Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 16

Memorandum submitted by the Chief Executive, Horticulture Research International (F 21)

  Thank you for contacting me on 5 May, inviting Horticulture Research International to submit written evidence on the issues covered by the terms of reference of the Agriculture Committee inquiry into organic farming. Your request was reinforced by the Chairman of the Agriculture Committee (David Curry MP) following HRI's evidence session with the Committee on 10 May.

INTRODUCTION

  1.  The Agriculture Committee's principal focus is clearly on economic issues surrounding subsidy schemes for organic conversion and production, processing, marketing and other aspects of the organic conversion and production, processing, marketing and other aspects of the organic food supply-chain. Obviously many of these issues are outwith the specialist professional knowledge-base of HRI's research staff. Nevertheless, significant scientific opportunities and concerns arise from the projected expansion of organic farming (including horticulture), the setting of organic standards and tolerances, as well as food storage, transportation and shelf-life issues. Independent, objective and high-quality research in these areas is required urgently, in order to gather sufficient reliable knowledge on which to base future policy decisions, thereby avoiding possible future hazards to the environment and consumer health.

  2.  To compile this Memorandum, I have consulted widely with senior scientific colleagues throughout HRI. I am particularly concerned that, with such an emotive, public and, at times, controversial subject as organic farming, our collective response is robust and based on a range of sound scientific analyses, inputs and real data, not on myths, propaganda, market opportunism, unsupported assertions, or intolerant extremist ideology.

  3.  Horticulture Research International was established in 1990 as an Executive Non-Departmental Public Body, sponsored by MAFF, it is also a Company limited by guarantee without share capital, and a registered charity. HRI will be familiar to the Agriculture Committee through memoranda and evidence from witnesses on 10 May 2000 during an inquiry into its role, responsibilities and a recent restructuring exercise. Further details are available on our website (http://www.hri.ac.uk).

  4.  Significant in the context of the inquiry into organic farming is the fact that HRI's mission is "To innovate and communicate for the benefit of consumers and producers of horticultural and other plant-based products". To achieve this, HRI undertakes research and development for sustainable horticulture world-wide, with particular strengths in: pest and pathogen biology; biological control; integrated pest and disease management (IPDM); plant-pathogen interactions signalling mechanisms in plants; plant breeding and genetics; responses of plants to environmental stresses; and horticultural crop production systems (including organic).

  5.  In a recent report to BBSRC Council, I wrote, "HRI . . . [is] . . . fully aware of the need to bring sound science to bear on the processes, procedures and outputs of organic food production. HRI is certainly in the vanguard of these efforts". At HRI Wellesbourne (WB), we have a close association with the Henry Doubleday Research Association using our converted organic field trial plots and have carried out modelling/desk studies on nitrogen cycling. Work in this area has been funded by MAFF for three years, with two further years agreed. We are presently negotiating with commercial grower(s) to undertake research on organic procedures and protocols for modelling studies on quasi-commercial scales. Moreover, HRI East Malling (EM) has recently received ERDF funds (INTERREG) to establish a European centre-of-excellence for organic fruit and ornamental nursery stock production. This is in collaboration with the French equivalent of the Soil Association in Nord-Pas de Calais. HRI has also won significant (£2.26 million) Treasury Capital Modernisation Funds to establish an organic fruit research and public communication centre at East Malling. Moreover, HRI-EM is engaged with Kent Enterprise Forum in a bid to SEEDA to establish an Enterprise Hub in Food/Environment and Healthcare. As well as attracting new investments in other project areas (including biotechnology), we expect to underpin further our research capacity to assess the claims and counterclaims for organic food and production procedures. HRI has converted organic research land at Kirton (Lincs), part-funded by the private sector. HRI-WB is also participating in a major EC Framework V bid on "Breeding for Organic Production". To conclude, HRI is therefore uniquely qualified to become the "melting pot" from which truly integrated crop management protocols can emerge, based on high-quality research in plant genetics, GM technology, conventional and organic farming systems.

