Organic farming could be worse for the climate than conventional farming methods, one of the government’s scientific advisers has said, because of the greater land use required and the methods used.
Lord Krebs, who advises ministers on how to adapt to climate change, told the Oxford Farming Conference that organic farming did not necessarily mean more environmentally friendly farming.
Instead, he suggested, agricultural methods known as “no-till” – which usually involves the use of genetically modified crops or biotechnology, with herbicides to kill the weeds that tilling normally prevents – were better for the climate as they reduce the turnover of soils, a process that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
At least 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are thought to come from agriculture, and that proportion is likely to rise as the world’s population grows and an increasingly prosperous middle class around the world opt for more meat in their diets, requiring a greater production of feed crops.
Krebs also argued that organic farming needs more land than technological methods to produce the same yield, which could be an increasing problem as the world’s population is projected to grow from more than 7 billion people today to 9 to 12 billion by mid-century, requiring a correspondingly large rise in agricultural productivity.
Krebs, formerly the first chief executive of the UK’s Food Standards Agency from 2000 to 2005, said in 2000 organic vegetables were no more nutritious than those produced from other agricultural methods. He told the BBC in that year that people who bought organic food were “not getting value for money, in my opinion and in the opinion of the Food Standards Agency, if they think they’re buying food with extra nutritional quality or extra safety. We don’t have the evidence to support those claims.”
He told the conference on Wednesday that the UK’s soils could not be relied upon to continue to produce food at current levels in future decades, as they are likely to become much more eroded by rain and wind in future. Floods and droughts are both likely to become more common across Britain in a future of global warming, he noted.
Helen Browning, the chief executive of the Soil Association, which promotes organic farming and produce, said she was “bemused by the hostility” of Krebs towards organic methods. She cited a scientific paper published last year in the Proceedings of the Royal Society that found organic farming could play an important role and for many crops did not produce a smaller yield than conventional methods.
“A global analysis has shown that organic farming stores significant amounts of carbon in the soil over time, and is a very effective way of combatting climate change,” she said.
With regard to soils, she added: “Organic techniques have a great deal to offer in building organic matter in soils and improving efficiency of fertiliser use. When the increasing use of non-renewable inputs [in the form of fertilisers, such as phosphates] is considered, non-organic farming is significantly less productive than organic, and the productivity of non-organic [farming] is falling because conventional farming is using more and more fertiliser inputs simply to keep yields level.”
The world’s soils are a major source of atmospheric carbon. So, too, is nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is the byproduct of adding artificial nitrogen fertilisers to soils.
Intensive agriculture has also been blamed for soil erosion, as small fields bounded by hedgerows in the UK have been replaced by large “prairie”-type fields that make soil more vulnerable to erosion. Farmers can be encouraged to reduce this problem, for instance by ploughing along contours rather than uphill to downhill, but this is not mandatory.
VERDICT from Sustainable Agriculture London:
The kind of organic farming mentioned herein is the problem. Everyone is trying to exploit the land more and more to get the highest yields. As per my lecture presentation at Trinity College Oxford at the Green Economics Institute “to be fully sustainable you must dedicate a portion of your land/farm (around 15-18%) to biomass production which in conjunction with you other mixed farming techniques will provide the required nutrients to permanently maintain soil fertility”
Richard Higgins, Director.
The first comments that follow this article are very good in that the people know the answer. The problem is we seem to ruled by the everlasting lust for maximum yield and profit at the expense of our soils. Judgement day is not far away.
I think paying not to store dangerous chemicals in your colon is pretty good value for money. The whole you can’t taste the difference, or, its not nutritionally better for you argument is missing the point entirely.
Yep… pesticides, herbicides etc are as natural as capitalism. Someone ends up paying for it one way or another. Pesticides and herbicides damage humans and the environment. We need to minimise chemical pollution. First it was CFCs and ozone layer, now it’s CO2, plastic bags in oceans, what next? Pesticides, fertilisers and franking chemicals in the water supply? How much will that cost to clean up? At what cost to the envt and society?
There would be more food to go round if people ate less meat, supermarkets threw less away (15 million tonnes of food last year) and if we started to grow food in urban areas.
We’re got lots of land, lots of resources… but also lots of egotistical humans f**king up the planet.
I think he meant to say organic farming is never good for the environment. Yields from organic farms are consistently lower forcing more land to be farmed. That leaves less space for environmental reserves. The more inefficient the farms – the greater strain is placed on nature because we use more land.
Yields from organic farms are consistently lower forcing more land to be farmed
Which is not actually true. The steady reduction in fertility that the heavy use of chemicals induces does, in time, reduce yields. Organic farming sets out to maintain soil fertility.
Basic soil chemistry shows that unless plant nutrients are being added to the soil at the rate they are being taken off in crops, the soil is becoming less fertile. Given that phosphate cannot be fixed, without additions of phosphate organic agriculture is mining the nutrient from the soil and therefore not maintaining soil fertility.
That is why mixed farming and adding manure from artificial/rock phosphate is needed
Thousands of yrs of progress and you cannot ignore it all with food production systems
We’d have a lot more nutrients to put back on the land if we didn’t send all our turds out to sea… 😉
Looks like things are changing (see below), but the nutrient cycle is no longer a cycle – the vast majority is wasted. Why aren’t we treating our faeces properly and using it as a natural fertiliser? No need for imports, mining, etc. Recycle!
God, we’re idiots… 🙂