Organic Farming - Myths and Truths

05/10/2015 16:03 BST | Updated 02/10/2016 10:12 BST

It is unusual nowadays to see such an inaccurate and out-of-date article about organic farming and food. In 'Organic Farming: Myths and Truths' Pixie Turner manages to present most myths as facts and claims that well-established facts are myths. She starts with pesticide use, claiming that the Soil Association's standards have 12 pages listing the pesticides we allow in organic farming. Wrong. Non-organic farming allows over 320 pesticides, organic aims at zero, and the Soil Association actually allows just 8. Each use has to be proposed in an annual plan, which must set out proposals to ensure that the pesticide will not have to be used in future - some can only be used with specific permission. A recent spot check found around 90% of organic farmers using no pesticides at all. Sprays are occasionally used, mainly against fungal diseases in crops like apples and grapes, and in wet years on some potato crops. If all UK farming was organic, researchers found that pesticide use would drop by 98 per cent.

Turner's '12 pages' are in fact mainly a list of biological control agents like lacewings, predatory moths and hoverfly pupae - none of these are pesticides, and can only be used in glass houses or poly-tunnels. The first page lists things like the use of sustainable crop rotations, maintenance of biodiversity, optimising crop health and the use of resistant varieties - hardly a list of pesticides, and there's half a page of plant tonics, and a page on physical traps and barriers!

Then Turner claims that 'The chances of finding organic produce that hasn't been sprayed at all is incredibly small, especially in supermarkets', the opposite of the truth according to the UK Government's regular and extensive tests of food on sale in the UK, which only very occasionally find a pesticide in organic food. Turner quotes Michael Pollen saying some organic farms do not meet consumers' expectations, but omits to say Michael is talking about the position in the USA, not the UK or Europe. Turner then suggests that non-organic farmers would not use pesticides except when really necessary, ignoring UK Government data that shows, for example, that between 14-30% of British bread contains pesticides, including glyphosate (as in Monsanto's Roundup). This pesticide is usually used on wheat just before harvest to make life easier for the combine driver not the consumer.

Turner then turns to the environment, ignoring the findings of a meta-analysis of 50% more wildlife and 30% more species on organic farms, 30-40% less energy use in organic, and less greenhouse gas emissions and more carbon storage (a recent meta-analysis found that the mean carbon stocks of organically farmed soils are 3.5 metric tons per hectare higher than in conventional soils).

Instead she says that organic yields are as much as 50% lower than non-organic - a recent meta-analysis said the correct figure is nearer 20%. Turner says that a switch to organic would leave 'millions malnourished', while the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation presented data earlier this year in the House of Commons that showed that globally organic farming could feed everyone worldwide in 2050 a healthy diet (for most, more fruit and vegetables, less meat and dairy). Non-organic farming relies on the unsustainable use of fossil fuels and huge release of greenhouse gases required for manufactured fertiliser - impossible in future in the UK where 80% cuts in greenhouse gases by 2050 are a legal requirement.

Finally on the environment, Turner makes the extraordinary claim that 'The method by which organic compost and fertilisers are added means they are far more likely to be washed away and contribute to "dead zones" than the drip irrigation practices used in conventional farming'. Drip irrigation is (sadly) still unusual in UK farming, and irrigation is used far less in organic systems - but irrigation has almost nothing to do with nutrient enrichment caused by 'compost and fertilisers'. Organic farming works on far lower level of nitrogen and phosphates (the later mainly responsible for 'dead zones' in coastal seas), and less in far less soluble forms (composted farmyard manure as opposed to soluble nitrogen fertiliser from a bag). Organic farming adds humus and organic matter to soils, helping them hold more water, lessening the threat of floods and adding resilience in droughts.

Finally, an example of how out-of-date Turner's claims are. She asks if 'organic produce is healthier', and says no, citing the finding of no increased levels of nutrients in organic food in UK research published in 2010. In 2014, a major international meta-analysis led by Newcastle University in the UK, look at all of the published scientific research - over half the studies published since the 2010 research was done. For anti-oxidants, the research published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that switching to organic crop consumption is equivalent to eating one or two additional portions of fruit and vegetables per day, and paper in concludes that organically grown crops - fruit, vegetables and cereals - contain significantly higher concentrations of nutritionally desirable antioxidants and lower levels of undesirable cadmium (a toxic heavy metal) and pesticide residues.

Given how wrong Pixie Turner has got every significant fact about farming and food, it is probably not surprising that existing and new consumers of organic food are not being influenced by this sort of nonsense. Globally, the organic food market is growing rapidly all over the world - particularly in the three largest markets, the USA, Germany and China. The organic market in the UK was the only one to suffer some setbacks during the recession, but only in organic sales in supermarkets like Tesco and Asda, and it is now growing steadily again. Turner says it's important to make an informed choice about what we eat, but I fear she is making just about as ill-informed a choice as it's possible to make. Happily for the future health of the planet, more and more people are making well informed choices to try organic food.

Peter Melchett, Policy Director, Soil Association