rose to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will withdraw financial support which encourages farmers to convert to organic farming.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in this short debate, I want to examine the merits of organic farming. There is no doubt that it is a great business success story. It is expanding rapidly and has become a major and profitable industry with a turnover, in Britain alone, of well over £1 billion a year. It is backed by a powerful and influential lobby group, the Soil Association; it is heavily promoted by supermarkets; and organic food is popular with consumers. They pay premium prices because they are persuaded that organic food tastes better, is healthier than conventional food and that by buying organic, they benefit the environment and are helping to save the planet. We are constantly told that ethical living—which is all the rage—means buying organic. Who can possibly question the merits of organic farming? It is like questioning motherhood and apple pie.
I started without any prejudice against organic farming. I have no financial interest in supporting it or opposing it. If the evidence supports the claims made for organic farming I will back it. Unfortunately, it does not. Blind tests have shown that when people compare organic and conventionally grown fruit that is equally fresh, they cannot tell the difference. Time after time, tests by the independent Food Standards Agency have shown that organically grown food is not significantly different in terms of safety and nutrition from food produced conventionally. In one respect, it is arguable that it can be more likely to endanger health. Nor, perhaps surprisingly, is organic farming better for the environment. Far from saving the planet, promoting it can damage the environment and make global warming worse.
I start with health. People buy organic food because they feel it is free from synthetic pesticide residues, which are widely believed to cause cancer. In fact, the organic creed is founded on the principle that synthetic chemicals are bad and dangerous, while natural chemicals are safe and good. That is, of course, a scientific howler. It ignores the fact that a molecule is a molecule, whether man-made or natural. Any number of synthetic chemicals, such as anti-bacterial drugs, are highly beneficial; any number of natural chemicals, such as arsenic, ricin or aflotoxin, are highly poisonous. We consume many thousands of times more natural pesticides, manufactured by plants themselves to ward off pests, than synthetic ones.
Fear of pesticide residues is one of those media-hyped scares that has no scientific basis. It ignores the lesson taught by Paracelsus, of which no one in the Soil Association seems to be aware, that it all depends on the dose. Every mouthful we eat contains poisons, but in such tiny quantities that they do not harm us. Regulations set the safety levels for pesticide residues so high that they are between 100 and 1,000 times above concentrations at which any harmful effect might result. We should note that farmers, who are more exposed to pesticides than the rest of us, have lower than average rates of cancer. Stomach cancers, which might be expected to be closely related to the carcinogenic effects of ingested pesticides, have declined by about 60 per cent in the past 50 years.
Indeed, concentrating on organic food may have bad effects on the health of our population. Evidence suggests that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables protects us against cancer. However, eating habits, certainly for the lower income groups, are influenced by price, and organic food costs more. When every lifestyle magazine urges readers to eat organic food, and implies that we are not looking after the health of our children if we do not, people on lower incomes may feel that they should buy more expensive fruit and vegetables, which means they are likely to eat fewer vegetables and less fruit, which may increase their risk of developing cancer.
On the environmental effects, I accept that many people take up organic farming because they want to benefit the environment, and no doubt they succeed. However, in a recent, carefully conducted experiment at Boarded Barns in Essex, where one farmer farmed similar land for 10 years in three different ways—conventional farming, organic farming and the system known as “integrated farm management”—therefore making the best possible comparison, it was shown that the system adopted is the least important factor for wildlife. What matters is leaving ample field margins and hedgerows, where 80 to 85 per cent of wildlife exists. On balance, of the three systems, integrated farm management came out best for biodiversity. Organic farming came out relatively badly, because it used the most energy.
Two vitally important factors contradict the environmental claims made for organic farming: its dependence on the plough, and its lower yield. No-till, or low-till, agriculture—avoiding the use of the plough—greatly benefits the environment. It prevents soil erosion, improves the structure and quality of the soil, increases its water storage capacity and reduces the need for irrigation. It reduces the risk or extent of flooding. It reduces the run-off of nitrogen and phosphorus into rivers. It avoids disturbing birds’ nests, earthworms and insect life in the way that ploughing does. Crucially, it reduces carbon emissions and sequesters carbon into the soil. Ploughing, on the other hand, an integral part of organic farming, is incompatible with conservation agriculture. Promoting conservation agriculture should be a prime objective of government farm policy.
