16 Oct 2007 : Column 183WH

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 16 October 2007

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Organic Food

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

9.30 am

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs. Humble.

The debate about food has become extremely polarised in recent years, with those who advocate organic farming condemning so-called conventional farmers for their use of chemicals and their damage to the environment, not realising that conventional farming has changed for the better in recent years. The reality is that the two sides of this polarised debate are closer together than they sometimes think they are.

The debate is timely for several reasons. The Soil Association’s organic fortnight was held in September and yesterday the National Consumer Council launched its second report, arising from its greening supermarkets project. In addition, the European Commission has introduced new Europe-wide laws on pesticides, which will be debated in a plenary session of the European Parliament on 23 October.

Organic farming is not just about returning to farming as it was before the green revolution, or before farming became industrialised as our populations expanded and the demand for food increased. It is actually a belief system that has its roots in the anti-science backlash propagated by the vitalists, who believed that life arises from, and involves, special life forces. The teaching of an Austrian spiritualist or mystic called Rudolf Steiner in the early 1920s gave rise to the modern organic farming movement. The early beginnings of organic farming have been captured in a recently published book, “The Truth About Organic Foods”, by Alex Avery.

In the early part of the 20th century, Fritz Haber, a German chemist, learned how to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere as nitric acid. Probably about 60 per cent. of the people alive today owe their existence to the application of nitrate fertilizers that are derived from that acid. Bosch, at the German company BASF, was able to commercialise the Haber synthesis to produce the nitrate required for ammunitions manufacture during world war one, when supplies of naturally occurring nitrates were cut off to the Germans. Unfortunately, as well as emitting carbon dioxide, the Haber-Bosch process emits nitrous oxide, which has an impact on climate change 310 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. Fortunately, nitric acid plants can be fitted with a cerium-based catalyst that reduces nitrous oxide emissions by up to 90 per cent. Inclusion of that gas in the EU’s emissions trading scheme would give European chemical companies an incentive to reduce their emissions of nitrous oxide.

16 Oct 2007 : Column 184WH

The pioneers of organic farming believe that the synthetic nitrate fertilisers produce food that lacks vital forces imparted by animal manure. Steiner believed that the special forces possessed by animal manure come from far-away planets.

asked Steiner. He explained:

That is where the movement began. I would not have believed that people pat cow dung into cow’s horns and bury them in the ground in the belief that they increase the vital forces in manure, until I saw the six recent television programmes in which one of the cast of “The Kumars at No.42” toured India. He went to an organic tea plantation in Darjeeling, where women sat on the ground patting cow manure into horns to produce special water to water on to the tea plants. If anyone thinks that that is fantasy, organic farmers still believe it, at least in certain parts of the world, today.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I think that my hon. Friend is talking about the biodynamic movement, which is very different from the much more generalist organic movement. As someone with a number of biodynamic farms in my area—Stroud is at the heart of the Steiner foundation in this country—I can share something with my hon. Friend, but there is a slight difference in emphasis.

Dr. Iddon: I am always willing to learn, and I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.

The 1970 Nobel prizewinner Norman Borlaug has reminded us that to produce all the manure required to replace synthetic nitrogen fertilisers we would require an additional 5 billion or 6 billion head of cattle, all emitting the greenhouse gas methane. Apart from extra grazing land, even more land would be required to grow the food for those cattle. How many forests would that destroy?

An English botanist propagated Steiner’s teachings, which were also adopted by Lady Eve Balfour, a boutique farmer who was the wealthy niece of Prime Minister Balfour. From world war two through to the 1970s she was the leader of the British and European organic food movement, and she helped to found the Soil Association, which is the largest organic trade and certification group in the UK today. Prince Charles and Lord Melchett, the policy director of the Soil Association, have followed in those footsteps.

Perhaps because of the influence of those people, the organic movement today is a powerful and popular movement. Whenever well-known people such as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who described organic food as a lifestyle choice in a speech to the Oxford farming conference in 2007, or Egon Ronay, have raised questions about the hype that surrounds claims for organic food, there has been an over-the-top reaction, mainly from the Soil Association, so I realise that today I am skating on very thin ice. Nevertheless, we need a healthy debate about organic food and the often spurious claims made by organic farmers.

16 Oct 2007 : Column 185WH

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech so far, and on his promotion of a rational view of chemicals and chemistry, and, indeed, science, during his time in this House. I bought some organic food at the Abingdon farmers market yesterday, and was pleased to do so, but I did it in the belief that it might be better for the environment, because organic farming is less intensive, not because I believe any claims by the industry body, the Soil Association, that it has proven health benefits. I support the hon. Gentleman in what he says about recognising that the Food Standards Agency was right to point out that the health benefits of organic food are unproven.

Dr. Iddon: I shall say something about that later.

