Organic Farming and Food Standard Note: SN/SC/1203 Last updated: 11 March 2011 Author: Christopher Barclay Science and Environment Section This note covers some topics related to organic farming. However, the issue of whether organic food should be certified as such if imported by air freight is covered in the standard note on food miles. A related note is Food Miles (SN/SC/4985). Organic farming is supported under the Organic Entry Level Stewardship Scheme, which is part of the Common Agricultural Policy. All farmers are paid Single Farm Payment, based on the area of the farm. Increased payments are made to organic farmers. The Food Standards Agency has rejected claims that organic food is healthier than other food, but supporters of organic food remain unconvinced. Sales of organic food have declined during the recession.Contents1 Introduction 22 Government support 23 EU Regulation on organic farming 2007 34 Challenges to benefits of organic food 55 Lords Debate on Organic Farming, January 2007 56 The 2007 Westminster Hall Debate on Organic Food 67 Problems for organic farmers, 2008 to 2009 7This information is provided to Members of Parliament in support of their parliamentary dutiesand is not intended to address the specific circumstances of any particular individual. Itshould not be relied upon as being up to date; the law or policies may have changed since itwas last updated; and it should not be relied upon as legal or professional advice or as asubstitute for it. A suitably qualified professional should be consulted if specific advice orinformation is required.This information is provided subject to our general terms and conditions which are availableonline or may be provided on request in hard copy. Authors are available to discuss thecontent of this briefing with Members and their staff, but not with the general public.
1 IntroductionThe main components of organic farming are avoiding the use of artificial fertilisers andpesticides, and the use of crop husbandry to maintain soil fertility and control weeds, pestsand diseases.1In January 2009, 619,268 hectares were farmed organically in the UK, along with 119,441under conversion. Taken together, those two categories accounted for 4.2% of totalagricultural area.22009 was a difficult year for organic farmers, partly because of the recession: Sales of organic produce fell almost 14% in 2009, according to data from TNS Worldpanel, the consumer research group. There have been sharp falls in meat, with chicken sales tumbling 28% and sales of beef dropping almost a quarter. While some producers are having to scale down their operations or abandon organic farming, others are clubbing together to fund an advertising campaign to win back consumers by promoting organic as the west‟s answer to fairtrade.32 Government supportUntil 2003, Government support only covered the conversion period. Support was thenextended to continuing organic farms under the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS). That hasbeen superseded by the reformed Common Agricultural Policy, which contains an OrganicEntry Level Stewardship (OELS) Agreement.OELS aims to encourage a large number of organic farmers across a wide area of farmlandto deliver simple yet effective environmental management. It is similar to ELS [Entry LevelStewardship] but recognises the greater environmental benefit that organic farming systemsdeliver. The land to be entered into the scheme must be farmed organically and registeredwith an approved Organic Inspection Body before an application to OELS is made.OELS is a voluntary, non-competitive scheme. The standard payment rate is £60 perhectare per year. There are higher payments for Uplands OELS - up to £92 per ha. Farmersneed to meet a points target and agree to carry out “simple but effective” environmentalmanagement on the land, in order to be accepted into OELS.Aid for converting conventionally farmed improved land and established top-fruit orchards(planted with pears, plums, cherries and apples, excluding cider apples) is also available asa top-up to OELS payments. Payment rates are £175 per hectare per year for two years forimproved land and £600 per hectare per year for three years for established top fruitorchards.Farmers with a mix of organic and conventional land can apply for OELS on their OELSeligible land and ELS on the remainder at the applicable ELS payment rates as part of one,whole farm, OELS agreement.Five-year agreements are available, with monthly start dates and automatic payments everysix months.1 Defra, Organic Systems,2 Defra, Organic Statistics 2009 United Kingdom, July 20103 “Struggling organic farmers cultivate ethical link”, Financial Times, 17 January 2010 2
