Liar, liar, non-organic pants on fire

Since I started working in agricultural media, I’ve never been particularly impressed with the Soil Association’s often simplistic arguments that organic farming is superior to conventional food production.

I had wondered whether the organisation had grown up a bit when, at its annual conference in February, policy director Peter Melchett finally admitted that both systems had benefits and that they could both learn from each other.

It seems the Association’s sophisticated, mature line of debate was short-lived though, as the title of its latest report, which dispels UN claims the world needs to double food production by 2050, shows:

“Telling porkies: The big fat lie about doubling food production.”

It may just be me, but that line conjures the mental image of Lord Melchie waggling his hands aside his his head, doing a little jig around his organic allotment as he gleefully calls the NFU, DEFRA and the UN big fat liars.

What makes me more irritated by the line though, is that despite the silly name-calling,  I actually agree with the sentiments of the report.

There’s no scientific evidence that says we need to double production – in fact the EFRA committee admitted last year that it’s ‘more of a guideline’ rather than a definite figure we need to aim for.

I’m not saying increasing food production and securing domestic supplies isn’t something we need to do, but with 40% of food being wasted from when it leaves the farm and reaches consumers’ homes, tackling waste seems a more sensible first step.

If I remember rightly (I’m sure someone will correct me if not), South America’s growing agricultural output alone is bolstering global food supplies by 4% a year – meaning in 10 years time we’ll have hit the 40% growth mark.

All of this will be done with less inputs (sorry Melchie, that’s what GMs do for you) and with min-til systems – much greener than peddling the UK’s soils like mad and pumping them full of expensive, oil-based fertilisers.

Running the risk of making myself unpopular here, to me food security seems to be an issue of distribution, rather than one of production.

I’m starting to wonder whether I’m bonkers for writing this in public. Please try not to be too rude and sweary if you want to leave a comment at the bottom to shout at me – my mum reads this…

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10 Responses to “Liar, liar, non-organic pants on fire”

  1. anon

    Very good blog, couldn’t agree more

  2. Ed Bedington

    It struck me as an extraordinarily childish title for a report! (see, no swearing)

  3. Tim Teague

    Trust me, I am amazed to say that you are right, please don’t tell the SA I agree with anything they drivel tho’.

  4. William Haire

    Yep, spot on. Charity begins at home our number one priority is to ensure domestic supplies then worry about everyone else after that. With Ag ranking number 25 in that report that was published recently (sorry havent time to go check exactly what it was called) we might be struggling to do that even with our current management practices.
    Anyway I think there will be a huge natural disaster or more likely disease outbreak which will hit global populations and their growth. Mother Nature will have the last laugh.

  5. Chris tye

    My argument with soil association is their attitude towards developing countries and farming in the developing world. First they attack exports from countries like Kenya , where else are they to sell their cash crops other than the EU. Now in this latest report they dare to suggest that aspiring to a western meat based diet is not what “they” should do. Rather keep developing nations on near starvation rations to avoid food shortages! Meanwhile we take up valuable agricultural land growing low yielding organic vegetables. If we are to produce more food from less inputs we need to invest in new technology not rely on knee jerk responses from the soil association.

  6. Caroline

    Organic Farmers And Growers have responded to the report on their blog – worth a read

  7. Peter Melchett, Policy Director, Soil Association

    It was good of Caroline Stocks to take the trouble to comment on our recent report (Telling Porkies; the big fat lie about doubling food production). However, Caroline objects to our ‘silly name-calling’ while agreeing with what the report says.

    I’d have more sympathy with her objection if she had drawn any attention at the time to the fact that a House of Commons Select Committee had thrown serious doubts on the endlessly repeated claim that we need to double food production by 2050, or increase it by 50% by 2030, in order to feed the world’s growing population. A far as I know, she didn’t. Nor did she shout from the rooftops when the Government, in reply to the Select Committee, admitted that the figures looked a bit dodgy. They actually suggested that if you went back far enough and did the calculations from an earlier date, the science on which these claims are meant to be based could suggest a nearly doubling of food production might be needed. That sounds to me like a significantly bigger scandal than the leaked emails about climate change from East Anglia University. It is a scandal which is central to much of the agricultural press’ coverage of the future of farming.

    Yet numerous senior figures from the Government, the NFU and GM companies have continued to use these figures, never once challenged by the agricultural press, or by Caroline herself. The fact is, it took the Soil Association’s “silly name-calling” to get Caroline, or indeed anyone else, to sit up and take notice.

    I hope people will also notice that the authors of the original scientific paper which looked at projections (not desirable goals) for food production globally said quite clearly that increasing food production will not solve the problem of malnutrition and starvation. Indeed, increasing production is not a good predictor of whether starvation and hunger will be reduced. More important is to transform: access to food; the ability to buy food; and the ability of developing countries to produce more of their own food themselves, rather than, as now, increasingly relying on imports.

    Caroline, if you see me dancing around my ‘organic allotment’, it will be because we’ve finally got all of our Spring crops drilled after the long, cold and wet winter. And by the way, even Defra have caught up with the fact that min-til systems are not necessarily better for climate change, and not many people are claiming nowadays that GM crops reduce inputs, given clear evidence from the USA of overall increases of pesticide use on GM crops.

    Peter Melchett

    Policy Director, Soil Association

  8. Rob

    well done all, that’s more like it. Having just traveled though both north and South America for the past 5 weeks two things are now very clear to me. The first is that the world will have no trouble feeding itself if you account for the volume of food produced and the increase in production (as Caroline indicated)GM has had a positive affect on the economies of South America and over the next 10 years will make them the most prolific food producers on the planet. Second is that the distribution and affordability of food will be the biggest hurdle to overcome in the next 40 years. I went away not sure about GM’s future in Ag and came back and ordered my first seed which I will plant on Tuesday. I think the third world needs the best of the technology available. The green revolution saved milions from starvation in the seventies and kick started many economies at the same time, I think GM has the same potential.

  9. Maryjo Damewood

    it is still better to adhere on organic farming because the fruits and vegetables does not contain those harmful chemicals.*”~

  10. Adam West

    Following Melchie’s comments, it’s obvious that you can’t join the organic gang just by being positive in one blog!
    Obviously you have to go the whole hog and become a raving hippy like Maryjo before he’ll accept you into the club.

    Now I have a vision of Melchie and Maryjo skipping daintily through their allotments randomly spraying copper and fairy liquid all over the shop, singing Hare, Hare -eeeeeeuhhh!

    Keep up the top blog