In fact, what greatly facilitates no-till farming is the cultivation of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops. They have enabled American farmers to increase overall no-till to 35 per cent of all farmed land; compare that with Britain, where only 3 per cent of arable land is farmed without the plough. The carbon sequestration achieved by no-till or low-till agriculture in 2005 brought a saving of more than 8 billion kilograms of CO2, which is equivalent to removing 3.6 million cars from the roads. These are huge environmental benefits. The organic movement denies us these benefits. GM crops, which the organic movement opposes, facilitate them. Yet perversely, contrary to all the evidence, we back organic farming and oppose GM crops.
The second count against organic farming is even more serious and is its relative inefficiency. It makes less effective use of land than other systems. That is why organic food costs more. Supporters of organic food cannot have it both ways. If organic farming is not less efficient, then the premium prices charged for organic food prices are a ramp. In fact, the higher prices reflect a lower yield. Various studies show that the yield of most organic crops is 20 to 50 per cent lower than the yield from conventional farming. That may not matter to prosperous Europeans, but the world as a whole desperately needs more efficient farming. The supply of good farming land is running out, which is what drives South American and Indonesian farmers to slash and burn tropical forests. Saving tropical forests requires more, not less, efficient agriculture.
At present, nearly a billion people do not have enough to eat. Further, by the middle of this century, we will have to feed at least another 2.5 billion people. Hundreds of millions in Asia will adopt western styles of living, will eat more meat and vegetables and will have millions more pets, which are unlikely to be vegetarians. Finally, climate change threatens to increase droughts and heat waves and turn more areas of the world into deserts. What can organic farming, with its low yields, offer the developing world when it desperately needs more efficient agriculture?
In the words of the eminent Indian biotechnologist, CJ Prakash,
“the only thing sustainable about organic farming in the developing world is that it sustains poverty and malnutrition”.
The Government should act on the basis of the evidence. They should recognise that, whatever the popular fashion and the hype, the organic movement is based on a scientific howler, commands premium prices that represent no extra value, holds back farming practices that benefit the environment in vitally important ways, and, if exported to the developing world, would be disastrous for the campaign to reduce poverty and hunger. Nothing can justify spending scarce resources on such counter-productive purposes.
I have a feeling that the Minister may sympathise with some of the points that I make, but I am not sure that Defra will allow him to say so. I ask him to draw the attention of the Secretary of State to the arguments I have made and, in particular, to consult the chief scientist at Defra.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for securing this debate on organic farming. It is disappointing that there is an unusually low turnout of speakers, especially as the topic touches on several important matters of public debate, such as the relative merits of organic versus conventional produce, public support for various production systems and farming in general and the relative environmental impacts of different systems, as well as health and food.
I declare an interest as a conventional dairy farmer, a director of Dairy Farmers of Britain, a farmers’ co-operative marketing both organic and conventional dairy produce, a past president of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers, a former chairman of Cheshire CLA and a member of the NFU and CLA. I was also a member of Sub-Committee D of the European Union Committee of your Lordships’ House in the late-1990s, which undertook an inquiry into organic farming.
I was drawn into agriculture through exposure as a student to the merits of organic farming by reading the pioneering literature of Lady Eve Balfour, Newman Turner and others and through working as a WWOF—Working Weekends on Organic Farms—volunteer. I am pleased that organic farming is now recognised as a valid niche in the market, that organic produce can be purchased more widely than from health food shops and that sales of organic food grew by 30 per cent last year, with the industry now worth some £1.6 billion, which is about 4 per cent of total farm produce.
Organic farming is based on the belief that sustainable agriculture is maintained through attention to the soil and its health, rather than the crop or produce grown on it. That is why the Soil Association is so named. It is recognised by the EU as one of the certifying bodies for organic standards in the UK.
Organic production is generally recognised to be less efficient in terms of reduced output and/or increased costs, yet it can nevertheless be profitable through higher prices. The Government originally gave grants to farms under the organic farming scheme to help them in the two-year conversion process involved in qualifying for the organic standard, a period when they had higher costs, yet could not be deemed “organic” to attain higher prices. This has now changed to the organic entry level scheme or OELS—I think that that is correct. Farmers would not say that it encourages them to convert, rather that it provides support for those in conversion in recognition of maintaining organic management requirements to deliver effective environmental benefits.
