Select Committee on European Communities Sixteenth Report


The Philosophy and Principles of Organic Farming

26. Organic farming derives from a philosophy that a particular way of farming is "better" - better for the soil, the crops and livestock, the environment in which it operates, the people who work in it, the products and the people who consume them. It is thus a 'holistic' philosophy based on the idea that a farming system should be looked at as a whole, recognising that all the components interact and should be allowed to do so. It is this last point that differentiates organic farming from conventional, which also recognises the importance of a systems approach but is willing to simplify the system in order to gain greater control and achieve greater agricultural efficiency. Organic producers believe that this efficiency is often sought at too high a cost to the other important features. However, the consequences of this philosophy have not yet been completely thought through and translated into a comprehensive set of principles, on which action and decisions can always be based. Thus, the concept that organic systems should be soil-based (Q 203) has not yet been elaborated to incorporate fish farming, glasshouse crops and watercress, all of which are still being worked on. It is perfectly possible to have soil-based glasshouse crops but the important principle of rotations and fertility building are not so easily dealt with.

27. The fact that some products are not yet included in the standards is an example of where the organic philosophy is still developing, and this is reflected in the current problems of setting standards. As Mr Woodward, Director of the Elm Farm Research Centre, pointed out, the organic movement originally focused on mixed farms and ruminants, with non-ruminants in the system as scavengers. So it concentrated on very simple processes and there is "very little science and understanding of how to take those basic principles into a centralised and highly complex processing and production system" (Q 372). He accepted that "this gives rise to a great deal of illogicality and confusion and, particularly in some areas of production, conflict and perhaps compromise" (Q 327). In adjusting to the needs of modern farming, some of these compromises involve the use of substances (eg. copper sulphate, basic slag) that are often judged inappropriate or even dangerous (pp 79, 311). In many cases, the reason is that the substance is essential and an acceptable alternative is not yet available. Clearly, for the integrity of the organic approach, research is urgently required to remedy the situation.

28. Another problem is that organic versions of inputs are not always yet available. This can apply to feedstuffs (eg. hay), bedding (eg. straw), seed[29] and propagating materials for vegetative plants and breeding animals (Q 73). This often restricts the rate at which organic farming can expand and puts pressure on those setting Standards to allow exceptions or derogations. The important point is that these are not intended to be permanent features but temporary arrangements to allow progress to be made.

29. The present situation often appears illogical or contradictory, as many in the organic sector accept, but it is a feature of a movement trying to evolve more rapidly than its current knowledge base allows. Many of the research priorities should relate to finding a solution to these problems. Some in the organic movement believe that expansion should not take place into areas where knowledge and materials are not yet adequate. But the majority now accepts that transitional arrangements are tolerable for a time, provided that time limits are firmly set and adhered to.

30. Even where principles are clear, however, they do not strike everyone as particularly sensible. For example, "the guiding principle is that you feed the soil", by applying materials (eg. ground rock phosphate) which are not water-soluble (Q 76), or, to put it another way, that you "feed the plant through the soil rather than the plant directly" (Q 18). Scientists point out that plants can only absorb minerals in solution, so why not apply them in this form? The answer is related to the rates at which such nutrients become available to plants.

31. The organic insistence that farms should be looked at as a whole also presents a problem to conventional science, which is primarily reductionist, varying one factor at a time in order to establish cause and effect. Yet the organic philosophy argues that effects are often attributable to the whole system. So it is the whole approach that would not accept feeding animal products to ruminants and thus, it is claimed, avoiding the possibility of consequences such as BSE. Similarly, benefits to human health are as likely to come from non-routine use of antibiotics (avoiding the development of resistant strains of bacteria) as from the food produced. But such benefits are almost impossible to quantify. In many cases, the philosophy is not yet matched by current knowledge.

32. In summary, neither the organic philosophy nor the principles are yet fully developed and there is recognition within the organic movement that they still have some way to go.

Why do people buy organic?

33. People who choose to buy organic food obviously see some advantage in doing so. A Health Which? survey of April 1997 found that 83% of organic food consumers bought it because they wanted to avoid pesticides; 75% bought it on the grounds that it is kinder to the environment; 70% were concerned about the intensive rearing of animals; 68% bought it because of the taste; 40% wanted to support local farmers; and 36% expressed worries about BSE[30]. Customer research carried out for Sainsbury's, also in 1997, reported that customers' given reasons for buying organic food were: health/safety 33%; environment 29%; taste/quality 28%; and "curiosity" (eg. to try them out or because seen on TV) 21% (p 41). More recently, public concern about GMOs has probably been a reason for buying organic food (Q 640). Marks and Spencer summarised the reasons for buying organic food as being the beliefs that 1. it is better for you; and 2. it is better for the environment. They also said that there was a desire to support local production (p 290). Professor Midmore suggested that "if you feel that what you are eating is healthy, is producing a healthy environment, is produced from healthy happy animals, you yourself feel healthy" (Q 195). However, the perception of the benefits and disadvantages of organic food is not necessarily accurate[31], and so the rest of this Part examines these various claims and assesses to what extent the evidence supports them.


