In Oxford this week, two major farming conferences are underway. The newer, forward-looking Oxford Real Farming Conference is discussing innovations in technology that are needed for farming to face the challenges of achieving massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, tackling the horrendous problems of diet-related ill health, and restoring beauty, colour and wildlife to our farmed countryside. Meanwhile, speakers at the much older Oxford Farming Conference seem stuck in a time-warp where for decades almost the only new development in agriculture worth discussing is GM crops, and where an annual attack on organic farming seems to be obligatory.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Liz Truss, did her bit in praise of GM (which is now just 'one tool in the toolbox', having been demoted from the 'future for all farming and food' that was heralded in the 1990s). Under what seem to be strict instructions from David Cameron not to do any more damage, if that were possible, to his 'greenest government ever' claim, Liz Truss steered clear of saying anything new about GM, or announcing any action that would bring GM crops in England any closer, or indeed doing anything which you might expect an allegedly pro-GM government to do.
However, now that the Scottish referendum is over, the English Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is happy to forget that agriculture is already devolved to Scotland and Wales, and that both those countries remain staunchly opposed to GM crops. So Liz Truss talked grandly about GM crops coming to the UK, when she's actually only able to talk about England - 60% of the UK. Nor did she mention the commitment given by one of her junior ministers at the end of last year, namely that GM crops for England are, at best, 'several years away'.
It was left to Lord Krebs to mount the seemingly obligatory attack on organic farming and food. Lord Krebs made himself something of a figure of fun several years ago, when he was chair of the Food Standards Agency. On taking up his position, he announced, without any scientific evidence, that anyone buying organic food because it had nutritional differences with non-organic were 'wasting their money'. In his own field, which does not include nutrition or farming, Lord Krebs is a very distinguished scientist, so it must have hurt somewhat when, last year, a major meta-analysis was published which looked at 343 individual studies comparing antioxidant levels, heavy metals and pesticides in organic and non-organic food, focusing on salad crops, vegetables, grains and pulses. An international team of scientists, led by Newcastle University, pooled all the existing research, and showed unequivocally that there are significant differences between organic and non-organic food, with 18 - 69% more beneficial antioxidants and 48% less dangerous cadmium. We need more and better research in this area, and the researchers said that more studies would be likely to confirm the significance of a number of other positive trends in the differences between organic and non-organic food that they detected.
That research did not look at the impact on our health of eating organic food - this takes many years and is very costly. To get clear results, scientists need to follow large groups of people who eat organic food, and a similar group who do not, for their whole lives. As many modern diseases, like cancer and heart disease, tend to mainly emerge much later in life, it would take many decades of expensive monitoring to identify any differences. However, health problems that emerge early in life should be identifiable more quickly. A Dutch study comparing mothers and children who drank organic milk and used organic dairy products with those that did not, found that those children suffered 36% less eczema than children on a non-organic diet. More recently, a Norwegian study has linked organic vegetable consumption to a 24% lower incidence of pre-eclampsia, a major cause of illness in mothers and deaths of babies worldwide. But while it is clear is that the way we farm does affect the quality of our food, the jury is still out on whether eating organic food will lead to people suffering less illness or disease over their lifetime.
Given that Lord Krebs could hardly maintain his 'it's a waste of money' position in the face of this overwhelming scientific evidence, he has changed tack, claiming at Oxford that organic farming is bad for climate change, because it yields less than non-organic. As is often a problem when scientists step outside their own fields of expertise, Lord Krebs has missed two other recently published meta-analyses, covering organic and non-organic farming, looking at yields and climate change impact. First, a new meta-analysis published by scientists at the University of California Berkeley pulled together all existing research comparing organic and non-organic yields, and concluded that the productivity of organic farming has been substantially underestimated. Scientists found that globally organic yields are generally around 19% below non-organic, and that could reduce to only 8-9% below with better use of modern organic techniques. It has always been the case that for some crops, like beans, peas and lentils, organic and non-organic yields are the same, and grass-reared beef and lamb will be as or more productive on organic farms. The study's author, Professor Claire Kremen said that 'This paper sets the record straight on the comparison between organic and conventional agriculture'.
On an even more positive note, a global meta-analysis looking at farming's ability to restore carbon in soils came to the conclusion that organic farming stores 3.50 Mg Carbon per hectare more than in nonorganic systems. The research found an estimated maximum technical mitigation potential from soil carbon sequestration by switching to organic agriculture of 0.37 Gt Carbon sequestered per year globally, thus offsetting up to 3% of all current GHG emissions worldwide, or 25% of total current global agricultural emissions.
The climate summit in Paris at the end of this year is going to focus everyone's mind on to the appalling threat that climate change poses. Most attention in climate discussions focuses on emissions from industries like power generation (coal and natural gas versus renewables) and transport (petrol and diesel cars versus public transport and electric cars). Food and farming, which account for as much greenhouse gas emissions as either of those sectors, is largely ignored - but that cannot continue. Indeed this year Parliament's official Climate Change Committee will be looking in more detail at greenhouse gas emissions from farming. The story here is an exciting one - globally, soils contain massive amounts of carbon, the release of which adds to the threat of climate change. However, as research shows, globally soils also offer an amazing opportunity to store more carbon. The things that farmers need to do to achieve this, which include growing more grass in their rotations, returning crop residues and animal manure to farmland, particularly as compost, and growing green cover-crops through the winter, are all things that organic systems encourage or require. That is why organic farming sequesters far more carbon in soils than non-organic farming.
This was on the agenda at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, where a session on a new report, the Square Meal report, focused on the vital importance of fighting food poverty and diet related ill-health, and the multiple benefits of agro-ecological farming systems like organic. These are proven to deliver better animal welfare, more wildlife on farms, lower greenhouse gas emissions, lower levels of pollution from pesticides and fertiliser run-off, and healthier diets. This broad, inclusive vision for the future of food, farming and the countryside has been supported by ten major public interest groups, but this sort of discussions seems to be off the agenda for the old Oxford farming establishment. Indeed the question of what this hugely taxpayer-subsidised industry might do in the public interest, rather than the interests of farm businesses, landowners and multi-national food businesses, is off the old Oxford agenda. It is time the farming industry got real.