OELS is administered by Natural England from their North West regional office at Crewe.4In March 2010 the National Audit office published a report, Defra‟s organic agri-environmentscheme, HC 513 2009-10. The Press Release gave an overview: The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Natural England have not optimised value for money for the almost £200 million scheme to encourage farmers into organic farming and deliver environmental benefits, according to a National Audit Office report published today. The Organic Entry Level Stewardship scheme is overseen by the Department and run by Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency using EU money and matched funding from UK taxpayers. Defra‟s forecasts for expenditure of EU funds assumed a constant rate of take-up each year, which the NAO considers over-optimistic, and present a risk that EU funds will not all be utilised. The scheme pays organic farmers for managing their land in ways that will protect or enhance the natural environment or historic landscape. The scheme is likely to have achieved environmental benefits by supporting organic farming, and the money paid to farmers for adopting environmental land management measures has had some impact, but this could be increased. Farmers can choose which environmental measures to implement and, according to the NAO survey, 57 per cent chose some measures that involve managing features already in place on their farm. Many of the more challenging options are rarely implemented. Defra is now taking steps to improve the environmental impact of the scheme by promoting better targeted measures. Take-up of the scheme broadly reflects take-up of organic farming methods in the farming industry as a whole. The scheme benefits larger farms, especially in the beef and dairy sectors, more than smaller farms. Farmers are happy with the quality of service provided by Natural England in administering the scheme. It has considerably reduced the time it takes to process scheme applications and the time taken to process payments since the start of the scheme, but IT costs do still remain high. 5 Mr Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said today: "Defra should learn from this scheme and get a lot better at putting credible measurement arrangements in place to demonstrate whether public funds are being used properly. It appears likely that Defra‟s scheme helped to deliver environmental benefits by encouraging organic farming, but we can‟t draw a similar conclusion on the land management measures and I would have expected a greater environmental benefit for the taxpayer‟s funding contribution."3 EU Regulation on organic farming 2007The Soil Association expressed strong objections in February 2006 to a proposal for a newEU Regulation, arguing that it would not take enough account of local and regional4 Natural England, Organic Entry Level Stewardship5 National Audit Office, Defra’s organic agri-environment scheme, 31 March 2010 3
distinctiveness.6 The EU Regulation was agreed in June 2007.7 Some revisions have beenmade, including allowing producers to indicate national origin as well as using the EU logo.A European Commission Press Notice explained: The new regulation will: lay down more explicitly the objectives, principles and production rules for organic farming while providing flexibility to account for local conditions and stages of development, assure that the objectives and principles apply equally to all stages of organic livestock, aquaculture, plant and feed production as well as the production of organic foods, clarify the GMO rules, notably that GMO products continue to be strictly banned for use in organic production and that the general threshold of 0.9 percent accidental presence of approved GMOs applies also to organic food, close the loophole under which the unintended presence of GMOs above the 0.9 percent threshold does not currently preclude the sale of products as organic, render compulsory the EU logo for domestic organic products, but allow it to be accompanied by national or private logos in order to promote the “common concept” of organic production, not prohibit stricter private standards, ensure that only foods containing at least 95 percent organic ingredients can be labelled as organic, allow non-organic products to indicate organic ingredients on the ingredients list only, not include the restaurant and canteen sector, but allow Member States to regulate this sector if they wish, pending a review at EU level in 2011, reinforce the risk-based control approach and improve the control system by aligning it to the official EU food and feed control system applying to all foods and feeds, but maintaining specific controls used in organic production, set out a new, permanent import regime, allowing third countries to export to the EU market under the same or equivalent conditions as EU producers, require the indication of where the products were farmed, including for imported products carrying the EU-logo, create the basis for adding rules on organic aquaculture, wine, seaweed and yeasts, make no changes to the list of permitted substances in organic production, and require publication of demands for authorisation of new substances and a centralised system for deciding on exceptions, be the basis for the detailed rules to be transferred from the old to the new Regulation, containing among others the lists of substances, control rules and other detailed rules.8The regulation came into force on 1 January 2009.6 Soil Association Press Release, EU Review of Organic Regulation: straight bananas, Euro sausages and now dilute organics? 16 February 20067 Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007 of 28 June 2007 on organic production and labelling of organic products and repealing Regulation (EEC) No 2092/91 http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/site/en/oj/2007/l_189/l_18920070720en00010023.pdf8 EC press Release, Organic Food: New Regulation to foster the further development of Europes organic food sector, 12 June 2007 4