A growing consciousness about the environment is fuelling sales of ethical foods in general. Ethical foods now include the following brands: Fairtrade, Leaf, which stands for Linking Environment and Farming, Freedom Food, which was set up by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Red Tractor, which is run by Assured Food Standards. Prince Charles, of course, sells his organic produce under the Duchy Originals brand name. Sales of ethical food, including organic food, stand at £5.5 billion and are expected to rise to £7.5 billion by 2011. The public demand for ethical foods has resulted in the opening earlier this year of the American Whole Foods Market, in Kensington high street—a food boutique if ever there was one—and the rapid expansion of companies specialising in organic box schemes. There has been an explosion, too, in farmers markets selling free-range and local produce.

I am all in favour of greater profits for growers, which means cutting out the wholesalers, and I have always believed that cutting down the time food takes to get from the producer to the plate is good because it makes for tastier and more nutritious food for the consumer. The market has been driven by people’s increasing concern for the environment, and by people who increasingly feel disconnected from the origins of the food that they eat. As food has got cheaper and more disposable, people have valued it less. Food scares, whether real or imaginary, have encouraged consumers to buy what is increasingly sold to them by the media as the healthy option.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I acknowledge much of what my hon. Friend said in his usual rational and scientific way, but does he acknowledge that organic produce sold at farmers’ markets is at least grown locally or regionally to those markets? In fact, the vast majority of organic fruit and vegetables are imported, and they are often flown long distances. The environmental impact of that must be factored into the kind of equations that he is constructing. The airport in my constituency is the largest freight airport in the country. There are 160 or more freight flights a night over rural Leicestershire, sometimes in noisy aircraft, and many of them import food from the developing world.

Dr. Iddon: I shall refer to that issue later.

Organic food is described by the FSA as

16 Oct 2007 : Column 186WH

There is

and an

and soil health. All organic food must meet minimum standards as set out in European Law. In the UK, the Soil Association is the main certification organisation. It claims that its standards are higher than those set by the EU. Of course, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has overall responsibility for regulating the organic food production and distribution industry in Britain.

Organic food and food produced by conventional methods must meet the same food safety standards as those set by the FSA. Among other tests, the FSA analyses all foodstuffs for residual pesticides and food additives. On average, it takes farmers three years to convert from farming using conventional methods to organic farming credited by the Soil Association. Many farmers produce organic food without going through the costs of the transfer or accreditation process, but they cannot legally call their produce organic. The Soil Association believes that organic food, which is produced to high standards, is tastier, more nutritious, and contains fewer additives such as aspartame and monosodium glutamate, than food produced by conventional methods, although 30 additives are permitted in organic farming. The association claims that organic food is pesticide free and contains no food produced from genetically modified crops, that organic meat is free of antibiotics, and that there are no hidden costs of production. It also claims that animal welfare is better on organic farms and that organic farming is good for the environment.

Undoubtedly, some of those claims are true, but non-organic farmers can also make them. Organic food is bought by some 75 per cent. of UK consumers, at least occasionally, but it makes up only about 1.6 per cent. of the overall food market. UK farmers are capable of producing 70 per cent. of the organic food sold in Britain, but produce only about 45 per cent. Sales of organic pork are actually going down because of the cost of organic feed, which is increasingly imported.

According to the Soil Association, organic food and drink sales in the UK nudged the £2 billion mark for the first time in 2006, an increase of 22 per cent. on the previous year. To meet the increasing demand for organic food, buyers source their foodstuffs in far away places such as Chile, Kenya and Israel. A debate is raging about the damage that flying produce in from all over the world does to our environment. The justification for importing food that way is that foods such as strawberries can be made available throughout the year for British consumers, and that producing them out of season in the UK would be extremely costly and would require heated greenhouses.

Although the Soil Association can control carefully the production of organic food in this country, it is doubtful whether it can assert the same degree of control in the many countries from which the UK imports its organic produce, which gives plenty of scope for fraud. Wal-Mart, for example, has been accused in the USA of selling “organic” food that was in fact not organically produced.

16 Oct 2007 : Column 187WH

Yields of organic crops are considerably lower than in conventional farming and more land is taken up by organic crops. Should we encourage developing countries to grow organic crops when, in many cases, they have a problem feeding their rapidly expanding populations? There is also the question about whether growers in developing countries receive a fair price for the produce that they export to Britain. Yet more land is taken up by growing crops that produce natural pesticides such as, for example, chrysanthemums, from which pyrethrum is extracted in Kenya and Peru.

There is a growing realisation that industrialisation of farming has damaged the environment, and there is a return in conventional farming to planting hedgerows, which leaves buffer strips of land in which wildlife can develop and survive, and crop rotation is coming back big style.

Market gardening and farming was part of my life until I entered university in 1958. We produced organic food, although that was not our intention. It was difficult to keep aphids off the lettuce, and I dug many failed crops under as a result of infestation—we simply could not sell those lettuces. The only pesticide in the early 1940s was nicotine, which we piled and burned in our greenhouses. Similarly, we lost tomatoes to rust—a fungal growth on the stems of the plants— and our fruit was full of grubs and our root crops were similarly infested.

