Industrialisation of organic will seal its downfall
Science for Sustainable Agriculture
“Is organic’s luck about to run out?” So ran a recent headline in The Grocer magazine, and it got me thinking. Could food retailers really be questioning the future of the organic offer? And why might that be? Cost of living crisis putting premium-priced organic products beyond the reach of even the more well-heeled consumers? That is certainly the case, but it turns out that’s not the half of it, writes Matt Ridley.
It’s true that the value of organic sales has taken a 3.8% nose-dive in the past year as shoppers trade down to lower-priced non-organic options. Set against food price inflation of more than 9% over the same period, that’s a sizeable drop.
But other factors may also be fuelling food retailers’ concerns. For them, the number one issue at all times is the reputation and integrity of their brand among customers, whose loyalty and trust they prize above all else. In relation to organics, that’s a big deal, because most of the organic products sold in British supermarkets are own-label lines. According to Kantar research recently quoted in The Grocer, supermarket own-label ranges make up 51.7% of organic value sales.
So, for the retailer, any risk to the reputation of brand organic is also seen as a risk to the label it is sold under.
And just in recent months, those risks have been accumulating.
The outbreak of war in Ukraine has once again underlined the precarious balance which exists between global food supply and demand, prompting immediate concerns over food security and food price inflation. This in turn has caused many to question the wisdom of agricultural policies which promote lower-yielding systems of farming, such as organic. A June 2021 meta-analysis of studies concluded that, on average, organic crop harvests are 29-44% lower than non-organic. So with organic farming, around a third less food is produced from the same area of farmland.
That’s why, in the wake of the Russian invasion, Emmanuel Macron said the EU should fundamentally review its Farm to Fork Strategy, which aims to increase the share of organic farmland to 25% by 2030. The French President acknowledged the policy would reduce EU food production by 13% and that it was “based on a pre-Ukraine war world.”
Here in Britain, the Soil Association has called on the Government to exceed the EU’s Farm to Fork target for organic farming, while a 2021 report by the Food Farming and Countryside Commission advised a complete transition to their brand of ‘agroecology’ (farming without artificial pesticides or fertilisers = basically organic) by 2030.
Beyond the wake-up call of the Ukraine situation, a succession of recent events has highlighted the sheer lunacy of these suggestions.
The first is the central role of organic farming in fuelling Sri Lanka’s devastating economic collapse and recent civil unrest.
In April 2021, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced an import ban on most pesticides and all synthetic fertilisers to go fully organic. Within months, the volume of tea exports had halved, cutting foreign exchange earnings. Rice yields plummeted leading to an unprecedented requirement to import rice. With the government unable to service its debt, the currency collapsed.
Speciality crop yields like cinnamon and cardamom tanked. Staple foods became infested with pests leading to widespread hunger. As Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute put it in March: “The farrago of magical thinking, technocratic hubris, ideological delusion, self-dealing and sheer short-sightedness that produced the crisis in Sri Lanka implicates both the country’s political leadership and advocates of so-called sustainable agriculture.”
Organic proponents have been quick to distance themselves from the Sri Lankan experience as the crisis has deepened. “We’d never advocate for a nation like this to go organic overnight”, protested the Soil Association. But the reality, as science writer Cameron English recently observed, is that this is a foolish attempt to save face.
“Take 10 years or 100 years; it doesn’t matter. The problem is not the transition period. We know that organic farming alone cannot produce the amount of food we need to feed the globe. The research has been done, the evidence is in. This was all known long before events in Sri Lanka unfolded. Agricultural scientists in the country knew it, and they were ignored.”
A severe blow then (and barely mentioned in the BBC’s reporting of the Sri Lankan crisis by the way) to claims that organic farming can feed the world more sustainably.
Another issue which must be niggling the retail giants is how far the provenance of organic products can genuinely be trusted. This was underlined recently when a US farmer was charged with fraudulently trousering $46 million by passing off chemically treated corn and soybeans as organically grown.
The inescapable fact here is that there is no laboratory test available to differentiate between organic and non-organic produce, and a great deal must be taken on trust. And when UK Government pesticide residue surveys routinely report detectable levels of pesticides in organic products – eg samples of organic potatoes, peppers, mushrooms and an organic raspberry and apple soft oat bar were all reported to contain pesticide residues in the most recent survey – high-profile fraud cases like this inevitably raise questions.
But on top of considerations of price, sustainability and integrity, the relative safety of organic food must be a significant and increasing source of concern for food retailers.
Scientific evidence indicates that the food safety risks of eating organic food are considerably greater than those of eating non-organic food. This is primarily because organic crop production relies on animal faeces as a fertiliser, an obvious vector for potentially lethal faecal-to-oral food-borne pathogens, but also because organic crops can be more prone to harmful mycotoxins due to inadequate control of crop pests and diseases.
In his 2019 book The Myths About Nutrition Science, food and nutrition adviser David Lightsey cites an analysis of US Food and Drug Administration food safety recall data by Academics Review — a group of scientists dedicated to challenging anti-science claims — which showed that ‘organic foods are four to eight times more likely to be recalled than conventional foods for safety issues.’
As if to prove the point, a trawl through recent US food safety incidents reveals recalls of organic strawberries (May 2022 - concerns over Hepititis A), organic smoothies (June 2022 - norovirus), and organic blueberries (July 2022 - lead contamination). Most recently, products containing organic tara flour (an organic ingredient imported from Peru and apparently used without any food safety assessment) have been linked to more than 470 people falling sick with fever, vomiting, diarrhoea and high liver enzyme levels – at least 25 people have had to have their gallbladder removed as a result.
But the organic blueberries recall referred to above may provide a clue as to where the organic sector seems to be losing its way, driven by unrealistic and unachievable ambitions of global growth. The berries in question, recalled due to dangerously high levels of lead contamination, were freeze-dried organic blueberries imported to the United States from Lithuania.
Similarly, when the Ukraine crisis broke, there were reports of a Black Sea ‘stranglehold’ on organic grains, with an estimated 50 per cent of the UK’s organic wheat and 75 per cent of the organic maize originating from Black Sea ports.
When organic marketing resolutely conjures up images of the family farm, fresh, artisan and local, this must surely raise alarm bells with even the most ardent supporters of the organic movement.
On a small scale, locally produced, and catering for a specialist ‘lifestyle’ market, organic has its place. But the more its proponents claim that organic farming holds all the answers to global food security, healthier diets and climate change, and the more scientific evidence emerges to the contrary, the more self-harm they will inflict.
Meanwhile the Ukraine conflict is prompting many to think again about yield-boosting technologies such as GM crops.
As 159 Nobel Laureates led by Sir Richard Roberts have pointed out in an open letter about GMOs to Greenpeace, the United Nations and Governments around the world: “There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity.”
It is time to listen to the science.
Matt Ridley is a member of the Science for Sustainable Agriculture advisory group. He is the author of numerous books on science. He has been a journalist and a businessman and served for nine years on the House of Lords. He lives on a farm in Northumberland.