Select Committee on European Communities Sixteenth Report


Food Safety

47. There is no conclusive evidence that organically produced food is safer or less safe than that produced conventionally. It is, of course, illegal to offer food for sale that is unfit to eat (see p 199). The argument is that organically produced foods are likely to contain fewer residues of agrochemicals and, if the levels of these in conventionally produced foods are inimical to human health (or in the long term prove to be so), then organically-produced food can be regarded as safer.

48. The organic sector believes that "the absence of pesticide residues, enhanced levels of vitamins and reduced levels of nitrate and sodium show a clear benefit in terms of human and animal health" (Q 377). Purchasers of organic products clearly believe that this is so (Q 126, pp 290, 325), but it was noted that at present "there is no scientific evidence in terms of replicated trials[34] and so on to demonstrate it" (Q 377, and Q 195, p 280). It was stated that the costs and complexities of obtaining such evidence have largely prevented the necessary studies being carried out (Q 379).

49. Other claims have been made for positive health benefits due to increased amounts of chemical compounds (referred to in the evidence as 'secondary metabolites'), which are believed to protect against cancer, found in organic food (Q 124). Questions have been raised about the possible dangers of using large quantities of farmyard manure, which might harbour diseases, in organic systems but such wastes are also used in conventional systems, and we received evidence that all such manures are composted or stacked for six months, in which time all or most of the pathogens should have broken down. Furthermore, the manure is not applied to the parts of the plant that are to be consumed (Q 212, p 41). Manures from intensive battery systems cannot be used, partly because they contain an excessive amount of residues and partly because the organic movement does not want to support "unsustainable and unhealthy agricultural practices" (Q 208).

50. It was suggested that the lower nitrate content of organically grown products makes them healthier. Certainly leafy vegetables, conventionally produced, have higher levels of nitrate in them (Q 195). But there is no evidence that these higher levels render the food unsafe and the same can be said for any of the chemical differences found. It can be argued, however, that higher levels of pesticide residues may constitute a cumulative risk that has not yet been identified (Q 214).

Food Quality

51. Although there is some evidence of differences between organic and conventionally produced foods, there is not a great deal of evidence that these differences represent differences in food quality. It was stated that "there is a large body of evidence to show that there are differences in the components or characteristics of certain types of organic produce compared with conventional products" (QQ 37, 377, p 390), but it is clearly not possible to generalise across the whole range of products. In the view of the British Nutrition Foundation "the nutritional value of organic crops is likely to be the same as that of conventionally grown crops" (p 228, see also p 199).

52. A detailed review of over 150 investigations which compared organic and conventional food concluded that there were some differences in food quality[35]. In vegetables, there was a trend towards more nutritionally desirable and less undesirable components. Higher dry matter levels (ie. lower water content) and lower pesticide levels were also found in fruit and vegetables. In cereals, there were differences in processing properties, where, it was stated, conventionally produced cereals were better suited to modern baking requirements. In animal feed preference trials the animals showed a clear preference for organic feed. The Elm Farm Research Centre also said that vitamin content and range were higher in organically produced crops, and that there was a reduction in "undesirable" elements like sodium nitrate compounds (Q 377). The significance of any such differences for health depends upon the proportion of the diet derived from the particular product and, indeed, the other constituents of the diet.

53. In relation to the appearance of organic products, Sainsbury's had some very "visually good-looking apples", which were not necessarily inferior in appearance to conventional produce (Q 145). However, Somerfield said that "in the UK we have become more used to Class One produce and organic farming is more variable resulting in more product coming in Class Two"[36]. Not all consumers would insist on such uniform standards and some appear to value flavour and taste to a much greater extent than others. Retailers supported the view that those who purchase organically-produced foods believe that they taste better and that this is a major reason for buying them (QQ 145, 146, 214).


