homeopathy – where these can be shown to be effective.” Please tell me the conditions for which homeopathy is appropriate and the evidence that means it has been “shown to be effective”.

You can leave a comment of any length below. By all means add additional detail, but please answer the questions above in (1) and (2).

Originally posted on slsingh’s posterous