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Organic Food

Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs. Humble.

The debate about food has become extremely polarised in recent years, with those who advocate organic farming condemning so-called conventional farmers for their use of chemicals and their damage to the environment, not realising that conventional farming has changed for the better in recent years. The reality is that the two sides of this polarised debate are closer together than they sometimes think they are.

The debate is timely for several reasons. The Soil Association’s organic fortnight was held in September and yesterday the National Consumer Council launched its second report, arising from its greening supermarkets project. In addition, the European Commission has introduced new Europe-wide laws on pesticides, which will be debated in a plenary session of the European Parliament on 23 October.

Organic farming is not just about returning to farming as it was before the green revolution, or before farming became industrialised as our populations expanded and the demand for food increased. It is actually a belief system that has its roots in the anti-science backlash propagated by the vitalists, who believed that life arises from, and involves, special life forces. The teaching of an Austrian spiritualist or mystic called Rudolf Steiner in the early 1920s gave rise to the modern organic farming movement. The early beginnings of organic farming have been captured in a recently published book, “The Truth About Organic Foods”, by Alex Avery.

In the early part of the 20th century, Fritz Haber, a German chemist, learned how to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere as nitric acid. Probably about 60 per cent. of the people alive today owe their existence to the application of nitrate fertilizers that are derived from that acid. Bosch, at the German company BASF, was able to commercialise the Haber synthesis to produce the nitrate required for ammunitions manufacture during world war one, when supplies of naturally occurring nitrates were cut off to the Germans. Unfortunately, as well as emitting carbon dioxide, the Haber-Bosch process emits nitrous oxide, which has an impact on climate change 310 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. Fortunately, nitric acid plants can be fitted with a cerium-based catalyst that reduces nitrous oxide emissions by up to 90 per cent. Inclusion of that gas in the EU’s emissions trading scheme would give European chemical companies an incentive to reduce their emissions of nitrous oxide.

The pioneers of organic farming believe that the synthetic nitrate fertilisers produce food that lacks vital forces imparted by animal manure. Steiner believed that the special forces possessed by animal manure come from far-away planets.

“Have you ever thought why cows have horns, or why certain animals have antlers?”

asked Steiner. He explained:

“The cow has horns in order to send into itself the astral-ethereal formative powers, which, pressing inward, are meant to penetrate right into the digestive organism....Thus, in the horn you have something well adapted by its inherent nature to ray back the living and astral properties into the inner life”.

That is where the movement began. I would not have believed that people pat cow dung into cow’s horns and bury them in the ground in the belief that they increase the vital forces in manure, until I saw the six recent television programmes in which one of the cast of “The Kumars at No.42” toured India. He went to an organic tea plantation in Darjeeling, where women sat on the ground patting cow manure into horns to produce special water to water on to the tea plants. If anyone thinks that that is fantasy, organic farmers still believe it, at least in certain parts of the world, today.

I think that my hon. Friend is talking about the biodynamic movement, which is very different from the much more generalist organic movement. As someone with a number of biodynamic farms in my area—Stroud is at the heart of the Steiner foundation in this country—I can share something with my hon. Friend, but there is a slight difference in emphasis.

I am always willing to learn, and I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.

The 1970 Nobel prizewinner Norman Borlaug has reminded us that to produce all the manure required to replace synthetic nitrogen fertilisers we would require an additional 5 billion or 6 billion head of cattle, all emitting the greenhouse gas methane. Apart from extra grazing land, even more land would be required to grow the food for those cattle. How many forests would that destroy?

An English botanist propagated Steiner’s teachings, which were also adopted by Lady Eve Balfour, a boutique farmer who was the wealthy niece of Prime Minister Balfour. From world war two through to the 1970s she was the leader of the British and European organic food movement, and she helped to found the Soil Association, which is the largest organic trade and certification group in the UK today. Prince Charles and Lord Melchett, the policy director of the Soil Association, have followed in those footsteps.

Perhaps because of the influence of those people, the organic movement today is a powerful and popular movement. Whenever well-known people such as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who described organic food as a lifestyle choice in a speech to the Oxford farming conference in 2007, or Egon Ronay, have raised questions about the hype that surrounds claims for organic food, there has been an over-the-top reaction, mainly from the Soil Association, so I realise that today I am skating on very thin ice. Nevertheless, we need a healthy debate about organic food and the often spurious claims made by organic farmers.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech so far, and on his promotion of a rational view of chemicals and chemistry, and, indeed, science, during his time in this House. I bought some organic food at the Abingdon farmers market yesterday, and was pleased to do so, but I did it in the belief that it might be better for the environment, because organic farming is less intensive, not because I believe any claims by the industry body, the Soil Association, that it has proven health benefits. I support the hon. Gentleman in what he says about recognising that the Food Standards Agency was right to point out that the health benefits of organic food are unproven.

I shall say something about that later.

A growing consciousness about the environment is fuelling sales of ethical foods in general. Ethical foods now include the following brands: Fairtrade, Leaf, which stands for Linking Environment and Farming, Freedom Food, which was set up by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Red Tractor, which is run by Assured Food Standards. Prince Charles, of course, sells his organic produce under the Duchy Originals brand name. Sales of ethical food, including organic food, stand at £5.5 billion and are expected to rise to £7.5 billion by 2011. The public demand for ethical foods has resulted in the opening earlier this year of the American Whole Foods Market, in Kensington high street—a food boutique if ever there was one—and the rapid expansion of companies specialising in organic box schemes. There has been an explosion, too, in farmers markets selling free-range and local produce.

