Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Can you just be a little bit organic? Sustaining the Unsustainable.

You can't be a little bit pregnant, you either are or you aren't.
- Bob Flowerdew, Radio 4's 'Gardener's Question Time', talking about organic gardening.

I've never bought into the idea of 'organic' produce - there are some solid organic principals and guidelines which I think are Good Things, like reducing pesticides and biodiversity, but Organic True Believers™ would have no truck with my post-modern woolly organicity.

I'll also say, I've never trusted the Organic High Priests like the Soil Association, whose take on organic food has been put through the PR mill, so that the perceived benefits are trotted out as fact and exaggerated and whose scientific credentials leave a lot to be desired. You'll remember, no doubt, that The Soil Association awarded Gillian McKeith its Consumer Education Award 2005 - information the Soil Assoc has decided should no longer be on their website.

The Soil Association's current resident nutritionist, Shaun Heaton, doesn't seem much better - cue Dara O'Briain's nutritionist gag.

Lines like:
Organic food contains fewer pesticide residues. []. Don’t wait, as unfortunately many people do, to get diagnosed with cancer before you get interested in real food.
Interesting reasoning.
Organic food contains no artificial additives such as sweeteners or colours, which a major new study has now unequivocally linked to hyperactivity, learning and behavioural problems in children.
Unlike those nasty aspartame carrots that are all the rage?
Organic food contains more nutrients, as confirmed again by the largest study of its kind just released, showing 20-80% more nutrients in organics.
The British Nutrition Foundation would say otherwise:
• There is no evidence to show that crops grown organically have a better nutrient content than those produced non-organically. However, it has been acknowledged that little research has been conducted to date and much of the available scientific information is out-dated or based on inadequate study design.

Historically, the cost of organic food has been considerably higher than ordinary food, but this gap has closed significantly over the last number of years. Food prices in general have risen and with the current economic credit crunch, people are tightening their belts.
What will be first against the wall? People's principals. So much so, according to The Times, that organic farmers are lobbying government to allow them to take an Organic Holiday, so that they can buy the much cheaper ordinary feed during these hard times. According the newspaper:
Sales of organic food slumped 10 per cent in the 12 weeks up to the end of November, according to the latest figures from the consumer researchers TNS. Overall food sales over the same period were up 6 per cent

To me, this idea is nonsense. One concept that has been used frequently with organic farming is the idea of sustainability. Usually this has been in the context of biodiversity, protection of hedgerows, maintaining the wildlife equilibrium etc - all good things, but in fact, of questionable importance if the food you are producing is not commercially viable. You end up with less 'conventional' land to provide more food. Sustainability means being able to sustain your business during tough times. How on earth can you forgo your principals? I don't think they'll be given leave to do this - the main problem I see is that it will be a PR disaster.

Firstly, you are offending your True Believers™, the people who have completely bought into the Organic Religion. They will not tolerate a change to the Holy Book, and it could lead to a split. The word 'organic' will lose its meaning and brand identity (Chemists would argue this has already happened once).

Secondly, you've already lost the people fleeing to Lidl who weren't true believers, and now that they've been away, it'll be difficult to get them back. The beliefs of animal welfare and no pesticides were 'nice thoughts' for them, perhaps they bought organic as a social status symbol or because they had a few extra pennies. I would have thought someone buying organic would be subject to some sort of cognitive dissonance if they went back to normal food. How could they justify their previous lavish expense? Can they really taste a difference?

How many of the farmers are True Believers™ and how many converted to organic because at one time it was a lucrative business move? Can these farmers be trusted to maintain the scrupulous organic standards when bills are stacking up and produce is not going out of the gate? This is not to characterise farmers as underhanded, merely to present the situation as being a truly difficult decision.

According to the Organic Farmers and Growers statement on the Times story, no approach has yet been made to DEFRA, although they do state:
It is, however, fair to say that the broad aims would be to allow farmland to remain organic, even if the animals on it were to be fed on non-organic rations for a limited time, thereby enforcing the removal of the animals from the organic system.

So you can have organic farmland, with normal livestock on it eating normal foodstock and when times get better, jump back into the Organic circle. Normal farmers trying to get into organic farming have to maintain their land as organic for three years before they get the cert. If you are in the year 2 of your 3 year run, does it count? IF so, it makes a mockery of the whole 3 year hoop.

Without any sense of irony, the OGF finish their statement with the following:
The industry’s aim is to protect the organic system for the welfare and environmental benefits it brings and ensure that progress made in expanding this sustainable method of farming is not lost.

There's that 'sustainable' word again. Allow me to translate
The industry's aim is to sustain the unsustainable.

BPSDB

4 comments:

  1. Then there's the fact that organic produce takes up to 40% more acreage to grow, not to mention the extra fuel cost to weed - no pesticides, right? And this in a time of "food crisis" or whatever it is that's driving up the cost of food worldwide.

    Speaking of which, how come it was evil that the prices dropped a couple of years ago, but now it's evil that they rise? I don't get it... :-)

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  2. Late to this one...