54. Various witnesses, including the Rural Agricultural and Allied Workers section of the Transport and General Workers Union, argued that organic farming resulted in significant job creation, although much of it would be in on-farm marketing and processing (pp 214, 217, 232, 275, 304, 318, QQ 27, 260-1). Mrs Browning stated that, overall, organic farms required approximately 30% more labour; more for some activities, such as pig or poultry farming, and less for other activities, such as arable farming (Q 260). Professor Marsh stated that "in terms of economic analysis" additional labour was a cost not a benefit, and that it would leave the industry vulnerable to imports from countries with lower labour costs (Q 598). It is necessary, however, to take account also of any consequent reduction in other costs.

55. Professor Midmore's conclusion was that "as a result of widespread adoption of the organic system, slightly more people would be employed in agriculture". A possible reduction in employment in the input industries would be "more than compensated for by downstream increases in employment in the processing on farms", but he did not consider that "you could predict any renaissance of the rural economy on that basis" (Q 183).

Energy Use

56. Evidence was received that organic farming uses less fossil fuel than conventional farming, largely because manufactured fertiliser is not used by organic farmers, and the manufacturing process is very energy-intensive. The amount used in fertiliser manufacture would generally vastly outweigh the fuel used by farm machinery, for example (pp 198, 217). A complete analysis of energy use in farming is very complex and simplistic assessments mean relatively little. Furthermore, much more support energy (i.e. energy other than solar energy) is used in processing and other parts of the food chain than in farming: the distance food travels before sale and consumption ('food miles') is one of the factors which must be considered (p 226).


57. It is generally accepted that yields (per acre and per animal) are usually lower in organic systems. In part this is deliberate, since there is some antipathy to very high levels of milk or eggs per animal, to very high growth rates in meat animals and to higher stocking rates than can be supported by the land carrying them. In cereal production organic yields were estimated to be 60% to 70% of conventional (QQ 55, 112). Dairy production was estimated to operate at about 70% to 75% of conventional, though the IGER said that in some cases this was due solely to the lower stocking rates, and that output per animal could be the same as conventional (QQ 55, 112, p 286). Some crops (eg. horticultural crops) may also show little difference in yields (Q 55). The NFU said that in an organic system the skill of the farmer was very important in obtaining decent yields (Q 113).

58. If yields of organic crops remain lower than those of conventional farming, achieving the same output of food would mean that more land would have to be brought into cultivation - affecting more wildlife[37]. However, Mr Woodward said that "if the UK was to convert to an organic system, the structure of farming would have to change dramatically, but all food needs would be met", "with more vegetable protein and less meat being consumed" (Q 395)[38]. Professor Midmore had calculated that if 30% of EU farmland was organic there would be an overall decline in agricultural output of less than 6% (QQ 179, 185-6). Given the current context, in which the CAP artificially stimulates production within the EU, resulting in surpluses which under World Trade Organisation rules the EU is largely unable to export, this would not be likely to cause food shortages. Indeed for some policymakers this is an added attraction of organic farming.

Size of farms

59. It is sometimes argued that retailers may require volumes of product that only larger farms could supply, but Sainsbury's made it clear that they were quite happy to work with small farms (Q 136). However, there are other advantages for organic farmers of operating on a larger scale. These include economies of scale and the need to accommodate lower stocking rates. The evidence from the organic sector is that there are no impediments to the development of large organic farms and examples were given of farms well in excess of 1000 acres. Mrs Browning qualified that, pointing out that much would depend on the particular farm enterprise. For example, very large conventional poultry or pig enterprises would have to be broken down into smaller units before conversion, largely on animal welfare grounds, although this constraint does not apply to horticulture (QQ 207, 220, 391). A reason for small fields in organic farming is that better biological control is possible where predators from hedgerows can easily reach the centre of the field and thus cover the whole crop[39]. If very large organic farms were to become common, it would remain to be seen whether they brought the same benefits for biodiversity as smaller organic units.