I am all in favour of greater profits for growers, which means cutting out the wholesalers, and I have always believed that cutting down the time food takes to get from the producer to the plate is good because it makes for tastier and more nutritious food for the consumer. The market has been driven by people’s increasing concern for the environment, and by people who increasingly feel disconnected from the origins of the food that they eat. As food has got cheaper and more disposable, people have valued it less. Food scares, whether real or imaginary, have encouraged consumers to buy what is increasingly sold to them by the media as the healthy option.

I acknowledge much of what my hon. Friend said in his usual rational and scientific way, but does he acknowledge that organic produce sold at farmers’ markets is at least grown locally or regionally to those markets? In fact, the vast majority of organic fruit and vegetables are imported, and they are often flown long distances. The environmental impact of that must be factored into the kind of equations that he is constructing. The airport in my constituency is the largest freight airport in the country. There are 160 or more freight flights a night over rural Leicestershire, sometimes in noisy aircraft, and many of them import food from the developing world.

I shall refer to that issue later.

Organic food is described by the FSA as

“a holistic approach to food production, making use of crop rotation, environmental management and good animal husbandry to control pests and diseases.”

There is

“restricted use of…fertilisers or pesticides”

and an

“emphasis on animal welfare”

and soil health. All organic food must meet minimum standards as set out in European Law. In the UK, the Soil Association is the main certification organisation. It claims that its standards are higher than those set by the EU. Of course, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has overall responsibility for regulating the organic food production and distribution industry in Britain.

Organic food and food produced by conventional methods must meet the same food safety standards as those set by the FSA. Among other tests, the FSA analyses all foodstuffs for residual pesticides and food additives. On average, it takes farmers three years to convert from farming using conventional methods to organic farming credited by the Soil Association. Many farmers produce organic food without going through the costs of the transfer or accreditation process, but they cannot legally call their produce organic. The Soil Association believes that organic food, which is produced to high standards, is tastier, more nutritious, and contains fewer additives such as aspartame and monosodium glutamate, than food produced by conventional methods, although 30 additives are permitted in organic farming. The association claims that organic food is pesticide free and contains no food produced from genetically modified crops, that organic meat is free of antibiotics, and that there are no hidden costs of production. It also claims that animal welfare is better on organic farms and that organic farming is good for the environment.

Undoubtedly, some of those claims are true, but non-organic farmers can also make them. Organic food is bought by some 75 per cent. of UK consumers, at least occasionally, but it makes up only about 1.6 per cent. of the overall food market. UK farmers are capable of producing 70 per cent. of the organic food sold in Britain, but produce only about 45 per cent. Sales of organic pork are actually going down because of the cost of organic feed, which is increasingly imported.

According to the Soil Association, organic food and drink sales in the UK nudged the £2 billion mark for the first time in 2006, an increase of 22 per cent. on the previous year. To meet the increasing demand for organic food, buyers source their foodstuffs in far away places such as Chile, Kenya and Israel. A debate is raging about the damage that flying produce in from all over the world does to our environment. The justification for importing food that way is that foods such as strawberries can be made available throughout the year for British consumers, and that producing them out of season in the UK would be extremely costly and would require heated greenhouses.

Although the Soil Association can control carefully the production of organic food in this country, it is doubtful whether it can assert the same degree of control in the many countries from which the UK imports its organic produce, which gives plenty of scope for fraud. Wal-Mart, for example, has been accused in the USA of selling “organic” food that was in fact not organically produced.

Yields of organic crops are considerably lower than in conventional farming and more land is taken up by organic crops. Should we encourage developing countries to grow organic crops when, in many cases, they have a problem feeding their rapidly expanding populations? There is also the question about whether growers in developing countries receive a fair price for the produce that they export to Britain. Yet more land is taken up by growing crops that produce natural pesticides such as, for example, chrysanthemums, from which pyrethrum is extracted in Kenya and Peru.

There is a growing realisation that industrialisation of farming has damaged the environment, and there is a return in conventional farming to planting hedgerows, which leaves buffer strips of land in which wildlife can develop and survive, and crop rotation is coming back big style.

Market gardening and farming was part of my life until I entered university in 1958. We produced organic food, although that was not our intention. It was difficult to keep aphids off the lettuce, and I dug many failed crops under as a result of infestation—we simply could not sell those lettuces. The only pesticide in the early 1940s was nicotine, which we piled and burned in our greenhouses. Similarly, we lost tomatoes to rust—a fungal growth on the stems of the plants— and our fruit was full of grubs and our root crops were similarly infested.

My father and others like him in farming and market gardening were extremely pleased when chemistry came to our rescue with its so-called green revolution, which delivered pesticides and herbicides that prevented the destruction of our crops by various pests and weeds. Yields increased remarkably, and our business became financially viable. How many organic growers in Britain could today survive if they were not surrounded by non-organic growers that keep pests off their crops—the so-called umbrella effect, which I believe to be real? I do not wish to go back to the good old days that I described of food production in the 1940s.

In the past 10 years there has been a 19 per cent. reduction in the volume of synthetic pesticides, as farmers switch to newer and better products. In any case, as I explained, the FSA regularly tests the levels of residual pesticide on all food, whether produced organically or conventionally.

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. 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.

The idea of organic food has been hijacked by modern supermarkets to increase their profits. Indeed, according to research conducted by Morgan Stanley in 2005, organic food is 63 per cent. more expensive than food grown by conventional farmers. The notion that organic food is tastier than food grown by conventional methods is not proven. Similarly, according to the FSA, the president of the National Farmers Union, Peter Kendall, and others, there is little evidence that organic food is more nutritious.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the localist agenda is implicit in the organic debate and that supermarkets are hugely hypocritical given some of their processes? I am thinking in particular of an infamous case in my constituency—that of the Lampeter carrots. They were shipped to Peterborough for packaging and sent back to Bristol for sale, with obvious and serious carbon footprint implications.

