View from the fence

Social, environmental and economic issues surrounding GM foods, and the latest news

New Scientist vs Soil Association – this week’s organic spat

16 Comments

New Scientist’s recent article ‘Stop buying organic food if you really want to save the planet‘ inevitably caused a stir, and the Soil Association fought back with the accusation of ‘unscientific’. As the title suggests, there were some sweeping statements from New Scientist. The Soil Association’s response also had some bold claims, so I’m taking the opportunity to comment on a few of the claims from both sides and point out some logical flaws.

One major point in the New Scientist article is that the gap between carbon emissions from organic food and conventional food will increase because organic labels don’t accept genetic modification. As the New Scientist article points out, it seems that the organic movement also won’t accept genome editing, meaning that they will be denied any future benefits which may come from crops produced using biotechnology.

The New Scientist’s claim could be right in theory, but a few things would have to change if it was to be right in practice. For a start, we would need to actually see these promised crops which reduce carbon emissions (I hope we do). Even if this happens, GM crops are largely rejected by conventional farms in Europe so until that changes there’s no possibility of a gap materialising.

There were also claims about clearing forests to make way for agriculture. An important aspect of the organic vs conventional debate is whether the increased wildlife on organic farms justifies the use of more land. Organic farms have lower yields, so arguably this means more land is used for agriculture rather than wildlife. In the words of New Scientist “organic farms require more land, which in the tropics often means cutting down more rainforests.”

Sadly there’s no link in the New Scientist article backing this up. Although lower average yields from organic farms is widely documented, exactly how that links to more land use for agriculture is less clear. For a start, certified organic farming is a very small minority of food production.

The Soil Association’s opposing claim that organic certification leads to less deforestation has nothing to do with avoiding the use of synthetic pesticides. Their point is that organic beef is largely grass fed rather than fed with crops grown on deforested land. The take home message is therefore not about organic farming per se – it is related to whether cows eat grass or grain (a big debate in itself, one I’m looking forward to hearing more about at the Nobel Week Dialogue tomorrow).

It is also worth pointing out that not all organic agriculture is created equal, which makes sweeping statements somewhat dangerous. The issues are very different for subsistence farmers on marginal land than for commercial organic farmers in the developed world.

The New Scientist article might not have presented all the arguments needed to justify its position, but I believe its conclusion is correct: we need an evidence-based carbon certification scheme. The organic label is often used as a proxy for an ecolabel, but it starts with an ideology rather than by looking for evidence about what foods actually have lower environmental impact.

Should you spend the extra money on organic? That’s too big a question to address in a single blog post so, unlike the New Scientist and the Soil Association, I’m not going to try. I’m interested to hear any comments though, and to know what people have chosen themselves.

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Author: Rebecca Nesbit

I studied for my PhD with the University of York and spent my time chasing migrant butterflies. I have trained bees to detect explosives, written a novel, organised Biology Week for the Society of Biology and visited universities round the world with Nobel Laureates. I am collecting friends to help me save the world. My website is: http://rebeccanesbit.com/

16 thoughts on “New Scientist vs Soil Association – this week’s organic spat

  1. Thanks for this summary. We choose organic where possible so that we can eat food with fewer pesticides. I am appaled to see how many chemicals are used in conventional farming, and dont get me on to the effects of these chemicals on bees and birds!
    I would be very interested to hear what Guy Watson, the boss of Riverford Organic has to say about the New Scientist article.

  2. Interesting. I suspect that, like you, most organic consumers would site health as the primary reason for their choice.

  3. Hi Rebecca, I was annoyed by both articles, so thank you for writing a more balanced version.

    I would love to eat only organic food, but my busy lifestyle and current budget doesn’t really allow for that. In my opinion you can taste, and feel, the difference when you eat organic and when you don’t.

    It would appear to me that Le Page was paid to write this article by people who have certain agendas, though I have no proof of this whatsoever. I am not a scientist, and this is purely my opinion based on what I’ve read, but GM food isn’t the answer to climate change. I would suspect, if anything, GM foods are contributing to the cause rather than the solution.

    • I suspect lots of people are with you on the lifestyle and budget front. It would certainly be a health problem if people on limited budgets (i.e. most people) bought less fruit/veg because they were spending their money on organics.

      Personally, I think it very unlikely that Le Page was paid to write what he did. If he did accept money and was discovered, that would be the end of his journalism career. Bias resulting from people with agendas is a very interesting issue though, whether or not money changes hands.

  4. Thanks for putting this together Rebecca. I agree with your point that organic labeling is often used as a proxy for general ‘eco’ lebeling. Organic farming is a particular method of farming that has down sides as well as up sides (for example, it is still very difficult to farm organically without some form of tillage, which has consequences, sometimes negative, for soil). Personally, I believe in the ethos of organic farming but I still think it should be held to account, like all other forms of farming. I buy mostly organic vegetables and would like to buy more organic produce, including meat but my budget does not often allow for it sadly.

    p.s. I enjoy your blog posts very much. Keep up the good work!

    • Thank you for your kind words. And yes, that’s very much my outlook too. It can often be the ethos, and hence good management practices, that bring the benefits rather than the avoidance of synthetic chemicals.

  5. There is a lot of talk about output, but the problems I see conventional farming causing are largely about inputs. Huge carbon costs to produce fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

    Not only are the pesticides endangering pollinators and invertebrates, but once they hit the ground they disrupt life in the soil. Similarly with herbicides disrupting biota. Fertilizer wash off causes problems in watercourses.

    Lack of vegetable matter returned to the soil is bringing soil carbon to low levels. As understanding of soil biology increases, so we are seeing more of how the microbiological life sustains the plants and crops we can see.

    Conventional agricultural land is sinking. It is being mined of its resources and soil structure is degrading. We need to find effective ways forward including organic farming, forest gardening, and more horticultural methods which would be described as Permaculture. I would suggest it is easier to produce healthier food from a healthier environment.

  6. Here is a link to Guy Watson’s (Riverford Organic) blog: https://www.riverford.co.uk/blog/2016/12/09/guys-news-talking-kettles-selling-solutions/
    In the blog post he gives a link to a video he has made about pesticide-free farming, worth a look.

  7. There were flaws in both arguments chiefly that of generalisation. Organic is best for the earth’s depleting soils and there is little argument that conventional farming has been the cause of massive loss of organic matter which is an essential element of soil structure.

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  9. Conventional agriculture has higher fossil-fuel inputs. This is the main reason for the lower carbon footprint of organic agriculture per acre AND per crop-unit produced. A good review article is here,with plenty of references to dive deeper: https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/viewhtml.php?id=301

  10. Pingback: Does ‘ethical omnivore’ beat ‘vegetarian’? | View from the fence

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