My father and others like him in farming and market gardening were extremely pleased when chemistry came to our rescue with its so-called green revolution, which delivered pesticides and herbicides that prevented the destruction of our crops by various pests and weeds. Yields increased remarkably, and our business became financially viable. How many organic growers in Britain could today survive if they were not surrounded by non-organic growers that keep pests off their crops—the so-called umbrella effect, which I believe to be real? I do not wish to go back to the good old days that I described of food production in the 1940s.

In the past 10 years there has been a 19 per cent. reduction in the volume of synthetic pesticides, as farmers switch to newer and better products. In any case, as I explained, the FSA regularly tests the levels of residual pesticide on all food, whether produced organically or conventionally.

In August 2007, the Crop Protection Association welcomed the Soil Association’s acknowledgement at Hay-on-Wye that organic farmers use pesticides, which it had denied for most of its existence. Indeed, copper sulphate, pyrethrum—a nerve toxin and potential carcinogen—and other chemicals used by organic farmers are probably more dangerous to the environment than the pesticides used in modern farming. Organic farmers would like us to believe that organic foods are uncontaminated by chemicals when they are not. The organic pesticide rotenone, which is sold as Derris powder, is highly toxic to humans, yet organic farmers are allowed to apply it right up to harvest. It persists for a particularly long period on olives and is concentrated in olive oil. Farm workers who spray solutions of bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacterium that produces a protein that is toxic to caterpillars, have reported respiratory problems, and it causes fatal lung infections in mice, yet
16 Oct 2007 : Column 188WH
organic farmers insist that what is natural is safe and that synthetic chemicals are extremely toxic. That is nonsense.

Biocontrol of pests has been effective in some circumstances, especially for protecting high-value crops grown in greenhouses, but biocontrol often involves the importation of non-native species, with all the dangers that that might entail.

The idea of organic food has been hijacked by modern supermarkets to increase their profits. Indeed, according to research conducted by Morgan Stanley in 2005, organic food is 63 per cent. more expensive than food grown by conventional farmers. The notion that organic food is tastier than food grown by conventional methods is not proven. Similarly, according to the FSA, the president of the National Farmers Union, Peter Kendall, and others, there is little evidence that organic food is more nutritious.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the localist agenda is implicit in the organic debate and that supermarkets are hugely hypocritical given some of their processes? I am thinking in particular of an infamous case in my constituency—that of the Lampeter carrots. They were shipped to Peterborough for packaging and sent back to Bristol for sale, with obvious and serious carbon footprint implications.

Dr. Iddon: I am afraid that carrots are a contentious issue with the Soil Association and with Prince Charles.

Milk contains higher levels of short-chain omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids if the cows producing it are fed on grass and red clover, but those do not seem to have the same health promoting benefits as the longer-chain omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids that are found in oily fish diets.

Nor are organic foods safer than conventional foods. Organic foods grown in soil fertilised with manure are at greater risk of being contaminated by mycotoxins, or fungi. Fungal toxins are a particular problem in organic foods because all effective fungicides are synthetic in origin and prohibited for use by the Soil Association. Copper sulphate and sulphur, which are used, are far less effective.

Organic potato crop yields are lowered to 50 to 60 per cent. of conventional potato crop yields because fungal diseases, such as the blight phytophthora infestans, affect the crops badly. The FSA has reported that organic corn meals have significantly higher contamination rates with the dangerous mycotoxin fumonisin. In some climatic regions, ergot, which causes ergotism—otherwise known as St. Anthony’s fire—is a considerable problem with cereal crops. It killed hundreds of thousands of people in Europe in previous centuries.

Eggs without the Lion mark are more likely to be contaminated with salmonella. A study in Denmark in 2001 showed that organic chicken is three times more likely to be contaminated with campylobacter than conventional chicken. Incidentally, it is also three times the price.

People who have eaten only organic foods during their lifetime are no healthier than the rest of us and do not live longer either. The pioneers of organic farming were idealists. They were anti-science and had an
16 Oct 2007 : Column 189WH
antagonism for market-driven capitalism. Ironically, their ideals have been hijacked today by the market economy.

The existence of magazines such as Organic Life suggests that the Foreign Secretary may have been right when, as the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he said that organic farming and organic food sales were about a “lifestyle”.

I am not against organic farming—let me get that straight—but those who promote it should tell it as it is and not hide from the facts or mislead the public as they have done regularly in the past. Like all markets, the foodstuffs market, with its plethora of products and brand names, is becoming a very confusing area for consumers. We should not lose sight of the central message that a diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables, safely produced and affordable, and low in processed foods, with their high sugar and salt contents, is better for all of us.

Next Section Index Home Page