I am afraid that carrots are a contentious issue with the Soil Association and with Prince Charles.

Milk contains higher levels of short-chain omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids if the cows producing it are fed on grass and red clover, but those do not seem to have the same health promoting benefits as the longer-chain omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids that are found in oily fish diets.

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.

Organic potato crop yields are lowered to 50 to 60 per cent. of conventional potato crop yields because fungal diseases, such as the blight phytophthora infestans, affect the crops badly. The FSA has reported that organic corn meals have significantly higher contamination rates with the dangerous mycotoxin fumonisin. In some climatic regions, ergot, which causes ergotism—otherwise known as St. Anthony’s fire—is a considerable problem with cereal crops. It killed hundreds of thousands of people in Europe in previous centuries.

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. Incidentally, it is also three times the price.

People who have eaten only organic foods during their lifetime are no healthier than the rest of us and do not live longer either. The pioneers of organic farming were idealists. They were anti-science and had an antagonism for market-driven capitalism. Ironically, their ideals have been hijacked today by the market economy.

The existence of magazines such as Organic Life suggests that the Foreign Secretary may have been right when, as the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he said that organic farming and organic food sales were about a “lifestyle”.

I am not against organic farming—let me get that straight—but those who promote it should tell it as it is and not hide from the facts or mislead the public as they have done regularly in the past. Like all markets, the foodstuffs market, with its plethora of products and brand names, is becoming a very confusing area for consumers. We should not lose sight of the central message that a diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables, safely produced and affordable, and low in processed foods, with their high sugar and salt contents, is better for all of us.

I would genuinely like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing the debate, which is on an important issue. He has been through many of the issues that I wished to touch on and I shall try not to repeat what he said, but I will follow a generally similar line of argument.

I would like to say first, as my hon. Friend did when he finished his speech, that I am not against better welfare for animals or better production methods on farms and trying to produce a farming product, whether it is an animal or a vegetable, of as good a quality as possible, with the least damage to the environment. There is a general consensus that that is a good thing. Unfortunately, the label “organic”—which is a bit of a misnomer; as though there was some other kind of farming—has come to mean “good” and that all the rest is bad. That is inappropriate.

Before getting into the detail of what I want to say, I shall quote C. S. Prakash, a famous and distinguished plant biologist, who said:

“Organic farming is sustainable. It sustains poverty and malnutrition.”

That is the worry with following the line of argument that many of the people who lead the organic movement follow.

This debate allows us to explore two issues. First, what are the Government and the EU’s policies towards organic farming? Are they consistent? Is it right that we are putting subsidy and support into getting farms to transfer to become certified by the Soil Association, and is it right that that association is recognised as the certification agency? There is a larger issue, which concerns everybody in relation to the complicated issues that face people in this country and on the planet generally. How is science being helped to improve the difficult situations that people face in world farming and in trying to feed everybody on the planet and to ensure that people are not poisoned but have safe food? Those are the two main issues that my hon. Friend has allowed us to debate today.

I shall not repeat my hon. Friend’s points about Rudolf Steiner and his bizarre beliefs about biodynamic agriculture and forces, except to slander him some more by reminding people that the man did join the Nazi party as well as holding those other strange beliefs. There is no doubt that when Lady Balfour set up the organic movement and the Soil Association, it was his ideas that she had in mind.

In a sense, that would be completely irrelevant if the organic farming movement now was following sensible, rational, evidence-based policies, but then we get to people such as Patrick Holden, who ran the Soil Association. He dismisses the possibility and even the sense of having scientific tests on the claims that are made by the organic farming movement and the Soil Association. It is a similar position to that taken by the homeopathic movement. Basically, he says that organic farming is holistic, integrated and joined-up; therefore, it is not subject to scientific testing. That is mumbo-jumbo; it is hokum.

May I support the hon. Gentleman in what he is saying? I remember a debate at the Royal Institution to which Patrick Holden came. He said that there has to be room in public policy for an irrational approach and that a rational approach—a scientific approach—could not always be the way forward. I think that, when we are dealing with the livelihood of the competition to the Soil Association, the health and safety of food and, indeed, the future of our environment, we rely even more on a rational, science-based approach.

I could not agree with the hon. Gentleman more. Holden’s view is really an “Animal Farm” view of four legs good, two legs bad, because he clearly says that synthetic chemicals are bad and natural chemicals are good as though there is any difference. It is like the people who campaign against fluoride in tap water. People think that there is good fluoride, which is natural fluoride, and there is bad fluoride, which has come from an industrial process. They forget that all the fluoride atoms and ions were made 6 or 7 billion years ago in the centre of a dying nuclear star and they are exactly the same chemical. It is nonsense and leads to an irrational application of the principles.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned bacillus thuringiensis—I apologise if I have not pronounced that accurately; I shall call it BT for the rest of the discussion—which is allowed under the Soil Association’s rules.

A number of speakers have referred to the importance of taking an evidence-based approach. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a pity that the FSA is not rather speedier in responding to evidence in areas such as food additives? Only under pressure from worried consumer groups did it acknowledge that certain E additives to food were likely to worsen the behaviour of children who, for instance, were subject to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The FSA, if it is the guardian of a science-based approach, is not always impeccable in what it does, is it?

My hon. Friend makes a point about timing, and we all wish for things to happen more quickly. I do not necessarily accept his point about the lack of objectivity of the FSA. It has a lot of information to gather and must get it right. I shall return to some of the FSA’s points.

BT is a pesticide allowed by the Soil Association that contains 130 toxins when sprayed, but the Soil Association does not allow genetically modified plants such as maize or soya to be used if one gene has been removed from BT and placed in the plant, although that is more specific in repelling particular caterpillars and beetle larvae. The Soil Association rejects the less damaging process and allows the more damaging one. That is completely irrational, as is permitting the use of copper fungicides and not other pesticides.