Once a farm is converted to organic standards, it is up to the farmer to harvest or market the benefits. I would think that one of the primary objectives of the Soil Association is to maintain supply just below demand. If this balance is lost, as it was in the late 1990s, with a subsequent crash in prices, farmers will be caught in a situation where they will have to repay the conversion grants if they can no longer afford the losses and wish to go back to conventional production.
Organic produce is criticised for being some 63 per cent more expensive than conventional food, according to recent research by Morgan Stanley. Relative pricing is up to the market to determine, but, generally, it must be welcomed that one of the attractions of organic production is that the producer can begin through his own marketing to set his or her pricing at a level which the market will bear, and not be subject to having to accept deflationary pricing undertaken by the mass-market grocery food chains, with a resultant drift towards what is disparagingly ticketed as factory farming. The resulting dynamics of supply and demand, inflationary costs and deflationary pricing will determine the extent of the organic market.
The impetus for this debate was supplied by the recent reports of the debate at the Oxford Farming Conference, where the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, David Miliband, said that the Government were pleased to give extra support to organic production, totalling some £30 million annually, in recognition of the public benefits from organic food and organic production. He later said in an interview in the Sunday Times that there was no proof that the health benefits of organically produced food were greater those of conventionally produced food.
The Minister is correct on both counts. The Secretary of State is supported by the Food Standards Agency. Sir John Krebs has said:
“In our view, the current scientific evidence does not show that organic food is any safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food”.
It is for this reason that organic production is often dismissed as “muck and magic”.
In a paper prepared by Defra’s sub-group on the European Action Plan for Organic Farming in July 2002, the relative merits of claims and counter-claims are assessed. Regrettably, there are few comparisons between organic and conventional extensive farms. In any case, comparisons between different systems are relatively insensitive and variables so numerous that a clear definition of conventional agriculture can become rather meaningless.
However, it can be stated in the generality that, under organic production, biodiversity is improved, pesticide pollution is less, soil organisms benefit and waste is lower. It is generally the case that the farming skills and good practice are more relevant than the system. The care and controls in place throughout the food chain are far more significant.
What irks the farming fraternity more in this debate is the missionary attitude of the Soil Association and its spokesmen towards conventional production. Its claims are misleading and without evidence. The Soil Association is believed even to have suppressed evidence that did not reinforce its prejudices. I have been led to understand that recent research commissioned by the Soil Association at the Scottish Agricultural College found that the modern Holstein cow performed best in an organic system, yet that has not been publicised. A philosophy based on the soil does not have any bearing on genetics, yet the Soil Association is backward-looking in disqualifying genetic improvement through embryo transfer and is ignoring the debate on genetic modification and the benefits that that could bring. In the different, but related, matter of cloning, in a recent press story, Lord Melchett propounded opinions without foundation or evidence regarding a daughter of a clone recently born on a farm in Staffordshire.
That said, it is right for consumers to be concerned about their diet and health. Poor diet probably contributes as much as one third of the risk regarding two big killers—cancer and cardiovascular disease. Jamie Oliver recently highlighted the benefits to health in providing good food in schools. The Food Standards Agency aims to help effect changes in diet to improve health. It is also right for producers and the food chain to be concerned about production methods, handling systems and food quality. Government support for organic farming provides a framework within which consumers have choice and which they demonstrate they are willing to pay for.
The Government, through the taxpayer, provide support for public goods. Good food is instrumental in providing good health. It is well to reflect on the use of partnership between government and industry. Against the background of BSE and the foot and mouth outbreak, the debate is engaged concerning government support, best practice, the public good, industry independence and so on. The Government are keen to promote a partnership approach within agriculture, especially as regards cost-sharing in their health strategy. For that to work, it is essential that partnership does not take on an Orwellian meaning, whereby some partners are more partners than others. Partnership between government and industry should mean transparency and combining to run systems jointly. That means open books. If industry is paying to run systems, the industry has a duty to scrutinise those systems and alter them if it is felt that they could be run better. That means that industry is part of management and is not used as a victim. Partnership means commitment and support from both sides to make decisions that are carried out both by government and industry whereby both sides must gear up for the job. In that regard, severe dismay is being expressed on the introduction to the change in the pre-movement test requirements.