4 Challenges to benefits of organic foodMany supporters of organic farming have been disappointed that the Food StandardsAgency (FSA) has not shown more enthusiasm for organic food. However, the FSA basesits views upon its analysis of the available evidence. July 2009 saw the publication of anindependent study that the FAS had commissioned: An independent review commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) shows that there are no important differences in the nutrition content, or any additional health benefits, of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food. The focus of the review was the nutritional content of foodstuffs. (...) Dr Dangour, of the LSHTM‟s Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit, and the principal author of the paper, said: „A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock, but these are unlikely to be of any public health relevance. Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.‟9However, supporters of organic food were unconvinced: Organic food campaigners criticised the study for failing to consider fertiliser and pesticide residues in food. They expressed disappointment at its "limited" nature, saying that without long-term studies it did not provide a clear answer on whether eating organic food has health benefits. A leading food academic went further, saying he found the conclusions "selective in the extreme". Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association, said: "We are disappointed in the conclusions the researchers have reached. It doesnt say organic food is not healthier, just that, according to the criteria they have adopted, theres no proof that it is." He criticised the methodology used by the team, which he said meant they rejected as "not important" some nutritional benefits they found in organic food, and led them to different conclusions from those reached by previous studies. Melchett said: "The review rejected almost all of the existing studies of comparisons between organic and non-organic nutritional differences."105 Lords Debate on Organic Farming, January 2007This debate was opened by Lord Taverne from a viewpoint hostile to organic farming. TheMinisterial reply by Lord Rooker gave the Defra view: Organic cannot be one-size-fits-all. Some claims made on both sides of the argument are quite ridiculous and are not based on any science. Nor do I subscribe to the anti- science view around the country, particularly of those who do not want trials to take place because they are worried about the information that might be gathered from experiments. To that extent, I oppose and criticise the people who rip up crop trials. How do we get information if we do not do trials? Not wanting the information to be out there because it destroys one‟s original concepts or prejudices is not on. I also want to make it clear that there is no unsafe food on sale in this country. I repeat: no unsafe food is on sale. No one can make a claim that their food is safer than anyone else‟s. Any unsafe food would be illegal if it was on sale. It is as simple as that.9 FSA Press Release, Organic Review Published, 29 July 200910 “Organic food is no healthier, says official study: No evidence of significant nutritional benefits found Experts question highly selective conclusions”, Guardian, 30 July 2009 5
However food—whether it is crops or meat—is farmed or produced and wherever it is produced in the world, there are checks and surveillances of residues and other matters that are beyond the imagination of the public in terms of the numbers and the quantity in the policing of the system to protect the whole food chain. We publish the results, so there are no secrets, including where we buy produce from. To that extent, John Krebs [former Chair of the Food Standards Agency] was right. No one can say that because a food is organic it is healthier. It can be claimed that because a food is organic there may be less chemical residue. But if the residues are within the limits, they are perfectly safe. The two things are not incompatible. No one can claim that commercially produced, ordinarily produced, intensively produced food is any less safe than organic food. That cannot be the case. Going with the science is important... But that does not mean that the ordinary, intensively produced food, whether it is grown or whether it is livestock, is second best. Nobody is saying that. In fact, we could not feed ourselves if we went organic. I know that people will dispute this, but if we went all organic we would be importing huge amounts of food, whatever people might claim, because the yields would be so much less. I appreciate that one has to look at the totality of the energy that is used. There would be fewer pesticides and other things that are used to produce the crops if we went organic, but we want to encourage choice… The fact is that since we increased the level of support for organic farming, the amount of land given over to it has gone up 13-fold. It helps our sustainability objectives and provides environmental benefits—I know there can be arguments about this—by encouraging biodiversity, and it gives farmers a choice. A lot of young farmers are involved in the organic movement. They are often much more entrepreneurial than the older generations. I have met some of them, as has the Secretary of State. These farmers are willing to use different systems and techniques and to enter