The long-term security of a safe and plentiful food supply has never been more topical, but industry experts are divided over how best to achieve it. Two of the prominent speakers at this week’s heated debate on organics held by the Guild of Food Writers agreed to explain their viewpoints.

1) Is organic more sustainable than conventional agriculture?

Craig Sams response:
We are losing 1% of our arable land every year and the rate of loss is increasing. The GM solution is to develop crops that can still grow on land that has the high salinity that arises from extensive use of nitrates and other chemical fertilisers. By contrast. organic farming replaces humus and builds up the land. Agrichemicals are made from fossil fuels, which will not last forever. Organic farming avoids their use altogether. Organic farmers are not dependent on a handful of corporations for their seeds and fertilisers. Despite historically low levels of research, organic production methods now frequently match and exceed the yields of conventional methods, while building soil fertility for the farmers of the future. Case histories of rice growing in Madagascar, maize growing in Kenya and new undersowing techniques from Uruguay show that huge yield increases can be attained using organic methods derived from our ever increasing understanding of plant biology, soil science and genomics.

Professor Anthony Trewavas response:
Comparative investigations in the UK show that conventional farming with good practices can be managed with as much benefit for the environment as organic farming. Eighty-five percent of wildlife on any farm is found in the field margins and hedgerows; the agricultural form used for the cropped area has little influence, and the actual crop used has a bigger effect. Integrated farm management (IFM) is a holistic but pragmatic form of conventional farming equal in environmental quality to anything organic, but maintains the low produce price. Prescriptive organic ideology is no way to face an uncertain future.

The Rothamsted experiments have used minerals continuously for 157 years with no loss of yield compared to fields using manure. On a yield basis, organic farms using farmyard manure or green manure pollute more nitrate into waterways than conventional and IFM. Organic farms use both minerals when needed and so-called natural pesticides, some of which have established human health problems. Organic farms use far more fossil fuels than conventional farms to mechanically weed. Even if energy requirements for nitrogen (N) fertiliser are accounted for, an organic farm produces more carbon dioxide. With organic farming there is a greater risk of crop failure; yields are generally 50-70% lower and organic food is more expensive. If the UK went organic more wilderness and pasture would have to be ploughed under to maintain yields. Coupling chemical nitrogen fixation to a solar power station is completely sustainable for N fertiliser. There is sufficient phosphate for fertiliser for 1000 years.

2) Is the planet threatened by current methods of food production?

Craig Sams response:
Current methods of food production lead to unsustainable levels of soil erosion, pollution from pesticides, foodborne diseases and loss of habitat and biodiversity. The inflexibility of large-scale industrial agriculture puts us all at risk if things go wrong. The introduction of GM crops on a large scale may provide a temporary respite, but the risks to farmers in the developing world are huge and the science behind the safety of GM foods is scant. Nobody has ever done feeding trials with GM foods that exceed a few weeks, yet they are claimed to be safe. We are told that GM crops will help to reduce the 100,000 annual deaths worldwide from pesticides. Let’s just stop using the pesticides altogether and save all those lives. Organic farmers have proven that it can be done using farming methods that don’t upset the natural balance.

Professor Anthony Trewavas response:
Problems will occur with every technology if management and education are lacking or poor – improve education – don’t chuck away technology.

Problems with salination, soil degradation and erosion are reported in various parts of the world but have been occurring for at least 4000 years. Grain production continues to increase in the developing world at an unimpaired rate (FAO). IFM zero tillage using herbicides (denied to organic farmers) greatly reduces erosion.

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If the world went organic, feeding the worlds 8.3 billion population by 2025 on lower yields would require ploughing up a further 3000 million hectares of virgin forest with disastrous consequences for global warming. Cropland would occupy 25-30% of the earth’s surface. The methane produced by the enormous increase in decaying organic material and manure would be precipitous on global warming.

Forest cover has remained steady at 33% earth’s surface for 50 years. Efficient agriculture saves both wilderness and biodiversity. Inefficient organic agriculture does not.

Efficient farming enables excess land in the developed world to be put to coppiced willow plantations and the wood used for power station fuel, saving enormously on carbon dioxide and energy requirements. On both counts this is superior to organic.

3) Is the nutritional content of organic foods better?

Craig Sams response:
The nutrient content of Britain’s food has declined by up to 70% since the 1940s, which was when the Government introduced subsidies on nitrate fertilisers. The Soil Association‘s Food Quality Report found some significant differences in specific nutrients but my view is that a person’s dietary choices are still by far the most significant factor in nutrition and health. Organic food is free of pesticide residues and additives such as hydrogenated fat, phosphoric acid, monosodium glutamate, aspartame and other disruptors of metabolic, neurological and hormonal processes. The negative impact of these ingredients on nutritional well-being are well documented, so even the consumer of ‘organic junk food’ would be much better off.