It is only a week until 1 February, the first anniversary of the wholly insufficient tabular form of valuation for compensation to farmers caught up in the TB outbreak. While this debate is not concerned with such wider matters, it is nevertheless part of a general debate on government support for agriculture. The industry, which in this case means Holstein UK, which registers and certifies the parentage of three dairy breeds and some beef breeds, has put forward a more just, rational and logical tabular form of livestock valuation. Can the Minister agree to give that swift attention to correct an imbalance and dishonest practice that is hurting the rural community?
I will end with one more query for my noble friend. The organic farming scheme closed for new applicants in about 2004. Such agreements are still in place for some producers. The OFS producers are encouraged to transfer to OELS, organic entry level stewardship, but some 90 known producers have come forward, saying that they have received repayment demands from Natural England. I understand that that relates to handbook guidance that is unclear on the eligibility of OFS to OELS conversion and has captured some OFS in countryside stewardship, which is not eligible for OELS. Can my noble friend undertake to look at this with a view to issuing clearer guidance in the handbook, and discuss that with Natural England to pursue a more lenient attitude in the mean time, given that so many producers are involved?
My Lords, I warmly thank my noble friend Lord Taverne for putting down this important debate today, and for keeping the issue of farming methods under close scrutiny. If public money is going into them, we need to consider carefully the benefits of the various methods.
My noble friend is quite right to point out the great importance that soil plays in food production, in flooding and in carbon sequestration. He addressed some remarks to a worldwide situation, but I will restrict mine to the UK—partly as this debate is focused on the support that the organic sector gets from the UK Government, and partly as it is a wide enough brief anyway.
The organic sector set the standard for agriculture to lay emphasis on things that in the 21st century are agreed to be important again: animal welfare, biodiversity, soil management and so on. Yet, at the time when the Soil Association was struggling to promote them, these things were regarded as not at all important. Quantity was all. The Soil Association had to fly the flag for the importance of those issues, and did so effectively through those years. It still has an important role to play in bringing forward debates: for example, on antibiotic use in animals.
The Minister is probably more aware than I that research has not yet come forward to prove any case for linking the rise of diseases such as MRSA in hospitals with the fact that humans are increasingly resistant to antibiotics yet are, of course, consuming them in various forms. That may be because they are taking them for their own illnesses, or as a result of what they are eating. All sorts of issues need to be raised, and the Soil Association has a strong part to play in that.
I would agree with my noble friend that the Government need to look closely at their policies again in the light of climate change. Ploughing is not necessarily integral to organic production. In my neck of the woods in the West Country, for example, organic farmers are primarily concerned with poultry and dairy production, which does not involve vast amounts of ploughing. Their organic standards are much more based around animal welfare, and the sort of grass mixes that can be used.
Some interesting research done by the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, showed that organic milk from cattle fed on red clover had a vastly increased amount of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids in their milk—the very ones that the FSA is anxious that people should have in their diet, although they are conventionally regarded as coming only from fish. So, that sort of dietary implication needs to be borne in mind.
A study conducted over 21 years addressed the very issue that my noble friend Lord Taverne was talking about. It took place in Switzerland and looked at the long-term efficiency benefits in comparing organic and integrated farming. It found that yields were 20 per cent lower in the organic system, but that fertiliser and energy input were 34 to 53 per cent lower. That is extremely important when thinking about climate change, as fertiliser is one of the most energy-hungry types of substance that one can get. Pesticide input was 97 per cent lower—which, again, is very important when one considers the cost of cleaning up our water from pesticides. About £120 million is spent in the UK on removing pesticides from the water supply. Those pesticides are mainly a result of the chemicals used in conventional farming. I have that figure from research done in 2000.
To return to the Swiss comparison, the organic system also had high soil microbial biodiversity and activity and greater soil particle stability—both very important for stability as climate change, flooding, and so on is likely to rise in importance. The reference for that research is from Science magazine in 2002. The organic farming sector can continue to hold its head high. It has every claim to be able to meet the issues brought about by climate change.
