Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Organic Sin?

In today's (Scotland) Herald, Joe Fattorini makes some unassailable points regarding the current embrace of "organic food" by upwardly mobile elites and lefty hippies. Simply put, while the "organic" ideal may appeal to the desire for moral superiority among they quasi-liberal trendy, it would result in genocide were it practiced universally.

When it comes to basic needs such as food, the most important development of the last century has been the creation of nitrogen fertilisers. By replacing the nitrogen lost when a crop is harvested you can continue to plant the same plot of land each year without losing productivity. This means the same area of land produces anything up to double the quantity of food.

It's certainly true that nitrogen fertilisers aren't without their problems. Nitrates in water and the eutrophication of lakes are both significant problems. But let's just imagine what would happen without them. Let's farm the current 1.5 billion hectares of farmland organically. A rough estimate suggests that we could sustain a global population of around 2.4 billion. Do you want to be responsible for telling 3.6 billion people that there's no food because you don't like "synthetic" fertilisers? You're not telling them that nitrogen fertilisers are actually that bad for them or anything. Just that you want a more "natural" diet. More in touch with nature. Well, they'll be in touch with nature all right. Under about six feet of it.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh. Let's assume that we can increase the land we farm on. That's not without its problems. This year we are set to destroy some 25,000 sq km of Brazilian rainforest, but that will have to increase dramatically. And forget western luxuries such as national parks, or indeed, parks. Even if we managed to double the world's farmland and maintained productivity in increasingly marginal areas (like the Cairngorms), we're still short. That's still 200 million dead people. Just because the Soil Association tells us that synthetic fertilisers are wrong.

Mr. Fattorini is unfazed by the argument that "organic" farming is simply a niche movement that can cause no harm. Even if it is restricted to just smug Western elite consumers, he argues, it does damage by consuming land that might otherwise be more profitably used.

At the very least, in a country like ours that produces excess food, organic farming robs land that might otherwise be used to promote bio-diversity. That's because organic fields need to be left fallow, growing leguminous crops or livestock whose faeces can be used to return nitrogen to the soil. Yes, you read that correctly. The inefficiencies of organic land use make it less environmentally friendly than conventional farming whose efficiencies mean we can return land to nature. But there's a more sinister perspective. In our lifetime we'll see global population top 10 billion. We're lucky it won't be more.

That alone means finding 35% more calories to feed the world. On decreasingly fertile land. But if we are self-indulgently to insist that we are so important that we should be fed organically, with its yields some 20% to 50% lower, that can only put an additional, unnecessary strain on feeding the planet. Every organic mouthful makes it more difficult to feed the most vulnerable. As the distinguished Indian plant biologist CS Prakash put it: "The only thing sustainable about organic farming in the developing world is that it sustains poverty and malnutrition."

In the final analysis, Mr. Fattorini says, organic food is wasteful, immoral, and dangerous. It's popularity is more a matter of faith than science.

I can see a few hackles rising at the suggestion that organic food is a "middle-class indulgence". And you're right. It's more a brand, or perhaps a religion. "Organic" sits up there with McDonald's, Microsoft, Starbucks, Tesco, Shell and Lucky Strike as one of the great brands of the twentieth century. A delicious study asked people their views on "carbon-based farming technology" that produced food with no demonstrable health or environmental benefits, and was sold at a premium to the public. By replacing the word "organic" it seems the public's passion for this bourgeois fad waned.

As for a religion: well, perhaps I'm being naughty. But Patrick Holden of the Soil Association has insisted that you can't test the benefits of organic farming scientifically because organic farming is "holistic, integrated and [represents] joined-up thinking". Apparently, "holistic science strays into territory where the current tools of understanding that are available to the scientific community are not sufficiently well developed to measure what's going on".
Many people defend religious faith in exactly the same way. It seems if the benefits of organic farming appear as non-existent as the Emperor's New Clothes, we're just not looking hard enough. In a wonderfully circular argument, the fact we can't find evidence of the benefits of organic farming is merely evidence of the shortcomings of science. And presumably will remain so until we can see benefits, even if that never comes to pass.

One can only imagine the sort of self-righteously indignant mail about to shower The Herald's offices and email accounts.


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