I do not agree with my hon. Friend about GMOs, as a rationalist view is emerging on the matter. On his point about science, we had an interesting session at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs yesterday to consider vaccination for bovine tuberculosis. The parallel is that we do not know whether we will find the answers. There is a pervasive view that science will always find the answers. If organic food, because it is unnecessary, is considered bad and GMOs good, some of us will reject that. It is far too simplistic, and the public are on to something when they themselves reject it.

I was really talking about the Soil Association’s inconsistent attitude. I do not think that the debate about GM foods is simple; there are many factors to be taken into account. I am arguing for a rational, evidence-based look at the issues, rather than one inspired by late 19th and early 20th-century mysticism.

There is no doubt that organic food is becoming more popular. It is claimed that it tastes better, is healthier and safer and benefits the environment. I think that most people agree that fresh food tastes better, but when the Advertising Standards Authority considered the academic studies and did its own tests, it found no taste difference between organic food and food not labelled as organic. Obviously, in some cases organic food will taste better and in some cases it will not.

Is it healthier and safer? In January 2007, my noble Friend Lord Rooker said:

“I repeat: no unsafe food is on sale. No one can claim that their food is safer than anyone else’s. Any unsafe food would be illegal if it was on sale.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 January 2007; Vol. 688, c. 1315.]

That is quite clear. One of the arguments given against the safety of non-organic food is that the use of pesticides is allowed. We have heard that pesticides may be used on organic food, but what is not usually mentioned in Soil Association propaganda is how much pesticide may or may not be present on organic and non-organic food. It is present in such small amounts that it is unlikely to do any harm. There is no evidence that it does any, and as Sir John Krebs from the Food Standards Agency said recently, coffee has many more naturally occurring residues than are present in food grown non-organically in this country.

Is not the hon. Gentleman’s last sentence the nub of the issue? Many plants in this world contain naturally occurring substances that are highly poisonous if taken to excess. If those substances had been invented by scientists rather than developing naturally in the plant world, they would almost certainly be banned.

The hon. Gentleman makes two pertinent points—one about the testing of natural or synthetic chemicals to know whether they are safe, and one about the dose. Those are the key issues, not some mysticism about where they come from.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said—and we would all agree—that we want an improved environment. One of the claims for organic farming is that it is good for the environment. An experiment called the Boarded Barns farm experiment was done in Ongar, Essex, comparing organic farming with integrated farm management and conventional farming. It found in virtually every case that integrated farm management was more productive, because 50 per cent. more land was often needed for organic farming—as well as more manure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East said.

Rather surprisingly—the statistics are extremely difficult to obtain—it appears that integrated farm management, rather than organic farming, is better for biodiversity and bird life. One of the issues that the Soil Association and the organic farming movement often do not address is that organic farming requires an enormous amount of field ploughing, which destroys worms and makes it much more difficult for bird life to survive. In a parliamentary answer, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) mentioned

“the inherent environmental benefits delivered by farming organically.”—[Official Report, 16 April 2007; Vol. 459, c. 90W.]

I ask the Government to look at the Boarded Barns farm experiment and consider whether they can sustain and justify that position. I do not believe that it is justifiable.

There is undoubtedly a great uneasiness out there about science. It has been caused, for instance, by BSE and the problems 40 years ago with thalidomide. Those two issues caused a lot of damage and death—we do not yet know the extent of the damage—but it would be a mistake to replace scientific assessment with something else. The fact that science does not always get it right is no excuse for moving away from the scientific method.

One of the so-called successes of the Soil Association and the more extreme parts of the green movement—well, less extreme, I suppose—was the more or less worldwide abolition of the use of DDT following the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, which was taken up by the Soil Association. It has been said that DDT causes cancer of the liver. “Silent Spring” said that it was responsible for the decline in this country of the osprey population, the decline of peregrine falcons and the thinning of eggshells. Latter inspection has showed that none of those claims is true, but DDT has been banned more or less around the world. Aid agencies will not support countries, such as Uganda, that continue to use DDT. Over time, that has led not to a relatively small number of deaths such as those from BSE nor—I would not want to minimise it—to the sort of damage done to a number of human beings by thalidomide but to millions and millions of deaths around the world, and especially in the third world. Nevertheless, banning the use of DDT is claimed to be one of the successes of the movement.

The debate is therefore a plea for people to take a rational look at the huge problems that confront us. We seem to have got ourselves into a situation in which the Soil Association has taken over, with the Government putting its members on quangos and certifying certain things, but what lies behind it and what it is doing is essentially irrational. I believe that we have lost the public relations argument—that we have lost the battle of spin—and that, in the short term, the rationalists have lost to the irrationalists. If that continues—if we try to approach the huge problems of global warming in the same way—then we will make the wrong decisions. That will be costly, and only the populations of richer countries will be able to afford to eat.

Again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East for giving us the opportunity to debate the subject.

It is a pleasure, Mrs. Humble, to speak under your chairmanship. I had not intended to speak but merely to support my good colleague, the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), on this important issue. He spoke with typical expertise, and I am sorry that I shall not be able to stay to hear the responses to the debate. However, a couple of fresh points need to be made about the role of lobbyists.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on his contribution. He was absolutely right. I am delighted that he drew attention to the disaster that was the attack on using DDT as an anti-malarial, even for indoor spraying. It was never implicated in the allegations over the impact of wider spraying in agriculture, which were proved to be false. It is a tragedy that, even today, some developing countries are still arguing that they should have the tool of affordable and effective anti-malarial mosquito treatments such as DDT. There are still questions on whether the position of the Department for International Development in supporting those countries’ using DDT for indoor spraying is ethical and appropriate.