into new marketing arrangements for their products... At present, certain organic foods cannot use an organic label if the whole product is not organic. Some of the ingredients may have been produced organically, but it is difficult to get an organic label for them. The European Union is producing more flexible rules to assist in that, which is good for organics, consumer choice and improvements in labelling. The proposed regulation before the EU Agriculture Council would require origin labelling for some organic produce where the EU organic logo is used. On the organic conversion scheme, we are working on a new one which is to be launched later this year…116 The 2007 Westminster Hall Debate on Organic FoodThis debate was almost all devoted to criticisms of organic farming. Dr Brian Iddon openedthe attack: Yields of organic crops are considerably lower than in conventional farming and more land is taken up by organic crops… In August 2007, the Crop Protection Association welcomed the Soil Association‟s acknowledgement at Hay-on-Wye that organic farmers use pesticides, which it had denied for most of its existence. Indeed, copper sulphate, pyrethrum—a nerve toxin and potential carcinogen—and other chemicals used by organic farmers are probably more dangerous to the environment than the pesticides used in modern farming.11 HL Deb 25 January 2007 cc1315-18 6
Organic farmers would like us to believe that organic foods are uncontaminated by chemicals when they are not. The organic pesticide rotenone, which is sold as Derris powder, is highly toxic to humans, yet organic farmers are allowed to apply it right up to harvest. It persists for a particularly long period on olives and is concentrated in olive oil. Farm workers who spray solutions of bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacterium that produces a protein that is toxic to caterpillars, have reported respiratory problems, and it causes fatal lung infections in mice, yet organic farmers insist that what is natural is safe and that synthetic chemicals are extremely toxic. That is nonsense. Biocontrol of pests has been effective in some circumstances, especially for protecting high-value crops grown in greenhouses, but biocontrol often involves the importation of non-native species, with all the dangers that that might entail. (…) Nor are organic foods safer than conventional foods. Organic foods grown in soil fertilised with manure are at greater risk of being contaminated by mycotoxins, or fungi. Fungal toxins are a particular problem in organic foods because all effective fungicides are synthetic in origin and prohibited for use by the Soil Association. Copper sulphate and sulphur, which are used, are far less effective. (…) Eggs without the Lion mark are more likely to be contaminated with salmonella. A study in Denmark in 2001 showed that organic chicken is three times more likely to be contaminated with campylobacter than conventional chicken …12Phil Woolas, Minister for the Environment, was more sympathetic to organic food: There is evidence that organic production is beneficial, on the whole, to biodiversity. The mixed farming practised under organic systems also contributes to the quality of the landscape and the beauty of rural areas. The more general environmental picture, for example on the production of greenhouses gases, is less clear-cut, with claims and counter-claims. However, there is evidence that organic farming systems generally incur less energy use than conventional systems. I shall explain that point. As has been said, it is important to consider the production of fertilisers when calculating carbon footprints. One has to consider lifestyle. The question that has to be asked—the debate has brought it up—is: what is the balance between the environmental benefits of producing organic food and the benefit of the farming methods used, many of which could also be used in conventional, inorganic farming? That relates to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East‟s central point. Organic farming has its proponents, of whom the Government are one because of the environmental benefits that we see from the evidence that is produced. I refer to the scientific studies that have been carried out, on which our policy is partly based: the DEFRA-commissioned study by Shepherd and others in 2002 and the English Nature- Royal Society for the Protection of Birds study of 2003 by Hole and others. (…)137 Problems for organic farmers, 2008 to 2009In December 2008, the Times reported that organic farmers were being hit by the creditcrunch and were requesting a relaxation of standards: Sales of organic food slumped 10% in the 12 weeks up to the end of November (2008), according to the latest figures from the consumer researchers TNS. Overall food sales over the same period were up 6%. Organic certification bodies, including the soil12 HC Deb 16 October 2007 cc187-8WH13 HC Deb 16 October 2007 cc201-2WH 7
Association…asked Hilary Benn…last week for approval to relax the rules for an indefinite period. They want their members to be able to use conventional animal feed instead of organic food concentrate, which costs double. (…) The move has been condemned by the Organic Research Centre, which fears that organic “holidays” will confuse shoppers and lead to a further sales slump.1414 “Let us bend the rules, say organic farmers”, Times, 22 December 2008 8