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WHAT IS ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY

FOOD PRODUCTION? - the scientists' view

Public Meeting LEAF Scotland, St Andrews 24th March 2004

Dr James Irvine

Teviot Scientific at Cultybraggan Farm, Comrie, by Crieff, Perthshire

Filed 25 March 04
©www.land-care.org.uk

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 of Edinburgh

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 farming movement.

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 be true.

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 standards.

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 world’s 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 scientist’s 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 in Scotland

Edward Baxter who farms locally outlined what the LEAF organisation stood for - Linking Environment and Farming. LEAF who hosted the evening’s 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 quantities.

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 evening’s talks and was much appreciated.

Discussion

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.

Conclusion

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 LEAF marque.

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 farm’s 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 Executive’s 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 LandCare Scotland.

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 Click 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 Click 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 Click 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 Click Here to View