I turn for a moment to the issue of why consumers buy organic food. As the noble Lords, Lord Taverne and Lord Grantchester, have said, the organic sector has grown considerably over the years. Despite what Sir John Krebs said, consumers continue to have faith in organic food. That is partly because of what is not in that food rather than what is in it. There have been no conclusive tests about taste issues: they are very subjective. I have already mentioned antibiotics. People are often concerned about their food containing pesticides. One lot of Cox's apples, for example, can be sprayed up to 16 times with 36 different pesticides. The Government’s official advice is to wash and peel vegetables and fruit to remove those pesticides.
It is extremely important for consumers that they are not consuming things that they feel unhappy with. But I think that they are also convinced by the case for biodiversity and the importance of field margins, beetle banks, ponds and hedges. They all cost money to manage. Part of that is recovered through the organic premium. I am surprised by the figure cited by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, although I would not question it. If we take milk, for example, organic milk costs 20 per cent more at most. A chicken, which is at the very top end of the range of what might be more expensive, is about 50 per cent more. In many cases, the conventional and the organic product are only some pence apart—carrots or lettuce, for example.
In my remaining time, I should like to ask the Minister about a piece of research done by Manchester Business School for Defra, commissioned at the cost of £140,000, I believe, to investigate whether purchasing an organic or a conventional trolley of goods had more environmental impact. It did not conduct any new lifecycle assessments. Crucially, considering the importance of the impact on biodiversity and landscapes, which must be considered, Natural England was not consulted at any stage of the study, which seems a big gap.
I would also be grateful if the Minister would tell us what plans Defra has to continue funding such important research as the Organic Conversion Information Service, facilitated by the Elm Farm Research Centre in Berkshire. The funding runs out in March 2007. Over the years, it has done especially valuable research and it would be extremely useful to know what are the Government’s plans for it.
I should also like to ask the Minister about undersupply in organic British livestock feed. If the Government’s official policy is to cut down food miles, as the NFU has pointed out, that needs to be addressed. Currently, 70 per cent of organic livestock feed is imported. Clearly, that is not in keeping with the principle of low food miles.
In conclusion, the organic sector has the confidence of the consumer and of the Government. Liberal Democrats have a proud record of supporting the organic sector.
My Lords, I must begin by declaring an interest yet again: we have a commercial, family farm in Suffolk, we are members of the NFU and the CLA, and we are partakers of the FWAG scheme. We produce high-quality food, conserve and enhance the countryside and, over the years, have extended pathways on part of our farm, enabling other people to come and enjoy the countryside.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for asking the Question this afternoon. It is important because claims are being made by one side of the industry that, in some ways, belittle the contribution made by the other side. A chance to talk about it today is extremely important. I was also pleased that he particularly mentioned the real value of the integrated farm management scheme, which I claim as LEAF’s. As president of LEAF, I claim it with even greater joy. LEAF has enabled many farmers to farm commercially, while protecting and conserving the countryside. Lord Peter Melchett was the main speaker earlier this week at the City Food Lecture, obviously speaking on behalf of the Soil Association but also of organic producers. Interestingly, he also recognised the value of integrated management. I was particularly pleased when, in the question time, Sir Stewart Hampson, chairman of John Lewis, with Waitrose one of their businesses, again recognised the importance of LEAF.
It is not that one is right and one wrong. If people want to buy organic, if it is properly labelled and does what it is supposed to do, they are the consumer and they should have the choice of what they want to buy. Later on, I will challenge the Minister on the need for clear labelling so that people know what choices they are making.
I, many of my friends and other people devote money and garden space to cultivating fruit and vegetables in their own garden. There are many thousands who still have their allotments. Has there been any research or is there any knowledge of the amount of food produced by individuals for their own use and the contribution that that makes to the lessening of pollution? Anybody who has been down to the garden to dig up their own potatoes or pick a handful of raspberries or has even bought some fresh spinach will know the difference that it makes being able to eat it straight away. The debate today is not necessarily “organic versus commercial” but is more about locally produced and fresh food. That is exciting, and it offers great opportunity for the future.
The behaviour of the British shopper is definitely changing, and sales of organic products have risen steadily. They now form an important part—albeit a small one—of the total. The Secretary of State recognised recently that it was only 4 per cent of the total farm produce, not 40 per cent:
“I would not want to say that 96 per cent of our farmed produce is inferior because it is not organic … Despite the rise in organic sales being ‘exciting’ for shoppers, they should not think that conventionally produced food is ‘second-best’”.
I hope that this debate will reflect that.
