On Midsummer's Eve there was an Economist Debate - "Organic food is a con".
Speaking for the motion were Lord Dick Taverne, the Chair of the lobby group Sense about Science, and Julian Morris, the Director of the International Policy Network, who we hear got roundly booed!
Below are, more or less, the presentations of those speaking against the motion - Simon Wright, founder of the 'Organic and Fair' consultancy, and Craig Sams, Chair of the Soil Association.
There are many interesting points in both speeches - for instance, the points made about climate change in Craig's speech - but of particular interest perhaps are the points about the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in Simon's speech.
The ASA, he notes, has been extensively lobbied by anti-organic interests in order to limit what claims can be made for organic food. What is less well known is that as a result of its stringent evaluation of the evidence, the ASA recognises the validity of a series of important claims that can be made for organic food.
These include, for instance, the fact that no food has higher amounts of beneficial minerals, essential amino acids and vitamins than organic food.
[for more on Morris:
for more on Taverne:
Economist Debate: "ORGANIC FOOD IS A CON"
1. What organic is
Organic food production is a legally defined process by which food is grown, processed and presented to consumers. There is extensive law defining organic products in the UK, the EU, USA, Japan and in many other countries. This legislation is in addition to all other existing food law on safety, labelling, etc. Organics has been described as the most highly regulated sector of the UK food industry.
This legislation defines the organic process. In other words to describe food as organic all aspects of its production must have obeyed the organic regulations seeds, feed, growing procedures, harvesting, processing and labelling. This holistic approach means that consumers can have confidence in the entire supply chain "from field to fork" as every stage in this process is regulated and inspected by independent organic certifying bodies.
Since the legislation defines the process and not the end product there is no single legal definition of an organic food. Here is one definition I use
"Organic food is the product of a farming system which avoids the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides, growth regulators and livestock feed additives. Instead the system relies on crop rotation, animal and plant manures, some hand weeding and biological pest control."
3. What can you say about organics?
I would now like to consider what has been said about organic food. However instead of going to the many supporters of the organic sector I will refer to two of our sternest critics, the Advertising Standards Authority and the FSA:
3.1 The ASA
The Advertising Standards Authority has been extensively lobbied to limit what claims can be made for organic food. In response to this lobbying it has stringently evaluated the claims made for organic food. Here are just five of those it has permitted:
1. No system of farming has higher levels of animal welfare standards than organic farms working to Soil Association standards.
2. No food has higher amounts of beneficial minerals, essential amino acids and vitamins than organic food.
3.The best method of reducing exposure to potentially harmful pesticides would be to consume organically grown food, where their use is avoided
4. Consumers who wish to minimise their dietary pesticide exposure can do so with confidence by buying organically grown foods
5. The UK Government, their statutory advisors (English Nature, the Environment Agency) and NGOs, including the RSPB, say that organic farming has environmental benefits. The government stated that organic farming is
*better for wildlife
*causes lower pollution from sprays
*produces less carbon dioxide and less dangerous wastes
*has high animal welfare standards
*increases jobs in the countryside
3.2 THE FSA
The sternest critic of organics in the UK has been the Food Standards Agency. Just how stern is reflected by the fact that when the FSA commissioned an independent review of its operations this review concluded that the FSA had shown unjustifiable bias against the organic sector. So what did the FSA director and arch organic critic Sir John Krebs say about organic food?
"Organic food is a success story. This is great. By offering extra choice organic food has enriched the food lives of consumers. Organic food contains fewer residues of pesticides used in conventional agriculture, so buying organic is one way to reduce the chances that your food contains these pesticides."
4. The popularity of organics
4.1 With consumers
In this country organic food is very popular. Consider the following statistics:
*80% of families bought something organic in the last year
*The market for organic food and drink in the UK is national and cuts across age and socio-economic classes
*The UK organic market is worth GBP1.1 billion and is growing at around 11% per year (most other food categories are static with some in decline)
*One third of all eggs sold by Ocado, the delivery company owned by Waitrose, are organic
*In some categories such as baby food organic is now the norm and dominates the market
Why is organic so popular with consumers?
Repeated research shows that people buy organic food because they believe it tastes better and is better for them and they like the idea of knowing where their food comes from. Jamie Oliver's recent Feed Me Better school meals campaign was based on a Soil Association initiative called Food For Life. The success of Jamie Oliver's campaign reflects the enthusiasm consumers have for food that is organic, locally produced and minimally processed.
