More sustainable food production can be high yielding and will prepare us for an uncertain future, says Richard Jacobs.

Richard Jacobs

As we hurtle towards a world of peak oil production and phosphate depletion it’s easy to assume we have only technology, specifically genetic modification, to turn to in our efforts to ensure food security.

The numbers of people in the world who take seriously the notion that organic farming is part of the answer are certainly not in the majority.

But when the cost of inputs such as fertiliser are only going one way (steeply up) in the medium to long term, it makes absolute sense to learn from a farming system that protects and enhances the soil using recycled nutrients.

The regular counter argument is that organic farming cannot ‘feed the world’. I wouldn’t say that many of us involved in organic farming have ever set out to try that. Nor can we conclusively demonstrate that it’s possible – yet.

But as we seek ways to meet growing demand in the face of shrinking fossil fuels and other currently critical elements, surely we must look to ways of producing food that are more self-sustaining?

Yes, organic production currently carries greater costs, which leads to a premium on the price of products, but given that large parts of the developed world undervalues and wastes its food – an estimated 8.3M tonnes of food is wasted each year in the UK – maybe that is just what is needed to restore some balance.

Evidence is growing that it is a misconception that organic automatically means lower yields. In fact studies have demonstrated that developing countries can actually increase yields by adopting organic methods; parts of the world have shown increases of fifty to one hundred per cent in yield of all kinds of crops and because organic methods protect and enhance the soil that’s a sustainable increase (Pretty and Hine, 2001).

Moreover, organic farming puts poorer farmers in control of their own destiny, making them nowhere near as susceptible to the fluctuating (or rising) costs of inputs that fuelled the food price spike of 2007-08 and led to riots in more than 30 countries.

The results in developed countries are not so dramatic, but research (Badgely et al, 2007) going back two decades or more suggests that after an initial drop off in yield, of perhaps ten to fifteen per cent, organic farms in developed countries tend to recover to their pre-organic levels or beyond.

The organic approach is not about being old-fashioned in your farming; it’s about being smart and using everything that has been learned over decades about crop varieties and land management.

Yes, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) greatly concern the organic community. But to suggest that that concern is driven by a Luddite response to technology is to insult people who express their views on the topic.

Most of us can appreciate the advance of science, including its necessity and inevitability. What is most worrying is that in farming this advance will be at the expense of others (contamination of non-GM crops could be devastating for farmers, particularly organic ones) and driven more by the desire for profit than the imperative to prepare for the future.

GMOs are banned from organic food in Europe by law. That leads to an argument in its own right. However, if we start from the point that they are banned because that is the public consensus, then we should ensure that any spread in GM food respects that position – and that means ensuring robust, and above all fair, measures to restrict cross-contamination. This is something that governments currently seem unable or unwilling to tackle.

It feels like we are on the cusp of having to make some critical decisions. Sustainability or quick fix? Focus on increasing farming systems that are controlled by the farmer or controlled by the need to satisfy shareholders?

As always, the answer no doubt lies somewhere in between

About Richard Jacobs

Richard Jacobs is the Chief Executive of Organic Farmers & Growers Ltd., one of a number of control bodies accredited by Defra and approved to inspect organic production and processing in the UK.

He possesses a wide and authoritative knowledge of organic food and farming as well as the policies that govern it and is a member of the Government’s Advisory Committee on Organic Standards (ACOS) as well as the current chairman of the UK Organic Certifiers Group (UKOCG).

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