34. The profitability of a farming system depends upon the returns from the market place sufficiently exceeding the costs of supplying that market. In organic farming costs of inputs such as fertilisers and agrochemicals are lower but the overhead costs of land and capital may not be. Since yields are usually lower, the price per unit of produce has to be higher than for conventional farming. This is expressed in the characteristically higher prices, and, although this varies from product to product, on average organic produce is today estimated to cost the purchaser around 50-60% more than its conventionally produced counterparts (Q 7). However, the price in the shops is not the same as the price received by the producer, and it is the latter that affects profitability.

35. There is concern whether the current premiums will be maintained. At the moment the market is so under-supplied that there seems little danger of over-production. However, there are uncertainties about demand and whether it will be sustained in more difficult economic circumstances, about the possibility of even greater importation of certain commodities (eg. milk from Denmark), and about resulting over-production, exacerbated by the entry of very large-scale commercial farmers into the sector, and the erosion of the high premiums on which current economic success depends.

36. The Soil Association thought that as the market grew the premium for organic products would go down but not disappear altogether, and that this closing of the gap with conventional produce would be in the interests of both consumers and producers (Q 6). Dr Lampkin agreed that in future the prices the consumer pays would fall faster than the income received by the farmer, as the expanding sector would benefit from economies of scale in, for example, distribution, processing and marketing (Q 174). The NFU noted that when demand for organic produce was weaker five years ago, there was still a premium for organic cereals, though less so for organic livestock (Q 104). ADAS considered that "uncertainty over the future of the price premium adds to the problem created by the 2 year conversion period" (p 217).

37. Recent research has indicated that the strong demand for organic food, coupled with the depressed state of the wider agricultural sector, means that farm incomes can be maintained or even increased by conversion to organic farming (pp 82, 198), but it was generally accepted that the price premium will fall as the level of organic production rises (eg. Q 6). A study by the Co-operative Wholesale Society indicated that costs on organic farms are generally lower, due to the reduction in bought-in inputs, but that conversion to organic methods does impose one-off costs which affect profitability in the first few years[32].


38. English Nature considered that organic farming provided "a real opportunity for reversing some of the catastrophic declines in farmland biodiversity which have been seen in recent decades" (p 242). There was a great deal of evidence that higher numbers and a greater range of species of birds, invertebrates and wild plants occur on organic farms (pp 149, 246, 249, 276, 293, 304, 307, 310, 325, 332). The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has carried out studies on bird populations on organic farms which were widely quoted[33], and they state in their own evidence that "an expansion of organic farming would be a valuable component of any strategy seeking to enhance biodiversity on agricultural land". The BTO did, however, note that "some aspects of organic farming may not be beneficial to bird populations", for example disturbance caused by mechanical weeding, and the early cutting of clover-based leys (p 229). The Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) found that during conversion there was an increase in white clover, buttercups, dandelions and nettles (and shrews) but that weeds, other than docks, were not considered a major problem on most farms (p 286).

39. Several witnesses argued that increased biodiversity was a result of the organic system as a whole but others maintained that it resulted from identifiable management changes that could be implemented on conventional farms (Q 509 pp 149, 166). The Institute of Arable Crops Research (IACR) at Rothamsted said that "any farming system, whether it be conventional, integrated or organic, can achieve the environmental benefits that organic farming aims to achieve": Rothamsted was not organic but has nevertheless "seen no decrease in bird numbers over the last few years" (Q 462), and the Game Conservancy Trust argued that "the benefits of organic farming for wildlife could probably be obtained from mixed farming systems based on the traditional ley, at far less inconvenience to the farmer and at far lower cost to the community ... We have shown, on our own farm at Loddington in Leicestershire, that biodiversity can be restored on a "conventional" farm by appropriate management. For example, song birds have increased by an average of 42% over six years" (pp 166, 168).

40. This debate relates partly to the distinction between the benefits within the crop, and those in uncropped areas (p 260). Scottish Natural Heritage said that the in-crop benefits were specific to organic farming: "the avoidance of herbicides and pesticides permits birds, insects, flowers, etc to live among the crop" (p 313). The IACR suggested that it was possible to have "an organic system where you let the weeds have an opportunity to exist in the crop, or you have a clean crop with the weeds elsewhere" (Q 470). We are conscious of the dangers of generalising about either organic or conventional farming systems, as though each category was homogeneous, when the range of sites, products, species of plants and animals is very great within each. It is possible for some conventional farms to sustain by deliberate management practices the same levels of biodiversity as found on the best organic farms, but, whilst possible, it is not claimed that this is, in general, achieved (Q 464). In any event, since there are no standards for conventional farmers to follow, it is more difficult to quantify what has been achieved. The most crucial element in maintaining and improving biodiversity appears to be the use of mixed farming (livestock and crops), which provides a variety of habitats (QQ 413, 509).