I turn to the role of those lobbying for organic food. I put my position on record. I enjoy eating organic food as an option. The choice should be available. I know that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East is strongly in favour of consumer choice, and from our perspective no one is talking of restricting it. I recognise the efforts of organic farmers to make provision for animal welfare, which is important. I also recognise that organic farming is one form of less intensive agriculture, and that when the environment is under pressure or in danger from over-intensive agriculture, it can be a solution to environmental blight.

There is a question about whether—in practice and not in theory, because if we did things differently we would have enough food for the world—the world could afford to cope with the reduced yields that would be consequent upon a mass switch from intensive to less intensive farming, particularly those on the margins who might not get the food that they need.

I recognise the environmental benefits that could flow from organic farming as an example of a less extensive form of farming. However, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East stated, it is a multi-billion pound industry. The same questions, the same scepticism and the same rigour must be applied to lobbyists and industry trade associations for that industry as we rightly apply to lobbyists and trade associations for other multi-billion pound industries. I think of the pharmaceutical industry, which is “guilty” of producing drugs that cure people of their illnesses, not merely providing dietary choice. I believe that we do not provide that degree of oversight and scepticism about the organisations that lobby in the direct financial interests of their members—in this case, for organic farmers. The Soil Association is very effective at doing so. That is its job. However, it is not independent, let alone a scientific advisory group, but an industry trade body with a vested financial interest.

That is why we are right to ask why its view is given credence, unsubstantiated by recognition of what always happens in agriculture—for example, that there should be an impractical limit on the amount of coexistence of genetically modified products in low quantities in crops from organic farms. The European Union has a reasonable and practical limit and there has always been an adventitious co-mixing of different types of crop in agriculture, yet the Soil Association goes for a limit that is 10 times lower, which is almost impossible to meet and has never been applied in agriculture in other areas. It does so because it wants to do down competition from other forms of less intensive agriculture, such as the use of GM technology. The association has a right to its view, and it has no problems in expressing it, but the House and the media should apply due scepticism because of its vested financial interests.

I shall not repeat the remarks of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley about the association’s approach to science, but I take the opportunity to defend the Food Standards Agency against the allegation that it has been non-scientific in its approach to organic food or food additives. Based on science, the FSA has taken exactly the right approach in response to recent research on food additives. Indeed, the detail shows that there simply is not enough information to argue for bans on specific products.

Similarly, when Sir John Krebs, the chairman of the FSA and a constituent of mine, rightly pointed out that there was no good scientific evidence for a health benefit of organic food he was roundly criticised. Despite the fact that he is the independent, academic chairman of an independent agency that was rightly set up by the Government to give the public confidence, he was attacked for showing bias in pointing out what is now recognised—that there is no evidence base for health benefits from organic food. It has been alleged that the FSA had caved in to lobbying from non-scientific consumer organisations with various vested interests; I applaud the fact that the agency has taken that view.

As for vested interests, it is important to mention Prince Charles, as far as is permitted by the rules of the House. He is the heir to the throne, and he therefore does not allow himself to be questioned by Members of Parliament or the media, as is expected of every other player. For instance, Ministers have to be interviewed on the “Today” programme.

From a sedentary position, the Minister says too often, but I can go in his place if he wishes.

Ministers and others have to defend their arguments and they come before Select Committees to put their point of view, but Prince Charles does not because of his role. However, he has a financial interest in promoting organic farming, and he promotes organic food in his speeches and writings. That is fair enough—at least it is open. What concerns me is that the heir to the throne should seek to use his influence behind the scenes, in personal and private communications with Ministers that are not revealed under the freedom of information legislation. It cannot be right for someone to behave like that when they are in such a position—with a financial interest because of the work of their estate. As far as I am able, I question whether that can be right, and I urge those who advise the prince to bear in mind the issues that I have mentioned.

I conclude by once again thanking the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East for bringing the subject matter of the debate before the House. It is about time that we were able to put arguments for, as it were, the other side, and I apologise once again for not staying to hear the closing remarks.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on introducing the debate, which is a timely one. I did not anticipate that I would be speaking quite so early on, and I expected more hon. Members to contribute. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) has entered the fray and made a valuable contribution. I anticipated that more hon. Members who support the organic farming movement would be present to put their point of view, but perhaps the reputation and rigorous approach of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East on these matters deterred them.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East has been very fair in his remarks this morning. I do not think that any hon. Member present would want to imply that organic farming should not be an integral part of British agriculture. What we are saying is that organic food and organic farming should be subject to the same tests as for all food production, and that those tests should be carried out objectively so that the public can be assured that the food they are eating is safe and reflects the claims that are made for it.

I want to congratulate the organic movement and compare it in some ways with the fair trade movement. Those are two strands of agriculture that have really engaged with the public, and the great benefit that that has brought to the food industry in this country is that consumers have been encouraged to question the origin of food, the way in which it is produced, and the return that is given to the producers. That inquiring frame of mind is good for the industry, because we need consumers who are knowledgeable and capable of making choices.

As has already been said, organic food should be tested on a number of criteria. Food safety is one, and is a key issue. There is a lack of clarity in the claim that pesticides are not used—whether straightforward ones, or herbicides or fungicides. Hon. Members have given examples of certain substances that have been used in organic food production that have questionable implications.

I do not believe that the health benefits of organic food have been properly tested. I agree with the National Farmers Union that the organic food movement should not make claims against other forms of production. That is unfair. The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) said, I think, that no food should be sold in this country that is unsafe. Consumers should be able to have confidence that that is the case.

