Soil Association slams 'unscientific' analysis of organic's not-so-green credentials

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock

Related tags Greenhouse gas emissions Organic food Agriculture

The UK’s organic certification body, Soil Association, has defended organic food following an article in New Scientist which urged consumers to stop buying organic to protect the environment.

The article​ was published under the headline “Stop buying organic food if you really want to save the planet”​ and said that consumers are being hoodwinked by organic food’s “feel-good mumbo jumbo”.

Its author, Michael Le Page, wrote: “[…] If you care about the environment, don’t buy it [organic],”.

For starters, you are not helping wildlife. Yes, organic farms host a greater diversity of wildlife than conventional ones. But because the yields are lower, organic farms require more land, which in the tropics often means cutting down more rainforests.

“Organic food also results in higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional farming. The trouble is, there is no way to tell whether that basic loaf of bread is better in terms of greenhouse emissions than the organic one sitting next to it on the supermarket shelf.

“This divide will become ever greater in the future, because the organisations that set the rather arbitrary standards for what counts as 'organic' have firmly rejected the technology showing the greatest promise for reducing farming emissions: genetic modification.”

But director of innovation at the Soil Association Tom MacMillan pointed to research which shows the yield gap between organic and conventional is closing, and that in some cases of environmental stress, such as drought, organic yields can out-perform those of conventional farming.

GM debate

MacMillan argues that Le Page’s interest in GM crops as the solution to global food security problems and greenhouse gas emissions is misguided, as GM techniques are mostly used to grow crops that in turn are used to feed animals destined for human consumption.

[His] excitement about GM is a red herring at best. For a start it is grown largely as a feed crop, so is implicated in the problem. In some of the world’s top soya-producing countries like the US, Brazil and Argentina, GM soya accounts for between 93-100% of total soya production, most of which is turned into animal feed.”

Le Page argued that carbon labels would help consumers understand the real environmental footprint behind each food item.

"What we really need are climate labels on foods, so consumers can see whether, say, gene-edited bread is far better in climate terms than organic bread. This isn’t going to be easy. Measuring all the emissions associated with producing food and getting it onto a supermarket shelf is extremely complex, not to say expensive." 

Carbon labels have proven to be a tricky concept​ for the food industry to actually implement, as British retailer Tesco and PepsiCo recently found out.

"Climate labelling is definitely worth pursuing despite the challenges,​" concluded Le Page.

US economist and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin has said in the past that global agriculture must shift toward organic in order to reduce dependence on petrochemical-based fertilisers​ and pesticides, the prices of which are likely to skyrocket in the mid- to long-term.

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Organic farming and soil organic matter

Posted by D J Adams,

The fact remains that, as acknowledged by Lady Eve Balfour ( one of the leading founders of "the soil association" )about 70 years ago, it is not possible to achieve a net gain in total organic matter in any given area of land without either importing organic matter from somewhere else or adding to the land NPK etc from inorganic sources.
GM is a complete 'red herring' in this issue because GM, whether or not they are 'good' for whatever reason still need adequate nutrients to grow.

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Does saying it, make it so?

Posted by Jennifer,

I am a published and credentialed scientist, and if I accepted power, influence or payment to say that running your car engine night and day would keep the environment cleaner than using a horse and buggy because horses poop, would that make it true?

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