Pest, Weed and Disease Control in plants

60. Mr Holden summarised the situation as "organic farmers see all the weeds, pests and diseases that conventional farmers experience but their crops are not seriously affected by them" (Q 42). For example, it was argued that fungal diseases in conventional crops occur more frequently because they receive higher inputs of nitrogenous fertiliser, resulting in thinner cell walls, and sap which is more sugary and therefore more nutritious for both pests and fungi. In organic systems the lack of such fertiliser applications results in thicker stem walls and this was given as a reason why long-strawed organic wheats do not fall over[40]. The evidence from practical experience was that organic farmers do not report major problems with fungal diseases or pests (Q 43). Concern was expressed about the use of such compounds as copper sulphate as a fungicide on organic farms (see paragraph 27). However, weeds are generally controlled by rotations, and methods such as mechanical cultivation, delayed drilling, inter-row cultivations and harrowcomb weeding (Q 392, p 83).

61. The IACR considered that "organic farming offers good opportunities for developing pest control systems based on 'conservation biological control' which aims to maximise the impact of native predators, parasites and diseases of pests" (p 150). The Committee learnt of an impressive example of control of aphids on a bean crop at the Duchy Home Farm, in which a substantial aphid infestation disappeared once predators had arrived from hedgerows. Hedgerows, wider field margins and beetle banks are not only beneficial for biodiversity; they also support predators. These features may also occur on conventional farms, but their beneficial effect may be offset by the use of pesticides elsewhere on the farm. In general, biological control is rather less effective than control based on pesticides on any one occasion but natural predators require a minimum pest population in order to maintain their own. New technologies such as the breeding of parasitic wasps mean that the populations of desirable predatory insects can be artificially boosted when needed. The spreading of pests from organic to neighbouring conventional farms was not regarded as a serious risk (Q 488). However, outbreaks of disease such as potato blight could easily spread to a neighbouring farm, whether the farms concerned were organic or conventional (p 160).

Animal Health and Welfare

62. A high standard of animal welfare is a requirement for organic livestock producers. The key question therefore is whether this requirement is actually translated into practice, both in the UK and in the rest of the EU. Reasons why it might not be include a temptation to delay essential non-organic treatment in the hope that the animal will recover by itself, to avoid either delays in marketing due to withdrawal times (after drug treatment) or losing the organic status of the animal and therefore the price premium. In general, reassurance was offered on all these matters in the evidence of the Veterinary Epidemiology and Economics Research Unit of the University of Reading (VEERU) (Q 439). The Unit co-ordinated an EU-funded research network involving 11 EU countries, and has itself carried out a number of research projects over the last four years. Their conclusions were that the animal health control methods used in organic farming (a) guarantee similar, and occasionally better, animal health situations on organic farms in comparison with conventionally managed farms; and (b) reduce, without jeopardising animal welfare, the general dependency of livestock production on the use of antibiotics[41] as a routine production input. Similar evidence is apparent from other European countries where organic livestock production is more common than in the UK (p 138).

63. The NFU reported on a research study of a dairy farm which showed much lower use of antibiotics in treating cows (0.45 times per cow in the organic herd compared with 5.9 in the conventional herd) (p 23). Homeopathy was the main alternative to antibiotics. VEERU said that dry period mastitis (mastitis occurring when the cow is not lactating) was more common in organic herds than conventional, but they pointed out that the total incidence of mastitis was no greater[42]. However, in a study on Welsh farms the number of cases of clinical mastitis on organic farms was only slightly higher than on conventional farms, despite the withdrawal of routine use of long-acting antibiotics in the dry period and the different approaches during lactation. In this study, the incidence of diseases and disorders such as bloat, retained foetal membranes, metritis, fertility and milk fever problems were relatively low (p 286). The diets of animals in organic farming are also controlled by the Standards. It is not permitted, for example, to feed materials derived from slaughtered ruminants back to cattle and sheep, a process that has been implicated in the origins of BSE. However, the use of fish meal is allowed under the amendment to Regulation 2092/91[43] (which, although agreed is not yet in force) but, in the UKROFS standards, not for feeding to ruminants. High standards of animal welfare are a clear benefit of organic farming, and highlight techniques which could be used across all types of farming.