Animal welfare is another issue. Over the years, conventional agriculture has not had a good record on that, and if the organic movement has progressed the thinking on it, it has achieved a lot. I think particularly of the use of antibiotics in conventional agriculture —both to prevent disease and for growth promotion. That has led to antibiotic resistance that has implications not only in animal production but in human health as well. The same concerns apply to the use of anthelmintics in animal production.

I wonder sometimes why the organic movement is against vaccination in general but very much in favour of it in relation to foot and mouth disease. I have no doubt that that will be explained now that I have raised it in this debate.

A number of claims have been made on the environment, but the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley was quite right to refer to the problems of deep ploughing in organic production as a means of weed control. In conventional agriculture, the move is towards minimal cultivation, with less energy use and less herbicide use too. Plants will not grow without nitrogen, so it has to be found somewhere—whether in organic or inorganic fertilisers or from nitrogen fixation by legumes. A standard organic rotation with the use of clover to build up fertility requires the ploughing up of the clover to allow planting of grain crops or cash crops. The plant breeding objective of trying to get nitrogen fixation into cereal crops has so far been unsuccessful.

Carbon emissions are an important issue. Current estimates of the contribution of British agriculture to greenhouse gases vary, but a figure of 7 per cent. has been proposed. Of that 7 per cent., however, it seems to me that at least 50 per cent. comes from nitrogen oxides that are made either in fertiliser production or as a result of emissions from the soil after the use of inorganic fertilisers. Some 33 per cent. is from methane, and perhaps only 16 per cent. from carbon emissions from fuel use and other sources.

It is questionable whether organic farming can contribute to lowering carbon emissions. Although the inputs are lower, and the energy use is probably lower, the output is lower as well. The thing to look at is the units of greenhouse gases produced per unit of food.

Another issue is taste and consumer preference, and I am all for customer choice. In my constituency is Graig Farm Organics. When I talk to the head of that organisation, he puts great emphasis on food handling—particularly of meat, so that it is not rushed from slaughterhouse to plate and so that time is given for carcases to mature and be presented to the customer in the best possible way. I am sure that the taste that is often claimed for organic food is very often due to its handling, and the same techniques could equally be applied to conventional food.

An issue that has not been touched on today but that will become more important is that of food security and of competition between the use of land for energy production and for food production. We should consider the absolute quantities of food that any one piece of land can produce, because there is going to be competition for that land for energy production as well as food production. I am very concerned about the destruction of the Amazon and other rain forests for the production of food and energy. If there is a reduction in food production because of a move to a less intensive system, we shall obviously need more land, which raises the possibility of more rain forests being destroyed.

The variations in certification are another issue. Although a unified scheme across the European Union provides at least a minimum standard—the Soil Association claims to have higher standards—without doubt in other countries certification is either less rigorous or less well observed. Organic producers in this country could be at a serious disadvantage if it is claimed that imported food is organic when it does not meet the same criteria as our food. Will the Government ensure that when food comes into this country it meets the same standards as are required from our producers?

A great range of agriculture is carried out in this country, from organic to very intensive, but there are a huge number of levels in between, too. Not only that, but nowadays, with the single farm payment and cross compliance, environmental considerations are at the heart of the Government’s support for agriculture.

I want particularly to mention LEAF—Linking Environment and Farming. It promotes a responsible level of input, so that it is not put on in excess. Farmers cannot afford to do that because of the costs of the inputs, and they also have a detrimental effect on the environment.

Organic farming has, I believe, played a valuable part in re-engaging the consumer with food production. Government support is needed to ensure that the demand for organic food is at least met in the medium term because of the costs of changing from conventional to organic farming. I also support the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East in urging the Government to ensure that all food in this country meets the same standards for food safety. It is only then that the customer can have confidence in what he is eating and can make the choices that are needed.

I am happy to serve again under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble.

I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing the debate and on dealing with an important subject in such a reasoned way. I confess that when I was asked to come and speak on behalf of the Opposition on organics, I had a horrible feeling that I was going to listen to a series of eulogies on the benefits of organic farming and that I would feel that it was all very difficult. I think that most people know that I am personally slightly sceptical about the benefits of organic food, but I want to represent a balanced position and some of my colleagues take a different view on the subject.

The debate reminds me that a long while ago, there used to be car stickers that said, “Don’t criticise farmers with your mouth full”. Much of the debate reflects the fact that we are well fed and looked after, that we have got used to having plenty of food ever since the war and that we can give ourselves the sort of benefits and luxuries that organic food in some ways provides. I feel that the reasoning is slightly the same as that behind why people go out and buy branded trainers and T-shirts and so on. They might be twice the price, and there might be no evidence that they are any better, but it somehow makes people feel better that they have something with one of the famous brands on it.

We cannot get away from the fact that organic food is the fastest growing sector of the food market, which is basically, for obvious reasons, a stable market. It saw a 22 per cent. increase last year and passed the £2 billion mark. It is still a very tiny sector of the market, but, nevertheless, it is the only bit that is growing and it is very important. What has changed is that many of the farmers who are producing organic food and farming organically are not doing it out of some personal absolute conviction of the benefits, but because it is a market opportunity. A large vegetable and salad producer in my constituency already has 1,500 acres converted and more land in conversion. That is all going to lettuce, celery and such salad crops. That demonstrates the scale of the business.

Of course, the vast majority of our organic food is imported. The points that several hon. Members have made about the different standards around the world are extremely important. There are 11 different certification bodies in this country—I hope that that is right, but the Minister will correct me if it is not. In any case, it is a lot. That in itself worries me because, as we have already heard, they do not all have the same standards. We know that other countries in Europe operate on the minimal European standard and my understanding is that outside Europe, exporting countries simply need to be recognised as applying equivalent standards and inspection regimes. However, they seem to be a variable feast.