    A very good friend of mine, who happens to run an organic farm and believes very much in the basic concept, once described the Soil Association to me as "a bunch of cultists". In my experience, most of the people who are actually hands-on are quite a bit more pragmatic than the PR folk. Also, the concept of derogation is already fairly well established - there are certain cases (such as severe worm infestation in livestock) where you're allowed to temporarily derogate the pesticide rules in order to get the problem under control.

    How many of the farmers are True Believers™ and how many converted to organic because at one time it was a lucrative business move?

    I call false dichotomy. Most of them appear to be genuinely concerned about the real issues you list (biodiversity, protection of hedgerows, maintaining the wildlife equilibrium, etc) but are also pragmatists who still have to earn a living. Very few (that I've met, anyway) are hard-core True Believers.

    Agriculture is not physics - you can't lay down hard and fast rules which must always be adhered to. I've long felt that a rule-based approach to organic agriculture is ultimately flawed - there are always exceptional or edge cases where the rules are actively counter-productive.

    Then there's the fact that organic produce takes up to 40% more acreage to grow, not to mention the extra fuel cost to weed - no pesticides, right?

    Nice use of the weasel words "up to", but for maximum weasel points you should have said "can take up to". There are of course cases where this is true, but there are also cases where the converse is true. Not to mention that pesticides don't control weeds (that's a job for herbicides) and that weed suppression in (well-designed) organic systems generally doesn't involve the additional use of machinery - no-one's managed to build a machine which can tell the difference between a weed and a crop. Rather, the job is generally done either by hand or by dint of liberal use of cover crops and mulching, both of which also confer other benefits.

    Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right...

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  3. Second attempt at response - Blogger munched the first one :(

    Late to this one...

    Better late than never :)

    ...Also, the concept of derogation is already fairly well established - there are certain cases (such as severe worm infestation in livestock) where you're allowed to temporarily derogate the pesticide rules in order to get the problem under control.

    Hmmm this is to do with animal welfare. I would even say that this still exposes organic for the nonsense that it is. I think I agree with your POV (correct me if I assume too much) that there are plenty of farmers who would like to do more about stocking density, welfare, lower pesticides etc, but without going organic face an unfair competition with more ruthless farmers and hence suppliers. I.e. if someone would kindly come up with a pragmatic, evidence-based progressive farming style, without the horrible (IMHO) religion of organic then it would be broadly supported.

    How many of the farmers are True Believers™ and how many converted to organic because at one time it was a lucrative business move?

    I call false dichotomy. Most of them appear to be genuinely concerned about the real issues you list (biodiversity, protection of hedgerows, maintaining the wildlife equilibrium, etc) but are also pragmatists who still have to earn a living. Very few (that I've met, anyway) are hard-core True Believers.


    I don't think it is a false dichotomy. I think (as above) if there was a less religious, more pragmatic, scientific, evidence based system of farming, that didn't throw 100 years of veterinary and agricultural science out the window (unless it suits them) then farmers (and consumers) would go along with that.

    Agriculture is not physics - you can't lay down hard and fast rules which must always be adhered to. I've long felt that a rule-based approach to organic agriculture is ultimately flawed - there are always exceptional or edge cases where the rules are actively counter-productive.

    But what you have described is exactly what the Soil Association try to do. It is indeed ultimately flawed - and is not economically sustainable as discussed above.

    The remainder of your post is to do with Morten's comment and I'll let him to respond to that.

    Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right...

    I'm the clown on your left :)

    T

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  4. Nah, the clowns to the left are the Soil Association themselves. You seem to be stuck in the middle with me.

    "if someone would kindly come up with a pragmatic, evidence-based progressive farming style, without the horrible (IMHO) religion of organic"

    An absolutely marvellous idea. Now, who are these people and where can I subscribe to their newsletter? Oh, it seems that most of them have decided, for entirely pragmatic reasons, to try and work within the sustainability movement we already have rather than to try and re-invent a new one from scratch.

    I've been having much the same argument with Skeptico over the last few days... Personally, I'm far more interested in measurable outcomes than ideological purity. There comes a time to put aside your distaste for the irrational (after all, they're everywhere - the only way to avoid contamination entirely is to lock yourself in the cellar and never come out again), roll up your sleeves, and actually do something. One of the great strengths of the organic movement has been its ability to bring a very diverse group of people with some really fundamental differences in outlook together to work constructively for shared goals. Unlike, for example, the political left...

    I worry that strict rationalists who favour sustainability but refuse to work constructively with the loons where possible run the risk of ending up as the Popular Front of Judea. ("Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?" "He's over there. Splitter!")

    It's a deeply unfortunate historical accident that the first group of people to get sufficiently concerned with sustainability to actually do something about it happened to be a bunch of tofu-munching, kaftan-wearing, yoghurt-weaving freaks who believed they could talk to fairies. But that's how it happened, and we're stuck with it for now. And let's not forget that they've put in a heck of a lot of really bloody hard work, along with no small quantity of cash, over the course of the last fifty years or so - and mostly for very meagre rewards. Unless and until someone else steps up with that sort of commitment, I'll work with them wherever I believe our interest coincide, even if I have to hold my nose whilst doing so. When it comes to turning a compost heap, I'll take a hippy over a blogger any day of the week. ;)

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