4.2 With farmers
It's not just consumers who like eating organic food farmers like producing it. The thousands of farmers who have converted to organic farming in the UK have improved the profitability of their businesses. Organic food takes longer to grow and requires more expensive inputs: it is only right that it should attract a higher price and organic farmers benefit from this.
But it is not just about money. Non-organic farmers recognise that the synthetic inputs such as organophosophorous pesticides and sheep dips are highly toxic to their land and to their own health. These substances are derived from nerve gases developed in World War 2. Given a choice who would want to regularly handle such unpleasant materials and spray it on their land
In our globalised food economy it is not just UK farmers who have to deal with such materials. In many African countries farm workers have to apply highly toxic chemicals with minimal training and, because of the heat of the tropics often without protective clothing. It is unsurprising that increasing numbers of farmers around the world are saying good bye to such dangerous practices.
The other attraction to farmers and to consumers as well is how organic production allows a re-engagement between farmers and consumers. Many consumers have become very disconnected as to where their food comes from. Organic farmers are proud of what they do, and are happy to be identified with their produce. Because of the total traceability inherent in organic production organic farmers proudly welcome visitoors to their farms to see their processes in action.
The great success in the UK of farmers markets shows how consumers like buying from producers. Even where organic products are sold via supermarkets it has proved possible to show details of the producer onpack and some retailers now have traceability websites, where entering the product code allows consumers to see pictures of the farm, and read more about the farmer.
4.3 With Society
I have worked in the food industry for 27 years, eight years in non-organic food and the last nineteen in organic and fairtrade food. What I have found most depressing over that time is the increasingly relentless focus on driving down the cost of food to consumers. I accept that some consumers have severely limited incomes and find it difficult to justify the cost of organic food. However the problem with cheap food is that we all end up paying for it indirectly.
Cheap food has many consequences, all of them bad:
*It is dangerous BSE was a result of cost cutting (estimated cost GBP3billion
*It is of poor nutritional quality as cheap processed food tends to contain large amounts of hydrogenated fat, refined flour and sugar. The resulting oncosts to the NHS of treating nutritionally related diseases is incalculable.
*It exports jobs the UK is rarely the lowest cost producer of food. Excessive food miles is an inevitable result of cheap food.
*It increases the risk of adulteration for example the recent Sudan dye incident (estimated cost GBP100million) came about because producers in India were receiving so little for their chillies
Organic food production offers a way out of this relentless costcutting cycle for producers, retailers and consumers. Organic food is increasingly becoming allied to the Slow Food movement and to local food groups. Organic food talks about food culture, about making food a pleasure and not just fuel. By going organic we might spend a bit more of our disposable income on food but is that such a bad thing? Organic food combines wellbeing, sustenance, sensual pleasure and social intercourse. In the words of Pete Townshend
"I call that a bargain, the best I ever had."
Organics is well defined in law consumers buying organic food get what they expect. It does what it says on the tin
Even the strongest critics of the organic sector such as the ASA and the FSA now recognise its benefits
Organic continues to be popular with everyone involved in food farmers, producers, retailers and consumers
Organic food offers a way out of the destructive lowcost food cycle
So where is the con?
Economist Debate: Craig Sams
"Organic food is not a con because it delivers in two key areas of current concern, namely climate change and human health."
I was born on a farm in Nebraska some 60 years ago. My mother, who grew up on that farm during what they called the ‘Dirty Thirties’ recalls the prolonged dust storms that blew up as the topsoil of Kansas and Oklahoma became airborne and darkened the Nebraska skies. Fertile prairie land that had only been farmed for 40 years had turned into desert.
This environmental devastation caused worldwide shock and helped prompt the founding of the Soil Association by Lady Eve Balfour. Her co-founder Dr. Innes Pearce, ran the Peckham Project which showed that, when you educate the most deprived Londoners in the basic elements of healthy eating and domestic hygiene, social indicators such as domestic income, educational achievement, marital stability all improved.
There was no con here, just a genuine belief that good farming and good nutrition went together and that the same systems thinking that informed one also informed the other. When Beveridge mapped out the National Health Service, his budgetary projections anticipated a drop in medical costs by the mid 1950s as the health of nation improved as a result of healthier diet.
The UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, has stated "Climate Change is the most severe problem we face today". Lord Taverne has written that ‘moderate warming would be generally good for agriculture’ and that ‘technology will be more advanced to cope with the problems we face.’ However, for those of us who are less confident in as yet unimagined and undeveloped future technologies it's encouraging that the government is doing something now.