I was interested by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. He has great experience and rightly recognises the valid importance of niche marketing and the growing possibilities for that. I say simply, “Good luck”, because that is clearly right. We used to have livestock on our farm—sadly, we do not anymore—but the whole question of how livestock are raised is important in the wider field. The Minister is very generous, but he was wide of the mark. The whole question of breeding stock in relation to TB is in fact unresolved.
In my youth, we used to talk about the balance of payments and how the Government had a duty to ensure that the country did not get into debt by spending more overseas than it earned. Apparently, that concept is old-fashioned and no longer the way in which the country’s finances are judged. I am disappointed that we now produce less than two-thirds of our own food requirements, and that proportion will continue to fall steadily if we are not careful. The Minister is well aware that I still have concerns about food security overall, which I know he also supports. I am not saying that we should produce everything, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, commented, in an era in which there is pressure on a growing international population as a result of climate change and difficulties with the water supply, we and other countries that can grow our own food are beholden to grow it. I am grateful that the current Minister appreciates that.
I echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and others: no science has said that organic is better or not so good. The Secretary of State has said so, as did Sir John Krebs when he was chairman of the Food Standards Agency. The whole question is therefore one of choice, but I must ask how the consumer makes that choice. I do not know whether the Minister happened to see it, but I was very concerned that, at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday, following a Question from my honourable friend Jim Paice, the Prime Minister could not explain why Ministers in another place had blocked four separate attempts to bring a labelling Bill into being. Such a Bill would require at least country-of-origin labelling, and, I hope, would have greater detail that would help people to make that wise choice. As I have indicated, it is important. We want the general public to be able to feel confident that the food that they buy is good and healthy and that as much of our food as possible is produced with assured standards of production. These matters are all important, and it is vital that we can pass this on to the general public.
The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, asked whether the Government would be withdrawing their financial support. I will not pick up directly on the issues that have been raised. The NFU briefing was good on that, so I will let the Minister refer to it. The organic farmers have certainly had direct support in the past five years. I want to broaden the issue so that it is not the Government’s responsibility. I was surprised to learn recently that the National Lottery had given the Soil Association large sums of money for farming projects. From 2001 to 2006, the total funding that it received—noble Lords will not believe this—amounted to a staggering £17,909,679. I could not believe it. I am not saying that it will not be wisely used, but there are many ways in which we could use National Lottery money rather than directing it in that way. If the Minister has a view, I would be grateful if he would share it with us when he comes to respond. Defra clearly tries to put its money where it thinks it should be spent. Obviously, there is never enough money, so it has to take difficult decisions, but £17 million to a particular organisation that is involved in only 4 per cent of the food that is produced overall is nonsense. I really am concerned about that.
Briefly, another contribution to the debate was made at the Oxford farming conference by Professor Diana Bowles. Her contribution was very exciting. She talked about the great opportunities that would be available in the next five and 10 years. She reflected on how not only would crops be able to produce food but other aspects of the same plant could be used in new ways.
The key to such innovation requires adequate funding, which has already been touched on. It is worrying that, in recent years, research funding has reduced. I very much hope that this will be a priority for Defra in easier times when it does not have to look at the £200 million budget deficit and will be able to put money back into research and science, without which we cannot make proper judgments.
I have indicated that I am not against organic production. I certainly do not say that it does not have a place or that it is not right. Consumers should have choices, but they must have the ability to make those choices. We believe that farmers should be encouraged to follow whatever form of production suits them wherever they think the marketplace is, but I want to ensure that we do not see one side of the farming community belittling the contribution of the other. I return to where I began: I am very proud to be a member of LEAF. It leads the way on how we can continue production on a commercial basis while conserving and protecting, for example, wildlife, and, more particularly, water and soil, which will be crucial to us all.
My Lords, I welcome this debate, during which I have been accused of having Defra put words in my mouth. I will use as little of this brief as possible. I will not be able to deal with some issues, but I shall try to answer as many of the detailed points as possible. On any points that I am unable to address, I will do a note. On declaring my interests and in terms of being pro-organic or anti-organic, I make no bones about it: I am pro-GM, but I declare an interest as a member of the Soil Association. I do not see anything incompatible in that. I became a member out of solidarity some years ago. I had a family member who was having chemo and wanted to have fewer chemicals in their body. Going organic was one way to assist with that.
