"Organic farming is sustainable. It sustains poverty.” This quote from CS Prakas, a distinguished plant biologist, came to mind when shopping in my local supermarket. Recently I watched a young mother hover between choosing the more expensively labelled organic vegetables and ordinary vegetables. I gave a silent little cheer when she chose the non 'organic' food.
"The most risible claim of the organic farm movement is that organic farming is good for the environment."
I guess she was feeling the pressure of food inflation and trying to balance the lower cost against the claims made for organic food of better taste, better health, less damage to the environment and greater safety. In fact in many people’s minds, organic has become synonymous with good.
It is not, and knowing a little of the history, philosophy and practices of the 'organic' farm movement and its main accreditation body the Soil Association explains why.
Interestingly the Advertising Standards agency in response to complaints surveyed the scientific literature and carried out its own tests and found there to be no difference between the taste of 'organic' and food not labelled as 'organic'.
People who have eaten 'organic' food during their lifetime are not healthier and do not live longer than the rest of us.
'Organic' foods are no safer than conventional foods and last year the Soil Association acknowledged at Hay-on-Wye, that organic farmers used pesticides which it had previously denied. Many observers believe that pesticides used by 'organic' farmers, such as copper sulphate and pyrethrum - a nerve toxin and potential carcinogen, are more dangerous to the environment than the pesticides used in modern farming. The pesticide rotenone is highly toxic to humans yet 'organic'farmers are allowed to use it, right up to harvest. It persists for a particularly long periods on olives and it concentrates in olive oil.
Of course 'organic' food is grown in soil fertilised with manure and is therefore at greater risk of being contaminated by mycotoxins or fungi. Effective synthetic fungicides are prohibited and the copper sulphate fungicide that is allowed is less effective. The Food Standard Agency has warned that organic corn meals have significantly higher contamination rates with the myrotoxin fumonisin.
The most risible claim of the organic farm movement is that organic farming is good for the environment. An experiment called the Boarded Barnes was done in Ongar in Essex comparing organic farming, integrated farm management and conventional farming. It found in virtually every case that integrated farm management was better for biodiversity and bird life and used only two thirds of the land.
The vast majority of organic fruit and vegetables are imported from far flung parts of the globe like Chile and Kenya . The environmental damage of these long haul flights must be put into any environmental impact assessment of “organic” farming. I don’t believe the Soil Association or anybody else can validate how the food was grown in these countries and it is doubtful if the farmers are paid fairly.
The claims for organic farming made by the Soil Association have no evidential basis. In fact Patrick Holden when he ran the Soil Association dismissed the idea that there was any sense in scientifically testing his claims. He once explained told the Royal Institution that there had to be room in public policy for an irrational approach.
This is not surprising for an organisation which was set up by Lady Balfour, the niece of the Prime Minister who was a disciple of the Nazi Rudolf Steiner who believed that synthetic nitrate fertiliser produced food lacks vital sources imparted by animal manure and that these special sources were transmitted through the horns of animals from special forces from far away planets. Quite simply he was a wacko.
We all want better care for the environment, proper treatment of farm animals and safe and tasty food. No doubt the care of animals is better on “organic” farms than in factory farms but in these difficult financial times don’t believe when you spend your extra money on “organic” food it is making you safer, healthier or that the environment benefits.