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What’s so good about organic food and farming?

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Peter Melchett, the Soil Association's Policy Director explains that organic farming isn't just better for animal welfare, our own health and the wider environment, it also makes financial sense too.

Usually when the Soil Association is asked about the benefits of organic farming and food, we trot out the usual list of scientifically proven advantages, like 50% more wildlife in numbers and a 30% increase in different species on organic farms, we add fairly obvious things about avoiding almost all pesticides, including all weed-killers, less pollution from manufactured nitrogen, using less energy, far lower greenhouse gas emissions, and more beneficial nutrients in food produced organically. We take great pains to stress to people that organic automatically means free-range, and more than that – organic farm animals have to have a natural diet, and cows and sheep have to have 60% of their diet as grass or conserved forage, which is what they would eat naturally. We can go on, with evermore esoteric information about the fact that the world is running out of mined phosphate fertiliser, which is what yields from non-organic farming partly depend on, and how the yields from non-organic farming have plateaued, not just in the UK but around the world, despite ever-increasing inputs of manufactured nitrogen fertiliser, mined phosphates, and water.

However, I’m writing this at our farm in Norfolk, as we and our neighbours struggle to finish this year’s harvest in a year where the summer seems to have escaped the UK almost completely, and against a background of national press and TV coverage of the disaster facing dairy farmers. Many of them are struggling with a price of milk at the farm gate well below the cost of producing that milk. As I work on the budget for our own organic farm over the next 12 months, I think of my crop-growing, non-organic neighbours, who are harvesting wheat which cost them around £140 per tonne to grow, but which, if they have to sell as soon as they harvest it, will leave the farm at about £100 a tonne or less. Even farmers able to store their wheat and barley will almost certainly end up selling it at a loss.

Of course, it is traditional for all farmers to complain about something, and the rain in August has certainly given me something to moan about. But the fact is that organic farming is currently significantly more profitable than non-organic, whether you’re in the East growing wheat and barley like me, or an organic dairy farmer in the South West of England. The Soil Association has looked at the profitability of organic compared to non-organic farming in the UK, and it is clear that, from a financial point of view, farmers are better off going organic if they can be sure of a market for their products. Recently published scientific research found the same was true globally. This may explain why research usually finds that organic farmers are happier, and more positive about the future!

The same research also finds that organic farmers tend, on average, to be younger, and more women are involved in organic. Of course, one of the other benefits of organic farming is that it provides more, and more interesting and varied, jobs on farms. So, despite the rain, and the struggle to finish our harvest, there’s a lot to be happy about on an organic farm. Not only the fact that we’ve had a great year for what are otherwise rapidly declining, threatened farmland birds like skylarks, corn buntings and even the elusive turtle doves, but it also looks as if we might be able to produce a budget for the next financial year which is not going to get me into trouble with my bank manager.

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Peter Melchett, Policy Director

Peter Melchett has been Policy Director of the Soil Association, the UK’s main organic food and farming organisation, working on campaigns, standards and policy, since 2001. He runs an 890-acre organic farm in Norfolk, with beef cattle and arable seed crops. He is a member of the BBC’s Rural Affairs Committee, and was a member of the Government’s Rural Climate Change Forum and Organic Action Plan Group, and the Department of Education’s School Lunches Review Panel. He received an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University in 2013, was on the Board of the EU’s £12m ‘Quality Low Input Food’ research project, and is a Board member for two EU research projects on low input crops and livestock,

As a former member of the House of Lords, he was a Labour Government Minister 1974-79, at the Departments of Environment, Industry, and Northern Ireland (covering education and health). He has been President or Chair of several conservation ngos, including the Ramblers and Wildlife Link, and was Director of Greenpeace UK (1985-2000), and chaired Greenpeace Japan (1995-2001). Greenpeace launched their global campaign against GM crops in 1997, and Peter was one of 28 volunteers arrested for removing GM maize in 1999; all the volunteers were found not guilty in the subsequent court case.

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