64. The philosophy and principles underlying organic farming still need to be developed to make them relevant to all systems of production. In many cases, it is not yet known how to achieve some objectives and how to manage without undesirable inputs; nor is it possible to establish the validity of some of the claims made for organic farming. Clearly more research and development is required and, in view of consumer interest and demand, such research should be accorded a high priority. Much of it would have spin-off benefits to conventional farming (see paragraphs 100 to 102).

65. From the evidence that we have received, the claims for certain benefits of organic farming appear to be valid. This would be so for biodiversity, soil structure, water quality, most aspects of animal health and welfare, and some aspects of food quality.

66. The claims for better food safety cannot be proved, since all food sold must by law satisfy all known standards of food safety, but rest on the perception that potential risks (due to residues, etc) seem less likely. However, even where the benefits are real, it appears that most could be achieved by conventional farms, mainly by changes in management (see paragraph 39). Organic farming can nonetheless claim that these features are built in as essential, required parts of organic systems, whilst there is no such guarantee for conventional farming.

67. This raises the possibility of a "half-way house" approach, based on ensuring the environmental and animal welfare benefits without going to a full organic system. Such a development is already exemplified by the Linked Environment and Farming (LEAF) approach. The use of sprays and fertilisers more closely tailored to actual needs ("precision farming") illustrates what is now technically available. However, a "half-way house" would be more difficult to monitor or standardise and the appeal of the resulting products would be more difficult to establish. Whilst the organic movement favours improvements in conventional farming, it is opposed to such a development (Q 45), and consumer groups and supermarkets thought that it could confuse consumers (QQ 118, 357). That in no way reduces the value of specific schemes (eg. Freedom Foods, Quality Assurance schemes) designed to achieve quite specific benefits.

68. It is accepted that other consequences of organic farming are yield reductions of crops, lower production from animals, and, because of lower stocking rates, lower output per unit of land. This means higher cost per unit of food, but given the lower input costs of organic farming and the possibility of higher prices for organic products it does not necessarily mean lower profitability for the producer.

34   'Replicated' trials involve randomly distributed plots on which treatments are repeated. Back

35   K Woese, D Lange, C Boess and KW Bögl, "A Comparison of Organically and Conventionally Grown Foods - Results of a Review of the Relevant Literature" in J Sci Food Agric 1997, 74, pp 281-293. Back

36   p 315. Certain types of fresh fruit and vegetables are categorised into "classes" on the basis of criteria such as size, appearance and texture. Back

37   DT Avery, World Food Production: Saving the Earth's Wildlife with Farm Chemicals (European Crop Protection Association AGM, June 1994). Back

38   L Woodward, Can Organic Farming Feed the World? (Elm Farm Research Centre, November 1996). Back

39   See Appendix 5. Back

40   See Appendix 5 and.QQ 41, 392, p 84. Back

41   Widespread use of antibiotics has already resulted in the emergence of resistant bacteria that can no longer be controlled by antibiotics, causing major problems for human health. Back

42   In one survey VEERU found that 15.6% of all mastitis cases on the organic study farms occurred during the dry period, while the corresponding figure for the conventional study farms was 0.01%. VEERU found 0.2902 cases of dry mastitis per cow year on organic farms, compared to 0.0746 cases on conventional farms, but the overall mean farm incidence of mastitis was similar on organic (0.3979 cases) and conventional (0.4113) farms. (M. Hovi and S. Roderick, Mastitis incidence and treatment in organic dairy herds in the UK and Mastitis Therapy in Organic Dairy Herds (from Proceedings, British Mastitis Conference 1998)). Back

43   In the working text of the amendment dated 9 June the relevant provision is Annex II Part C.2.2. Back

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