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WHAT IS ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY
FOOD PRODUCTION? - the scientists' view
Public Meeting LEAF Scotland, St Andrews 24th March
Dr James Irvine
Teviot Scientific at Cultybraggan Farm, Comrie,
by Crieff, Perthshire
Filed 25 March 04
The meeting was chaired by emeritus Professor
Willie Russell FRSE, virologist at St Andrews. In his introduction
he referred to the current public perception of food production
and how it is so strongly influenced by the media and their desire
for headlines to sell newpapers or attract viewers.
Crops and Sustainable Farming - Dr Alyson Tobin, University
of St Andrews
Dr Alyson Tobin, plant biologist at the
University of St Andrews, gave a clear talk on how plants function
and what they require to perform that function well. Many of the
substantial audience were not primarily involved in farming, so
that spelling out the basics - the scientific facts - with such
clarity was important. It must have helped many to differentiate
between what is fact and what they may have heard through the media
and certain focus groups in the form of an irrational but superficially
attractive creed regarding food production on farms.
Is organic farming really green? - Professor Tony Trewavas, University
Prof Tony Trewavas FRS, FRSE, Biologist, University
of Edinburgh spelt out with convincingly objective scientific evidence
the fallacies in the propaganda so effectively promoted by the organic
The improvement in the environment claimed by
the Soil Association if their doctrine is followed was exposed to
scientific scrutiny and found in many aspects to be wanting. Examples
included the utilisation of nitrogen - particularly the importance
of the appropriate timing for nitrogen to be readily available to
plants in the spring (rather than being in stored form). He referred
to the failure of set-a side on account of the politicians and their
advisors not recognising that just doing nothing will not result
in a field of attractive wild grasses and wild flowers or a good
habitat for wildlife. He stressed the importance of the proper provision
of minerals such as phosphate over the long term if crops are to
be productive. He dismissed the idea put forward by the organic
movement that trace amounts of pesticides in food were necessarily
harmful to humans - indeed he proposed that the reverse may well
There is no evidence that small traces of pesticides
in the foods we eat do any harm. Life expectancy continues to rise
and the incidence of cancers such as stomach cancer has drastically
declined. Just how important it is for us to eat more fruit and
vegetables is often stressed by human nutritionists, and yet the
organic organisation says little about its own use of highly toxic
chemicals such as copper sulphate in order to achieve the standards
of presentation now demanded by the most tolerate of consumers and
farmers alike - such as in the production of certain fruits. Also,
the organic movement appears to conveniently forget that natural
pesticides exist that can be highly toxic. Its is dosage that is
so important, rather than the potential for a substance to be toxic.
Small doses - far from being harmful - may be beneficial.
The higher manpower costs and the higher consumption
of diesel fuel involved in organic farming is generally overlooked
by the promoters of organic farming. In terms of diesel consumption
it could well be that the benefits claimed by the organic movement
in terms of CO2 emissions are cancelled out - and possibly more
than cancelled out - by the CO2 emissions created by the increased
diesel consumption involved.
The higher manpower and the lower yields invovled
necessarily lead to organically produced foods being more expensive.
There is no objection to people farming organically if that is what
they want to do, provided it is not at the cost of others who farm
conventionally following modern scientific advice and quality assurance
Are there advantages in not ploughing? - Dr Geoff Squire, Scottish
Crop Research Institute, Invergowrie, Dundee.
This was a fascinating talk given by an expert
in soil science based in one of the worlds leading crop research
establishments just along the road (and across the Tay Bridge) from
the meeting. While listening to him I remembered what Lord Melchett
claimed in an appalling lecture of propaganda that he recently gave
in Edinburgh - he claimed that the Soil Association (for which he
is Director of Policy) was the only organisation that was
interested in the soil. According to him everbody else was
only interested in what they could get out of it.
What we heard from Dr Squire was an expert scientists
analysis of the pros and cons of ploughing versus using a no-till
system. He illustrated just how advanced soil research is and what
new advances in the understanding of the biology of the soil are
rapidly developing in terms of microsystems and how certain plants
synergistically interact with fungi.