Organic cannot be one-size-fits-all. Some claims made on both sides of the argument are quite ridiculous and are not based on any science. Nor do I subscribe to the anti-science view around the country, particularly of those who do not want trials to take place because they are worried about the information that might be gathered from experiments. To that extent, I oppose and criticise the people who rip up crop trials. How do we get information if we do not do trials? Not wanting the information to be out there because it destroys one’s original concepts or prejudices is not on.
I also want to make it clear that there is no unsafe food on sale in this country. 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. It is as simple as that. However food—whether it is crops or meat—is farmed or produced and wherever it is produced in the world, there are checks and surveillances of residues and other matters that are beyond the imagination of the public in terms of the numbers and the quantity in the policing of the system to protect the whole food chain. We publish the results, so there are no secrets, including where we buy produce from.
To that extent, John Krebs was right. No one can say that because a food is organic it is healthier. It can be claimed that because a food is organic there may be less chemical residue. But if the residues are within the limits, they are perfectly safe. The two things are not incompatible. No one can claim that commercially produced, ordinarily produced, intensively produced food is any less safe than organic food. That cannot be the case. Going with the science is important.
As for some of the prejudices that are around, the other week I was in a 12.5-acre greenhouse, which was next to the site of a 14-acre greenhouse that was being constructed. It will produce one product—tomatoes—in England between March and November. Those tomatoes will be grown on our land and everything used will be the by-product of another food—the carbon dioxide, water and heat. Even the bees for pollination are home-grown. In every calculation, the produce out of that greenhouse would be organic if the root was in soil. But it does not classify because the root is not in soil, even though the product is as organic as any organic tomato. It is a by-product of sugar production at the largest, most efficient sugar plant in Europe, which is in Norfolk. So there are prejudices about the way in which the product has to be produced.
The organic movement is a voluntary movement. It is highly regulated—the Soil Association is just one of the certification bodies. But because it is a voluntary movement, it can make its own rules. There are European standards now and that is important. The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, did not push very much on the monetary aspect in his attack on the concept of organic farming, but in our view there is a public good out of the money that the Government use to support organic producers. It is an infinitesimal amount—£30 million to £40 million a year—in terms of environmental goods, but the single farm payments to farmers stand at £1.5 billion a year. The idea that we are paying out this money for the public good only because the produce is organic is wrong. It is an infinitesimal amount compared to the overall scale of public support for farming, and quite rightly so, because we are buying an environmental good.
My Lords, it would be, but of course our publicly funded research into agriculture receives much more than that. However, with reference to the latter points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, I saw those adverts and I said to someone, “Where did the money come from?”. I saw a full page of adverts a couple of weeks ago, and I discussed the matter with Sir Don Curry, who assists Defra these days. It is far more money than we have to fund the Year of Food and Farming, which will start later this year. I cannot criticise the National Lottery and the way in which this was done. I do not know the reasons and the background and why such a large sum of money was given to one organisation for one narrow aspect of agriculture. I do not criticise that, but I do not know the background or the reasons.
Since 1997—the year the world started, of course—there has been a 13-fold increase in land being farmed organically in the UK. The figure stood at just over 51,000 hectares in 1997 and it is 620,000 hectares in January this year. That is a substantial increase and it represents around 4 per cent of the total agricultural area of the UK. A lot of that is in Scotland. There is a disproportionate amount there—that is not a criticism, it is just the way in which the land has been used.
But that does not mean that the ordinary, intensively produced food, whether it is grown or whether it is livestock, is second best. Nobody is saying that. In fact, we could not feed ourselves if we went organic. I know that people will dispute this, but if we went all organic we would be importing huge amounts of food, whatever people might claim, because the yields would be so much less. I appreciate that one has to look at the totality of the energy that is used. There would be fewer pesticides and other things that are used to produce the crops if we went organic, but we want to encourage choice.
I agree 100 per cent with what the noble Baroness said about LEAF. I wish every farm was operating LEAF rules and practising integrated farming. We started a similar process in Northern Ireland when I was there; I said, “This sounds like LEAF in England”. I went to one of the farms in Gloucestershire where farmers go to learn about the LEAF techniques. It is absolutely vital. It is good for the environment and it needs supporting. It is good that supermarkets and other retailers are recognising this in their marketing. It is not marketed as being safer, but it is marketed as being more environmentally friendly and as encouraging greater biodiversity. There is no question about that at all.