Soil Structure

41. Across the wide range of organic and conventional systems, it is difficult to generalise about soil structure. However, there is evidence that soil organisms, such as earthworms, fly larvae and carabid beetles are more numerous in organic systems. Earthworms affect soil structure and drainage, which makes soils less prone to erosion, and may also help in the build-up of soil fertility (pp 84, 149). The Environment Agency said that "soil management receives much emphasis within organic systems and the building of soil organic matter levels will provide benefits in terms of reduced erosion risk" (pp 198, 250, 269).

42. The use of farmyard manure adds humus to the soil, which aids structure, and encourages earthworms and other minor invertebrates (Q 462). It may also add an excess of phosphates which, although essential plant nutrients, can also cause pollution of water courses. However, conventional "dairy farms in the UK are in phosphorus surplus mainly due to the input of phosphorus in concentrate feedstuffs imported on to the farm" and can thus also cause pollution (p 250). By contrast, some concern was expressed that phosphorus might be being removed at a greater rate than it is replaced in organic systems (Q 467).

Water Quality

43. Whether water quality is affected by a farming system will depend upon (a) the site of the farm and the nature of its soils, (b) whether any run-off or drainage from it reaches water sources (eg. rivers, underground reserves) and (c) whether the farming system gives rise to greater run-off or a higher content of nutrients, especially nitrates and phosphates, or pollutants, in that run-off. Only the last (c) can be attributed to the farming system. One major study suggested that "leaching under organic farming is only 67% of that under the conventional system. That would suggest reduced nitrate leaching losses and therefore reduced potential water pollution [under organic farming]" (Q 472). In another study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, pollution of both air and water was found to be reduced on organic farms (pp 276, 310, Q 41). Wessex Water believe that encouraging organic farming will reduce nitrate levels in the water they supply, and are prepared to offer farmers in certain areas where nitrate levels are rising a subsidy of £40/hectare/annum for 2 years if they will convert to organic (in addition to the Government subsidies to which they would be entitled) (p 329). Other studies, however, have found no difference between comparable organic and conventional systems. We recognise, though, that almost by definition there are no strictly comparable systems. Scottish Natural Heritage noted that ploughing-up of leys, common under organic systems, results in a nitrogen flush which may result in nitrate leaching (p 311).

44. The Environment Agency argued that, to date, the low take up of organic farming has meant it has had a limited impact on water quality improvement strategies. However, it is the potential benefits in this area that are more important than those currently achieved. In yet another example of the effect that the way results are expressed can have, the Environment Agency pointed out that because yields from organic systems are lower than in conventional systems, nitrate loss may be higher per unit of crop produced (p 251). The IACR thought that "there are benefits but it depends on the management of the system" (QQ 195, 472).

45. Pollution of watercourses with pesticides and herbicides is inherently less likely in organic systems, since fewer such substances are used (p 249). Many of the insecticides used in conventional farming do not leach because they are inactivated on reaching the soil but this is not true of all of them. The IACR said: "certainly organic farming, by not using such chemicals, completely avoids the issue of groundwater pollution" (Q 473, see also QQ 184, 409).


46. The Countryside Commission contended that "in lowland areas of England organic mixed farms had noticeable positive effects on the quality of the surrounding landscape", including the maintenance or re-introduction of traditional features, increased visual diversity, smaller fields, and the retention and improved maintenance of hedgerows (p 232). Scottish Natural Heritage argued that it was the greater environmental sensitivity of organic farmers, rather than organic practices as such, which led to their adopting better landscape management (p 310). If this is so, then there is no reason why conventional farmers could not make similar contributions to improved landscape and on a larger scale.

29   See paragraph 75. Back

30   Health Which?, April 1997, pp 62-65. Back

31   An example of this is the belief that buying organic in the UK supports local production: a majority of organic food is actually imported (paragraph 16). Back

32   p 82. Detailed information on the economics of different kinds of organic farms is available in various publications, including for the UK: N Lampkin and M Measures (eds.), 1999 Organic Farm Management Handbook (University of Wales, Aberystwyth and the Elm Farm Research Centre, 3rd edition 1999) and S Fowler, N Lampkin, P Midmore, Organic Farm Incomes in England and Wales 1995-96 (University of Wales, Aberystwyth, 1998). Back

33   DE Chamberlain, JD Wilson, and RJ Fuller, "A comparison of bird populations on organic and conventional farm systems in southern Britain" in Biological Conservation 88 (1999) pp 307-320, and RJ Fuller, Responses of Birds to Organic Arable Farming: Mechanisms and Evidence (paper given to the 1997 Brighton Crop Protection Conference). Back

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