Ultimately, what worries me is the consumer. I passionately believe in choice, which has been mentioned several times, but that choice has to be based on accurate information. I seriously wonder whether, if we were to challenge a range of consumers who buy organic food, they would be aware that one packet of organic something or other might not be produced to the same standards as something else that was labelled organic. I strongly suspect that for most consumers, organic is organic, and the different standards are of meaningless consequence. I have a great concern about whether the consumer is being misled by the range of different organic standards not only in this country but in those countries from which we import a huge quantity of product.

I do not intend to waste the Chamber’s time by going into the rights and wrongs of organic food; other hon. Members have done a much more successful job of analysing those points than I would. However, we need to consider what comes next. Those who advocate organic food—many people have referred to the Soil Association, as it is the largest body in this country—would obviously like to see far more land converted to organic production and to put pressure on the Government, and the Opposition parties, to have policies that encourage organic farming. However, I cannot help recalling a few years ago, when there was a lot of support for organic farming and a lot of dairy farmers converted to organic milk production. The result was that the price collapsed as there was not the demand for organic milk at that stage, and the farmers found themselves having to sell highly expensive-to-produce organic milk on to the ordinary milk market. They lost a great deal of money, and to me the lesson of that is that if production is artificially stimulated ahead of demand, that invites trouble. I have a big question mark in my mind about whether there is a role for Government artificially to stimulate organic production any more than the market already does. Obviously, as I have said, it is a great market opportunity and if producers want to fulfil it, it is only right and proper that farmers, who are increasingly encouraged to consider what the consumer demands, should be able to do so.

Hon. Members have gone through some of the contradictions about chemicals, pesticides and other things, and I will not repeat them. I strongly suspect that the consumer does not understand that and that the consumer believes that what organic means is that a product has not been treated with chemicals. That is a fundamental misunderstanding. However, the biggest issue is the confusion to which several hon. Members have referred between local food, fresh food and organics. There is a huge amount of confusion. I like to eat fresh food, and I like to eat local food. Personally, I am not worried whether it is organic or not because I think that freshness and the fact that it is local, which often goes with that, are far more important in terms of taste, quality and so on. Again, however, there is an issue here: some people have, perhaps, confused others unintentionally.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) referred to energy, which is very important to think about in today’s world. There seems little doubt that, overall, organics are friendlier to the environment in terms of energy consumption—estimates reckon they emit about 26 per cent. less carbon. However, that ignores the points made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) about deep ploughing and other issues about the environmental impact beyond the direct issue of carbon emissions.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of a study carried out for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs by the Manchester Business School, which shows that in actual fact organic farming might be more expensive in terms of energy than conventional farming—the reverse of what he just said?

I confess that I am not aware of that study and I shall look it up readily later. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing it to my attention. Perhaps that is the price of following a brief that came from the other side of the argument.

I want to touch also on the issue of food security, which has been referred to by a number of hon. Members. I take the view that this will be of increasing importance in this country. There is an apparent contradiction between lower yields from organics and the demand for more and more food production. I understand that the lower yields vary very much depending on the type of product. For salads, the difference is marginal—5 or 10 per cent.—and in dairy foods it is about 15 per cent. However, for bulk commodities, such as grain, the difference in yields between organic and conventional farming can be about 40 per cent. Obviously, that is a horrendously large number and would have a huge impact on food security.

Those are the figures for north-west Europe. The organic movement claims, however, that in much of the rest of the world, and particularly the developing world, there is virtually no difference. The movement seems to argue, therefore, that everything is perfectly all right. I would point out, however—I think that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East made this point—that agriculture in those countries is very under-developed. They do not use what most farmers would describe as modern technologies to produce their crops and aid self-sufficiency. I think that if we all adopted the same standards, we would find the same difference in production across the world, which has huge benefits. That is why I started my remarks by saying that we should not criticise farmers with our mouths full. We should never forget that, ultimately, we need to keep people fed.

I want to touch on the issue of genetically modified foods as well, which obviously is a hugely vexed issue. I have little doubt that generally people in this country are completely opposed to it, which is why there are virtually no GM products on the market, although a lot of livestock products have been fed on GM foods. My personal view—I stress that it is a personal view—is that the organic movement will live to regret discounting GM foods in the way that it has done. I believe that GM foods have the potential to achieve a great deal of what the organic movement seeks to achieve—a reduction in the use of artificial chemicals to aid production. GM foods could do that. The obvious example is that if we could produce a wheat with its own nitrogen-fixing nodules, such as those in legumes, we could reduce massively the demand for nitrogenous fertiliser, which we have all referred to, in different ways, as one of the major agricultural emissions. I feel that the organic movement has made a fundamental error there. I do not know how long it will be before it thinks twice about it.

I was interested in the comment by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East about the origins of organics. I am much more of a practical man, and was interested in the way in which he described the purpose of horns or, indeed, antlers—about how they are all part of the digestive process. I am lucky enough to own a small herd of pedigree highland cattle with very large horns and can see uses for those horns much more prosaic than aiding digestion, and sometimes I am on the wrong end of those prosaic uses.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this fascinating debate. I shall pay him the credit of rereading what he has just said, which is not something that I often do, I must confess. It was a very worthwhile introduction. I believe strongly in choice, but that choice must be on the provision of accurate information. Like other Members, I object strongly to conventional farmers criticising organic farmers as a bunch of cranks, but equally I share strongly the views of everybody who has said that organic producers and the organic movement should stop suggesting that everybody who uses pesticides is out to poison the world. That is blatantly untrue. I am quite certain that if it had not been for the development of pesticides in the last 60 or 70 years, most of us would be going hungry today.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble, and to reply to this debate on behalf of Lord Rooker, who is the Minister with direct responsibility for the matter before us. In my view he is one of the best Ministers that any Government have been fortunate enough to have serving them. He is an incredibly successful and hard-working Minister.

