Most farming relies heavily on artificial chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Around 350 pesticides are permitted, and it's estimated that 4.5billion litres of them are used annually. While there are government rules about accepted levels of pesticide residues in our food, there are concerns about their long-term effect. Agrochemicals and artificial fertilisers can harm the environment too.
Organic agriculture is carried out to a set of legally defined standards. Producers then pay to have their produce monitored and certified by one of several organic organisations. The Bristol-based Soil Association, which approves Truly Scrummy products, is by far the largest in the UK.
Organic farming strictly limits the use of artificial chemical fertilisers or pesticides. Antibiotics for animals are kept to an absolute minimum. Instead the emphasis is on crop rotation to keep soil healthy, and natural pest-control systems. Genetically modified crops are forbidden. Organic bodies also demand more space for animals and higher welfare standards.
All UK organic food is certified to baseline standards set by the European Union Organic Regulations 2004. In addition, various UK organic control bodies set their own requirements some of which are higher than the EU standards for certification.
The Soil Association is the best-known organic control body in the UK. It tends to emphasise integrated farming, crop rotation and biodiversity more than others and aims to set standards for animal welfare and environment that go beyond the basic organic standards. It has particularly rigorous requirements for poultry. Soil Association-certified laying hens have lower stocking densities. They, and meat chickens, are kept in smaller flocks and have more space than others. The standards of all organic control bodies in the UK are available on the Defra website.
Organically produced meat may come from animals given some non-organic feed and antibiotics are not altogether banned from organic farms. But buying food that is certified as organic or biodynamically produced, whatever the logo, can give reassurance that higher welfare and environmental standards are at least being pursued.
More farmers are converting to organic, a process that can take three years. In January 2007, there were 4,639 organic producers in the UK, an annual increase of 7 per cent. Organic holdings represented approx. 3.9 per cent of all farms in the UK. However, since the recession, many are finding organic farming increasingly difficult. In 2008, the total number of organic farms had risen to 4,955, a slightly lower rate of increase compared to the previous year.
Organic farming is less harmful to the environment as balance and biodiversity are encouraged. Without herbicides and pesticides wildlife can flourish, and there are no potentially polluting chemicals. Organic farming has a lower carbon footprint than conventional agriculture because it does not rely on agrochemicals and fertilisers (which use fossil fuels in their production). According to government findings it typically uses 27 per cent less energy.
However, consumers of organic produce surveyed in the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report 2009 rated the lower environmental impact of organic food as the least compelling reason to buy it. They valued factors such as quality, taste and high animal welfare standards.
Crops grown organically are more vulnerable to pests and disease; this is more labour intensive and farmers pay more for organic animal feed. This is why organic is more expensive for consumers to buy. Also government subsidies have focused on mainstream farming, which keeps the price of conventional foods low in comparison.
There’s pressure on our food supplies and worldwide there’s a shortage of cereal. The UK has to import more than 50 per cent of organic livestock feed, and feed prices are rising. That in turn affects the price farmers have to charge for meat, milk, eggs and bread, whether organic or not.
Buying locally produced organic food direct via a box scheme or farmers' market is a 'greener' way to shop and is better value. It can be argued there are hidden costs in conventional, chemical-dependent farming. We pay to tackle the pollution of our water supplies, caused by artificial fertilisers, at a cost of about £120m a year. This occurs through our taxes and higher water bills rather than at the checkout.
The jury is out on whether organic food tastes better. Organic chickens live longer than battery chickens, as well most free-range birds, and the taste is incomparable.
But food that isn't certified as organic can also be produced to equally high standards with taste as a priority. Top quality grass-fed and free-range beef might not be certified as organic because of the expense and inconvenience in ensuring pasture where the herd grazes has received organic certification. When it comes to taste and quality, organic food isn't necessarily the be all and end all.
However, organic certification does give a guarantee food is responsibly produced, considers the environment, meets high animal welfare standards and crops are carefully managed. Buying locally produced food with a minimum of packaging should reassure that you are supporting more-sustainable agriculture.
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