The fact is that since we increased the level of support for organic farming, the amount of land given over to it has gone up 13-fold. It helps our sustainability objectives and provides environmental benefits—I know there can be arguments about this—by encouraging biodiversity, and it gives farmers a choice. A lot of young farmers are involved in the organic movement. They are often much more entrepreneurial than the older generations. I have met some of them, as has the Secretary of State. These farmers are willing to use different systems and techniques and to enter into new marketing arrangements for their products.
If there is any criticism to be made, and one can always find lots to criticise, it is on the dairy side. All these new probiotic yoghurt drinks are imported, save for one being produced by a co-operative in Scotland for Marks & Spencer. However, all organic yoghurt is made here at home in the UK. But in terms of added value, of getting more out of the produce for the premium, others are showing the way on that side of the dairy industry. But Yeo Valley, for example—the only yoghurt I will touch—and others because I must not advertise too much, produce all their yoghurt in the UK. That is a lesson to the rest of the dairy industry. The probiotic drinks producers went for a certain kind of marketing in a niche area, and have been very successful, but we have let that opportunity pass us by.
Consumers want organic food for a variety of reasons, whether for animal welfare, the environment or other reasons. The choice is theirs, and that is the point. The noble Baroness is quite right: sometimes people buy organic produce because they think it may be better for them. There is nothing wrong in that so long as the claims made are accurate. Indeed, more flexibility on this is on the way with the introduction of European labelling, which I shall come to shortly. At present, certain organic foods cannot use an organic label if the whole product is not organic. Some of the ingredients may have been produced organically, but it is difficult to get an organic label for them. The European Union is producing more flexible rules to assist in that, which is good for organics, consumer choice and improvements in labelling. The proposed regulation before the EU Agriculture Council would require origin labelling for some organic produce where the EU organic logo is used. On the organic conversion scheme, we are working on a new one which is to be launched later this year.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked about long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. That got me going because it is not in my brief. I am reliably informed by the Box that organic milk contains short-chain omega-3 fatty acids which are not the same as the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish, which are what protect us against cardiovascular disease. What we need are long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, so organic milk cannot make that claim because it contains short-chain omega-3 fatty acids. If these claims are being made, one has to look closely at the science.
On the TB evaluation, we are in touch with the sector on a realistic valuation for organic reactor animal slaughter. This is an issue and I appreciate it very much in terms of the distress caused to farmers in any event. We are looking at the cases mentioned by my noble friend with Natural England. I shall come back to him on that because it is a somewhat specialist issue.
I turn to legal safety standards, and here I cannot impress on the House enough the fact that organic produce and conventional produce have to meet exactly the same legal food safety standards, as would any GM foods. So far as I know, there has never been a food safety issue related to GM foods. Notwithstanding some of the arguments that have been made, that is the case. In fact, we know more about some GM foods than we do about traditional foods because of the science involved in the gene and DNA work being carried out. Nutrient levels are similar whether food is produced by organic or conventional agriculture. That is the evidence.
Support for organic farming by the Government does not mean to say that we see it as the only way forward. We support a range of farming activities. As I say, the amount of money here is small, but it is necessary to encourage farmers who wish to take the organic route. They are not forced or encouraged to do so but schemes are available if they wish to do that. The Government are saying to farmers, “We do not want to subsidise production. We want you to be nearer to the market”. That is important for freshness, as the noble Baroness said. We want farmers to be nearer to the market, to market their products better and to get more control over their aspect of the food chain, which is also important. We are saying to farmers that if they want to go that route there is an opportunity to do so if they wish to take it. Farmers are not forced to go that route and must accept the risk of doing so.
Organic farming makes an important and profitable contribution to the farming industry; we make no bones about that. Certainly, it contributes to biodiversity and has environmental advantages. However, biodiversity and environmental advantages can also result from aspects of LEAF farming and integrated farming. So it is not the case that one kind of farming is all good and another is all bad. A realistic assessment is needed. All forms of farming and different aspects of production can meet customers’ needs. It is important that we should produce as much of our own food as we can and slightly lengthen the seasons, if we can. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, that the Government do not propose to pull the plug on their support for organic farming.
House adjourned at 6.51 pm.