The Sustainable Development Unit at Defra describes the CAP reforms this year as a major step towards reducing Britain's greenhouse gas emissions. This is because the EU have abandoned the price-fixing subsidies which encourage obscene surpluses and devastate landscapes. The new system encourages environmental responsibility and the optimisation of production that was typical of farming before the post-war introduction of subsidies effectively nationalised agriculture. This is already stimulating a substantial increase in applications from farmers to convert to organic status.
However, as long as global commodity prices are fixed in Washington DC there will be distortions. Subsidies establish artificially low prices for key animal feeds such as corn and soybeans, thereby ensuring cheap burgers and chicken nuggets. The inevitable surpluses are, with further expensive subsidies, turned into sugar, alcohol and bio-diesel, or dumped on developing countries. Even the Soviet Union abandoned this crazy system two decades ago.
Consider also: Since the introduction of genetically engineered crops in the US the level of farm subsidies has quintupled. Is this the system we want farmers worldwide to adopt?
Organic farming will thrive on the return of entrepreneurial market economics to food production. If it were rewarded for carbon sequestration at the same rates as are proposed for tree planting under the Kyoto protocols, that would be the icing on the cake.
Organic farming offers solutions for Climate Change
3 main greenhouse gases are Carbon Dioxide, Methane and Nitrous Oxide. Organic farming reduces Carbon dioxide for 2 reasons
1. Reduced output of CO2 in calorie terms it takes 12 calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food in industrial agriculture and only 6 calories of fossil fuel in organic agriculture.
2. Increased carbon sequestration. Organic farming sequesters 1 tonne of carbon per hectare per annum, double no-till and streets ahead of conventional. Only conservation reserve programmes or set aside generates more.
The increased levels of organic matter in organically farmed soils also lead to increased moisture retention and less dependency on irrigation.
Organic cattle must have 80% forage, grass and hay, in their diets. This means they digest more efficiently and fart less. It also means they 99% less prone to E.Coli 0157:H7, a pathogen that kills 200 Americans a year and is the second largest cause of kidney failure among burger-eating American teenage boys.
Reduces Nitrous Oxide nitrate fertilisers don't just pollute the water supply, they also produce nitrous oxide gas, which has 21 times the greenhouse gas effect of carbon dioxide
If the whole world went organic, it could contribute between 1/4 and 1/3 of the Kyoto targets for greenhouse gas reduction.
The price of oil has doubled recently.
Fossil fuels represent 2/3 of the cost of manufacturing nitrate fertilisers.
Herbicides and other pesticides are entirely derived from petrochemical feedstocks.
This evening’s debate could soon be pre-empted by purely economic factors.
Gas guzzling SUV agriculture has had its macho day.
The smart money is already moving into organic food and farming and jumping off the expensive and wasteful agrichemical and drug treadmill.
Heilongjiang Province in Northeast China has increased its organic food growing area to 1.5 million hectares (4,000,000 acres). They project that organic food production will raise per capita income of farmers in the province by 75%.
Now let’s take a look at human health and organic food:
Herbicides don’t just leave residues in food, they accumulate in water supplies. They have hormone-mimicking effects.
Pesticides 20,000 farmers a year die in pesticide accidents and many more are crippled for life. The impact on consumers and the environment is also damaging.
Organic food excludes most of the 300 or so permitted food additives and all those which are neurotoxins, carcinogens and mutagens.
Organic drinks never contain phosphoric acid, the acid that gives the ‘bite’ to Cola drinks and causes osteoporosis in teenagers.
Hydrogenated fat has always been prohibited in organic food. The US NIH said ‘there is no safe minimum level.’ Professor Walter Willett of Harvard University calls it the ‘biggest disaster in the history of food processing.’ It comprises 10% of the average Briton’s diet.
Artificial food colourings and flavourings are never used in organic food.
Organic food is as GM-free as possible in an increasingly contaminated world.
Milk and beef from organically reared cattle have higher levels of healthy omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids and lower levels of saturated fat.
Because organic plants don’t receive protection from pesticides, they produce higher levels of antioxidants and other health protecting flavonoids
Organic farming has never allowed the use of sex hormones in meat animals. For organic farmers it was always a no brainer. If hormones make an animal fat, eating that animal's meat will make you fat. Duh!
In the words of the old fairground slogan 'You pay your money and you take your chance.' With organic food you know what you are getting. "Organic food helps prevent climate change and prioritises human health. Where's the con?"