Can we afford NOT to be organic?

Date Published: 11/09/2008

Here he goes again! Sometimes OF&Gs’ Development Officer, Steven Jacobs, gets a bee in his bonnet. You could say he gets quite exercised about issues. Generally we consider this ‘a good thing’ . It tends to result in rather interesting articles that get written as part of a process that seems to be cathartic for him. As I key these words and look across the desk, he appears calm, for now. That too is ‘a good thing’!

Over to Steven:

Does organic make sense?

I have recently read a number of articles expressing the viewpoint that any increase in organic production will spell the end of civilisation as we know it.

One supposition is that we will not be able to feed people in sufficient numbers. This does rather fly in the face of reports on the increase in obesity and the millions of tons of food put into the waste stream.

Another assumption is that everyone involved in organic food production must be related to a member of the British aristocracy. Yeah right. Excuse me a moment while I instruct my valet to clean my bike.

Seriously though I believe that organic practices are sustainable, environmentally and commercially, especially in the long term.

The word sustainable, to my mind, means that something can be done with some measurable amount of conservancy and preservation. Couple this with development and you have a process that allows a species to grow with, rather than in spite of, its environment.

So I have two questions;
1. Is sustainable development a necessary step?
2. Can a commercial farming operation develop both economically and sustainably?

First then; the sustainable development angle. Otherwise known as the “Why bother?” principle. Soil is not an infinite commodity. It is a resource that must be managed very carefully or we face a rather bleak future. The International Food Policy Research Institute believes that soil in agricultural areas of the developing world has for sometime been seriously degraded;

“Estimates of land loss due to degradation vary widely, from 5 to 12 million hectares every year.”
And they state that;
“In systems with extensive agriculture on marginal lands, policies should aim to limit the environmental damage of farming practices at a minimal cost to farmers.”
http://www.ifpri.org/2020/BRIEFS/NUMBER58.HTM

The UK Government came out with the following statement on soil protection;
“Soil is a vital resource. Damage to soil structure and loss of soil through erosion reduces farm profitability and damages the environment. Run-off and soil erosion leads to the removal of topsoil with the possible loss of productivity of the soil. It can also damage crops, block drainage channels, have an adverse impact on water quality and aquatic life and lead to localised flooding. On-farm costs of soil erosion in England and Wales have been estimated at £8 million a year.”
http://www.defra.gov.uk/erdp/schemes/oels/handbook/chapter3-j.htm

The RSPB put the case for organic cultivation;
“Research has shown that a wide range of plants and animals, including butterflies, birds and bats, benefit from organic management.”
“The RSPB supports organic farming and wants to see more of it.”

It would appear then that soil maintenance can be a massive factor in agricultural performance over a period of time.

This neatly leads on to the next question; economic viability of organic cultivation. Back in the early nineties when legislation on the term ‘organic’ came in many of us in the food and farming industries had severe reservations.  Our reasoning was that this could be the thin end of the wedge, before long we would all be legislated into an ever-tightening corner with costs spiralling as a result.

But then we saw the explosion of organic food sales. This was fuelled both by dissatisfaction from the consumer with food that looked good but lacked flavour and several issues over food safety. The legal status of organic has provided security, to the consumer and so to the producer/supplier.

The livelihood of those who grow, manufacture, pack, distribute and retail organic products relies on soil protection, animal welfare and the ability to clearly present the history of the product. The end user (you and I, when we go shopping) must feel confident that this organic item, although more money than its non-organic counterpart, has a fully traceable story, one that is enshrined in law.

That story is not just about animal health but also recounts the cost of food now reflecting the ability of the planet to sustain our populations tomorrow.

The US online journal Market Watch (www.marketwatch.com) predicts:

“Surge in Natural and Organic Food Sales Means Billion Dollar Boom

Consumers have become a whole lot savvier about what they eat and through increased educational efforts by both manufacturers and retailers they are increasingly buying more organic and natural food and beverage products. Not even the current economic upheaval due to the rising prices of fuel and grain is enough to impede the market’s steady development, which Packaged Facts projects will experience strong single-digit growth through 2013.”
http://www.marketwatch.com/news/story/surge-natural-organic-food-sales/story.aspx?guid={5479439E-CC6D-47D9-A9CA-1AEE0692F567}&dist=hppr

Of course these arguments fall on deaf ears in a world where companies such as those promoting GM do so under the guise of being helpful when the reality is that they will further remove the ability of the local farmers to control their own operation. GM seed, we are told, will be sterile and so rather than harvesting seed from their crop for planting in successive years they must each year return to the company and negotiate the purchase of more. This is to my mind not at all sustainable economically or otherwise.

There are occasions when some actors within the environment lobby baffle us here at OF&G. For instance when those who speak on behalf of organisations who develop conflicting standards whilst promulgating a line on purity tell us to be more appealing to the majority by lowering our standards we have to consider the fact that perhaps some of the most prominent players in the organic arena are somewhat confused.

The RSPB and an increasing number of successful companies, large, medium and small, have acknowledged something that our detractors still have not. Although people will always need food, and that food means business, business can grow well whilst maintaining the environment that it depends upon.

Those businesses in farming or food processing, large or small that have committed to adhere to this legal definition of organic have not done so lightly.

I am not alone when I say that it is not a question of whether organic farming makes economic sense. Its just that with an eye on the next five to 25 years, or so, perhaps it is very important to ask yourself whether it is wholly sensible on a commercial scale to do anything else.

Now then, Hudson, fetch me my bicycle clips would you please, there’s a good chap.