The conclusion was that the long-term advantages
of a no-till system are open to question. While there may be short-term
advantages, the situation after 2 to 3 years may be very different
for a particular piece of ground. Weeds and how to handle them are
the main problem if a reasonable degree of crop productivity is
to be maintained at a realistic cost.
What LEAF is and what it does - Edward Baxter, Chairman of LEAF
Edward Baxter who farms locally outlined what
the LEAF organisation stood for - Linking Environment and Farming.
LEAF who hosted the evenings meeting are to be congratulated
on staging such a meeting as this, based on trying to facilitate
good and sincere communication between scientists, farmers and the
public. My own perception of this LEAF meeting is that it was a
class apart from the annual conference of the Soil Association held
at Heriot Watt University in January of this year. The two day Soil
Association conference had only one scientific paper, which ironically
confirmed that there was no acceptable evidence that organically
produced food had any nutritional advantage. The Soil Association
seemed to want to apply the precautionary principle indefinitely
in terms of risk, not recognising that it is extremely difficult
to prove a negative. Most of their conference was taken up with
the hope that some nutritional benefit will eventually be satisfactorily
demonstrated to justify their faith.
Specifically LEAF is a charity aimed at helping
farmers improve their environmental and business performance, while
creating better public understanding of farming through a nationwide
network of demonstration farms and the LEAF Marque Scheme. To find
out more or to arrange a visit to a LEAF Demonstration farm either
go on-line www.leafuk.org or phone 02476 413911.
Interval - a well known toxin was served in small but beneficial
Before the session earmarked for open discussion
got underway, the delegates partook in a little alcoholic imbibing.
Here it seemed to me there was good evidence that such a potentially
toxic substance can be taken in small doses with good effect - not
only in relation to reducing the risk of heart disease but as a
way of encouraging social intercourse with its strong psychological
health benefits. It certainly helped to loosen tongues when it came
to discussion over the evenings talks and was much appreciated.
Tony Trewavas started the discussion off by challenging
a well-known local farmer, who farmed both organically and conventionally,
over the problem of how could he keep the organic portion of his
farm in mineral balance unless he imported manure from the conventional
part of his farm or got it from elsewhere. The farmer vigourously
denied that he transferred manure between his two farming systems,
but there did not seem to be a satisfactory conclusion to the debate
as to how the mineral balance was properly maintained for the needs
of the organic crops.
I asked for clarification as to why the LEAF
system seemed to put so much emphasis on a no-till system when we
had just heard such an authoritative talk that its advantages in
the medium and long term were questionable. I also picked up on
the statement made by Tony Trewavas (a trustee of LEAF) that the
code for animal welfare under LEAF was the same as for the Soil
Association, bearing in mind that the Organic Farming code comes
in for justifiable and serious criticism as not being beneficial
for the health of farm livestock (e.g. cattle and sheep). Their
code is essentially homeopathic and against prophylaxis unless the
risk is demonstrably high - an illogical contradiction if ever there
was one. The answer seemed to be that the LEAF organisation was
not prescriptive, but was adaptable to the needs of a particular
farm. This is all very well but it does give rise to some confusion
and some concern as to who is going to make the judgements as to
what is or what is not appropriate for a particular farm.
The list of hurdles that a potential LEAF farmer
is required to get over looked truly formidable. The possibility
of having to argue for basic prophylaxis and for permission to make
good use of major advances in veterinary medicines is more than
a touch off-putting. Farmers using a conventional system already
have strict quality assurance programmes to contend with.
Among questions from non-farmers was why were
field margins apparently so poorly organised, just being left to
evolve as they will. The response was that some field margins are
closely managed and indeed cultivated and sown to produce specific
types of grass and wild flowers etc. The question as to why the
draft Access Code drawn up by Scottish Natural Heritage and presently
with Scottish Ministers patently encourages the public to walk with
their dogs and ride their horses on such cultivated field margins
was not asked. Indeed there were no questions on access to farmland,
which of course could adversely influence environmentally friendly
food production - the topic of the evening.
Thankfully discussion over GM crops was not on
the agenda. If it had been it would have no doubt dominated the
discussion. The organisers did well to keep the debate essentially
on the false claims made by the organic movement which have caused
so much damage to the image of good conventional farming in Scotland.
