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11 September 2023

Think-tank challenges pro-organic bias in BBC Bitesize revision guides


Pro-science think-tank Science for Sustainable Agriculture (SSA) has written to BBC Director General Tim Davie to challenge misleading and factually inaccurate assertions made in relation to farming in the BBC’s online Bitesize revision guides aimed at GCSE students in England and National 5 students in Scotland.


These include statements such as “organic milk and beef are produced without using antibiotics”, “organic farmers…do not apply pesticides to their crops”, and “many farmers are turning to organic farming as consumers opt to buy chemical-free [sic] food.


It is repeatedly stated throughout the guides that organic farming has a less harmful effect on the environment, is less polluting, and uses more ‘natural’ methods than non-organic farming.  


The revision guides are equally misleading in their largely negative portrayal of ‘intensive farming’, including simplistic, unreferenced statements such as “Many people object to intensive farming because it reduces biodiversity and increases pollution.


The SSA letter to Tim Davie notes that each of these statements by the BBC is either factually incorrect or disputed in the scientific literature.


For example, organic livestock farmers do use antibiotics (including those produced using GMOs), and they do use pesticides, some of which have been shown to have a more toxic and environmentally damaging profile than their synthetic counterparts.      


Similarly, the simplistic assertion that intensive farming reduces biodiversity and increases pollution is not supported by the scientific evidence. For example, a 10-year study published in Nature in 2018, led by Professor Andrew Balmford, a conservation scientist at Cambridge University, found that the most effective way to keep pace with increasing human demands for food while protecting habitats and preventing further biodiversity loss is through high-tech, high yield production on a smaller footprint, allowing other land to be set aside for nature and carbon sequestration.       


Commenting on the research, Professor Balmford said: “Figuring out how to feed, clothe and power 11 billion people without causing mass species extinction and wrecking the climate is this century’s greatest challenge. Preserving diverse life while meeting humanity’s needs will mean enormous trade-offs, but the evidence is starting to point in one direction. Most species fare much better if habitats are left intact, which means reducing the space needed for farming. So, areas that are farmed need to be as productive as we can possibly make them.


Professor Balmford’s research also challenged the BBC’s statement that organic farming is less polluting that conventional farming. In December 2021, he said: “Contrary to our expectations, we found the external harms of high-yielding systems quite often turned out to be much lower than those of more extensive systems, such as organic farming. In terms of nitrogen and phosphate losses, from different dairy systems, for example, the difference was a factor of two. So, if you want to reduce pollution, you should probably avoid organic milk.


The SSA letter to BBC Director General Tim Davie calls on the BBC to remove or correct these misleading statements, and instead focus on inspiring young people with the potential to use scientific and technological innovation to make our future farming systems more sustainable:  


The world needs to increase food supplies by 70% by 2050 to keep pace with a rapidly expanding global population, in the face of climate change and increasing pressure on the world’s finite natural resources. The future for agriculture does not lie in turning back the clock, as some believe, but in embracing high-tech solutions, applying scientific data and evidence, and combining innovation with established best practice and knowledge from a range of farming systems.  


It is vital that future generations are guided by the science, not by outdated doctrine and ideology. That way we have the best chance of feeding an increasingly hungry, warming planet in the most sustainable way.


We would urge the BBC to remove or correct these misleading statements from its educational material, and instead focus on some of the inspiring technologies – for example in genetics, digital science, precision engineering, AI and biologicals – which can help our farmers respond to the food security challenge while at the same time mitigating and adapting to climate change, protecting biodiversity and conserving precious natural resources.”         

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