I am in danger of agreeing with the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). I suppose that I might be accused of pinching his policies if I say that I agree with his summing-up on the point about choice and the accusations and counter-accusations. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) is to be congratulated. This is the first debate in the House on this subject for two years. I wish that the media would report the debates in this House, and in this Chamber in particular, with greater coverage. I think that we have had a most stimulating and well-informed debate today.

My hon. Friend is a scientist, and it is characteristic of science not only that it must use deduction in order to make a point, but that it makes testable propositions. If a proposition is not testable, it is probably meaningless. The question that faces us, therefore, is: what methods do we use to test the claims? My Department tests its policies on science. We are one of only two Departments with our own chief science officer and a network of access to science that, in my experience, is unparalleled in environment Departments in countries of a comparable size—the United States is probably the only one that could claim greater reach.

Despite increases in recent years, organic farming remains a very small part of food and farming in our country. Some 3.5 per cent. of the total agricultural area is under organic management. The market for produce is between 1 and 2 per cent. of the total. Nevertheless, as I say, it has experienced phenomenal growth in recent years and is now, I believe, established as a permanent feature of the food and farming landscape. On the geographical coverage, in 1997—I pick the year because it is 10 years ago, and not in order to make a partisan point—the area under organic management in the United Kingdom was a little less than 51,000 hectares. By the beginning of this year, that figure was 620,000, of which just more than 120,000 were added by conversion. In other words, we have seen a twelve-fold increase. In 1997, there were fewer than 1,000 farmers of organic produce in the United Kingdom, but by the beginning of this year that number had increased to 4,600—we heard an example of one this morning.

As has been said, the retail sales of organic products in the UK are approaching £2 billion. The forecast is that that figure will grow steadily. The share of the organic market for produce that we grow here, supplied by home producers, also continues to increase.

The changes have been brought about by consumer demand, clearly, but also by Government action. So what about the points that have been made—what does organic farming deliver in the Government’s view? 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.

Organic farming contributes to the economic sustainability of rural areas. Research shows that organic farmers are open to developing new enterprises and marketing initiatives. Again, whether that is because of market conditions and the balances of consumer demand, rather than simply because they undertake organic production, depends on the farm and farmer involved. Generally, organic farms are better connected with those whom they supply and therefore with local consumers, food processors and wholesalers. So in rural economies, organic production generally provides more employment opportunities.

I referred earlier to the Boarded Barns farm study, which compared organic farming with integrated farm management and conventional farming. Is that part of the information base that my hon. Friend the Minister’s Department uses when it advises him on the conclusions that he is talking about? If not, will he examine the study?

I am told that it is, but the general point that I wish to make is that the matter is linked to the debate about life cycles and their carbon footprints. All judgments on organic produce must consider the alternatives as well as the amount of carbon produced in a life cycle. The debates on rainforests and fuel production and on food and fuel are a matter of balance. Transparency, information and scientific evidence are therefore increasingly important, which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, will welcome—as I said, he is a scientist. The answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley, is that, yes, that study is part of the information base.

I was making the point that, in general, organic farming production in this country tends to employ more people than conventional farming because of the methods used. That is not to say that that is inherent in organic farming or that the methods that produce that greater employability cannot be applied to conventional farming methods. That backs up the important point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, made.

Why do consumers want to buy organic food? I shall not be drawn into that debate, other than to say that there are a variety of reasons. Some buy it because of environmental and social concerns, some because they think it is better for them and some because they say it tastes better. Our policy is to respect the right of consumers to reach their own conclusions, but as yet there is no conclusive evidence that organic farming produces greater health and nutritional benefits. I repeat the point that my noble Friend Lord Rooker made in the other place, which has been referred to today: that if food were unsafe, we would not allow it to be sold, whether it was overseas organic food, domestic inorganic food or whatever its source was.

The Minister is right about food safety but, when the claim is made that food from a third-world country or a country outside the European Union is organic, or produced under organic conditions, surely we owe it to our consumers to be able to guarantee that it meets the minimum standards that would be expected in the EU.

Yes, we do, and our regime has been referred to. I am told that there are in fact nine licensing bodies. Of course, it is the job of the port authorities to do what they can. Such problems exist in relation to a wide range of products; I refer the hon. Gentleman to illegal logging and timber produce. There are many other products in relation to which one is at some disadvantage if one is not responsible for their production. Our methods and processes are based on European Union law, and such matters were one reason for the widening of the European Union.

There is little time to answer all the points that have been made. I apologise for that, but I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, was seeking to air his views and make his arguments rather than listen to a statement of Government policy. He knows fine well what Government policy is. It is based on the principles of balance, consumers’ right to choose, transparency and the integrity of the products available to the consumer. Increasingly, conventional farmers tend to deride the organic farming sector less, and the organic farming sector tends to deride the inorganic sector less. We believe that the policy is a success story for the United Kingdom.

Organic production has made tremendous strides in the past decade in consumer recognition and the volume of production, although I do not dismiss the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire’s point that consumers need simplicity as well as transparency. The organic sector has become an established feature of the agricultural and food industries. More and more, consumers want to know that their food has been produced safely and in a way that treats farm animals consistent with good welfare. That is not to say that organic systems are the only farming methods that meet those aspirations, but they do tick the right boxes in the minds of consumers.

Progress in the next decade might not be as rapid as in the one just past, and a period of consolidation is likely. However, we can safely say that organic production has established a secure position for itself and that it will continue to progress. The lessons learned by each sector from the other are significant. I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, for raising the issue.