Coming away from this excellent meeting my assessment
concerning the false propaganda from the Soil Association (and other
branches of the organic and green movements) were considerably reinforced.
I had been treated to the presentation of convincing science by
those well respected in their fields by national and international
peer review. I also had my impression reinforced that the LEAF organisation
is a sincere charitable body which is indeed trying to help farmers
to improve their environmental and business performance and create
a better public understanding of farming.
The concerns that I still have were reflected
in my questions raised during the discussion and described above.
LEAF seemed to be over-obsessed with no-till systems and displayed
a worrying attitude to animal welfare in terms of prophylaxis and
the synthetic man-made medicines that can achieve so much. In addition
I (in keeping with all farmers I know) am more that a little tired
of over-regulation. There is also the disadvantage that to date
there are few if any local outlets for farm products carrying the
While a lot can be learned from LEAF - and that
goes for DEFRA and SEERAD as well as for individual farmers - I
see little wrong with following good farming practice which has
been so traditional in Scotland, keeping a close eye on sorting
out what is mere propaganda from what rings true. Coming to farming
from another profession I have great respect for farmers in Scotland
and I wonder if they need another layer of control and accreditation
- the best of them just need the information. They are the ones
best able to decide what their farm needs - not an inspector from
some other place ticking - or not ticking - boxes and draining more
of the farms resources in the process. The big advantage of
LEAF is that they could give farmers their best chance of getting
the message of good farming over to a public who have been fed so
much misleading information through an aggressive propaganda campaign
by a range of focus groups.
Radical Reform of the Common Agricultrual Policy
(CAP Reform), which will take effect from 1st January 2005, was
sold to Scottish farmers on the basis that it would free up the
market and reduce bureaucrasy. The former is questionable and the
latter very unlikely. The financial situation in farming is such
that in order to survive it may well be wise to play the Scottish
Executives game - if they insist on some envrionmentally friendly
official scheme before paying out essential farming subsidies, then
LEAF would be a far better choice than any offered by an organic
organisation at least from a rational point of view.
At the present time there is no substantive evidence
that either the nutritional content or the taste of organically
produced food is any better than food produced by conveniotnally
run farms. Hype may not be enough to sustain organic farming. Indeed
the rate of uptake of organic foods by the public is now slowing
and the price differential to the farmer reducing.
Earlier this year Land-Care visited a demonstration
LEAF farm in Scotland. It is hoped that a brief account of that
visit will be published on this website shortly and in the journal
It is Land-Care's view that there is not much
wrong with Scottish farming and that it is being severely damaged
by an over-emphasis on so-called green issues which
are detracting farmers from actually doing the good farming and
good land management for which they are internationally renowned.
Just travel around Scotland and look at it. Be it the low ground,
the southern uplands or the highlands it still looks well managed,
but it is under enormous risk from over regulation with the dramatic
reduction in its skilled workforce and incentive to farm.
Dr James Irvine DSc FRSE
Further reading recommended by Land-Care
Editorial (2002). Prof Trewavas and other speakers
at LEAF conference, Battleby Perthshire, 26th September 2002
See ENVIRONMENTAL Homepage, filed 2002, www.land-care.org.uk
Here to View
Editorial (2002). Food standards agency does not
provide support for organic farming
See ENVIRONMENTAL Haomepage, filed 2002, www.land-care.org.uk
Click Here to View
Irvine, James (2004). Researcher struggles to
show any benefit of "organic" farming to human health.
See FOOD Homepage, Filed 19 Jan 04, www.land-care.org.uk
Here to View
Irvine, James (2003). Agriculture: the primary
health service? Soil Association and SAC conference, Paisley, 26
May 2003. High in hype but poor in credibility.
See FOOD Homepage, Filed 29 May 2003, www.land-care.org.uk
Here to View
Lomborg, Bjorn (2001). The skeptical environmentalist:
measuring the real state of the world.
See BOOK REVIEWS, filed 2002, www.land-care.org.uk Click
Here to View
Watkins, Ruth (2002). Compassion for health of
farm animals 2003.
See ANIMAL HEALTH Homepage, filed 2002, www.land-care.org.uk
Here to View