Professor Anthony Trewavas response:
There have been over 100 research papers comparing organic with conventional food with no consistent indication of difference. However careful selection would allow support of any point of view. The Soil Association recently selected out less than 30% of this research to claim that organic might be better because of lower water content, if true, concentrating everything. The discrimination was based on the assumption that an arbitrarily assumed soil quality standard is the distinguishing feature of organic. But this is incorrect. The lack of use of soluble minerals and rejection of synthetic pesticides are the discriminator. Seventy percent of organic food in the UK comes from abroad with different standards. In the shop the customer is faced with the same variation in organic produce as used by the hundred or so research papers. A good conventional farmer could equally select his research to support a ‘conventional is better’ publication. Unless you are vitamin or mineral deficient there is no reason to suppose more expensive food is better. A vitamin/mineral pill at 20 p might be cheaper. Finally boiled or roasted vegetables, the usual form of consumption, equalises any notional dry matter difference.

4) Is organic food the answer to achieving the Food Standards Agency target of reducing food poisoning levels in the UK? Or does it in fact present a greater risk, for example due to the use of organic waste in organic agriculture?

Craig Sams response:
Organic farmers never spread uncomposted waste on their fields, unlike their conventional counterparts who spread slurry as well as slaughterhouse waste including blood. Organic farmers work under strict rules to ensure there is no contamination and there is no recorded case of organic production leading to a case of E.coli, a foodborne disease that kills hundreds in the US and the UK each year and is a major cause of kidney failure among young people. The unhygienic conditions on beef cattle feedlots and in slaughterhouses, particularly in the US, are the probable main source of contamination.

The Public Health Laboratory Service recently completed a survey of over 3000 samples of organic fruit and vegetables and found no E.coli, salmonella, listeria or campylobacter. This speaks volumes about the wholesomeness of organic practices. There has never been a case of BSE on cattle born and bred on an organic farm in Britain and there has never been a case of E.coli 0157:H7 poisoning from organic beef.

Professor Anthony Trewavas response:
Any form of agriculture that uses animal manure for fertiliser with its associated pathogens will be suspect for possible E.coli 0157 contamination of food and waterways. But when illness occurs it points to poor farm management. The absolute dependence on manure as soil conditioner and fertiliser means suspicion focuses more strongly on organic than other agricultures. Proper composting can eliminate these pathogens but these require high temperatures (60° C) for a period of three months in irregularly shaped compost heaps and can be difficult to check. Section 3.604 of the Manual of Standards for Organic Food Production (1997) states that, for the use of farmyard manure from organic sources, composting is not mandatory, but use is preferably after being properly composted. This ambiguous rule may have given rise to a Citrobacter infection traced in Germany to organic parsley using improperly composted pig manure that killed one child and damaged eight others.

A survey of chickens and salmonella in the US indicated that free range had higher levels of salmonella than battery grown.

5) So is organic a luxury or is it necessary?

Craig Sams response:
Ask this question in respect of indoor plumbing and consider the answer. In the past century we have made great progress in many areas of our lives and few argue that we should turn back the clock. Food is, with shelter, our most fundamental need. We all regularly pay for decent and safe standards of housing, clothing, cars, travel, recreation and entertainment. It is short-sighted to cut corners on the most important expenditure area, food, when wise choices can have such a profound effect on individual health and the environment. When you consider the estimated annual £2.4bn (US$3.5bn) of externalised costs of industrial agriculture arising from pollution, foodborne disease and environmental damage and the harm to individuals that its false economies brings, the case for going completely organic is overwhelming. This is now getting through to EU and UK policymakers as well as key decision makers in the food industry and gives great hope for a sustainable and wholesome future for agriculture.

Professor Anthony Trewavas response:
The primary health danger of organic food is its higher price. Over 200 medical investigations have clearly demonstrated that a diet high in fruits and vegetables cuts cancer rates in half. Heart and brain disease are also diminished. But these are conventional fruits and vegetables with their ubiquitous pesticide residues; not organic. However only 25 % of the UK populace eat the minimum two fruit and three vegetable portions to give protection. 75% are at higher risk of premature death. Putting up the price by going organic would decrease fruit and vegetable consumption and for every 10% reduction, cancer incidence (and premature death) would increase in the UK by 5000.

Pesticides help to make food cheaper because they improve yields but both the World Cancer Research Foundation and the International Cancer Research Institute find no indication that pesticide residues at current levels cause any cancer. Denmark established a national committee to investigate the costs of going totally organic which concluded that much more countryside would have to be ploughed under and the increase in cancer rates from reduced fruit and vegetable consumption made this an unacceptable proposal. Life expectancy continues to increase in the UK and when smoking is removed from the statistics it can be seen that cancer rates have shown steady declines over the period of pesticide use. Organic is not a luxury; it is a distinct danger to the health of all of us if price levels are maintained.

About the participants:

Craig Sams is president of Whole Earth Ltd, and a keen advocate of organic food production.

Professor Anthony Trewavas is a plant biologist of 40 years standing and a member of LEAF, the primary Integrated Farm Management group in the UK. would like to thank both participants for the time and effort they devoted to this debate.

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

UK Organic Foods

The International Market for Organic Food

Next Generation Organics 2001