  6.  Many recent, reliable and reputable sources of information on organic farming are available, several of which will be known to Committee members. These include the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Report (1999) on organic foods and farming. MAFF has also produced a useful "Foodsense" guide for the consumer (Ref No PB2085) on "organic food", covering definitions, production standards and the inspection system, animal health and welfare, labelling and importation issues. The Committee may also be aware of the 10-year "Boarded Barns and Bundish Hall Farms" project, funded by Rhône-Poulenc Agriculture Ltd, at Ongar, Essex. This project ended in 1999. Detailed annual reports and a final report are available and make fascinating reading. This project compared and contrasted, over 10 years, a broad range of environmental impact measures and economic (yield/quality) output indicators for a variety of crops grown under conventional, integrated crop management (ICM), or organic production systems. I commend these reports to the Committee. A similar comparative research trial is underway at Hillsburgh, Ontario in Canada to provide consumers, journalists and farmers with information regarding the true costs, benefits, tastes and consumer preferences of food produced by organic, conventional or GM technologies. Further information is available (http://www.plant.uoguelph.ca/safefood/bt-sweet-corn/bt-index.htm) or can be accessed through [email protected] (GM news, Canada 7 June 2000).

  7.  The Royal Society organises one of several e-networks/websites where organic farming issues, among other controversial topics such as GM, the precautionary principle etc, are debated internationally (for example, see Annex (not printed)) (http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com) or contact [email protected] (http://www.botanischegarten.ch/start.htm).

  8.  Contrary to the rhetoric from those who promote and benefit directly from arbitrary, uncompromising and intolerant edicts to define organic certification standards, protocols and products, modern crop science and technology have, as their key objectives: the development of increasingly sensitive, environmentally sustainable cropping regimes; reduced inputs of all agrichemicals; improved crop quality and greater food safety. These objectives are being, and will be best achieved by an intelligent and inclusive combination of "best practice" approaches, each underpinned by sound scientific facts and knowledge. In each case, the final result may include components of so-called conventional, organic or biotechnological agriculture. For example, integrated pest and disease management (IPDM) or integrated crop management (ICM), using decision support software to minimise and target more precisely the application of safe an defective chemicals, and/or to achieve meaningful biological control, has already benefited the UK environment, as well as our agricultural and horticultural industries, substantially.

  9.  Philosophically, organic farming is a system of production which was practised for 10,000 years until early in the 20th century when it was gradually replaced by more intensive methods (now referred to as conventional farming) in order to feed a rapidly growing population. There is nothing special about organic production methods, other than they try to use more "natural" inputs which, by dubious inference and no proper definition, are assumed nostalgically to yield more "wholesome" produce. (One could draw conclusions from diet and health data through the 20th century, then compare it with earlier eras!) In fact the active ingredients in many of these inputs are similar, if not identical, to those used in conventional production, which simply uses them in a purer form. For example, the nutrients taken up by plants (N, P, K; nitrates, phosphates, potassium) are identical in both systems, apart from their method of application. In organic systems, they are introduced via manures or fertility-building plant residues, which must first break down to release their component nutrients to be used by the crop, whereas in conventional systems they are applied directly in an inorganic form. Many of the chemical pesticides used are similar or identical to the active ingredients in organic treatments which seek to use "natural" products and other defence strategies to protect the crops from inevitable depredations by pest and pathogens. The main difference is that the organic treatments are more hit-and-miss because there is less control over the amounts of active ingredients applied. In short, current regulations on "allowed inputs" are based largely on arbitrary judgements and not on sound principles.

  Turning now to the specific topics in your call for information.

EXPANSION OF ORGANIC FARMING

  10.  The UK currently supplies 18 per cent of the organic market, so there is potential for growth—provided consumer demand is maintained. The reverence with which organic production methods are presently being promoted by vested interests and the media is based on very uncertain arguments. This is largely the result of a marketing ploy created by the Soil Association and others, designed to play on the fears of a largely uninformed UK public. Little has been done to allay these fears by the supermarkets, who have also exploited them for market gain. Their actions have done little to help the UK industry which has not been able to redirect its activities quickly enough, or to comply with our strict certification regimes, to supply this sudden demand. The result has been the marked expansion in imported organic produce.

  11.  For many years, MAFF have supported HRI and other public sector organisations in crop breeding programmes to improve pest and disease resistance. The resulting varieties/cultivars are essential to organic producers. Intrinsic genetic resistance to disease is the most effective route to achieve yield and quality under organic regimes. Regrettably, and unilaterally, the organic movement has shunned modern biotechnology and its potential to achieve a rapid, precise and targeted genetic improvement in crops; even in "older" (hence more "natural"?) varieties that succumbed to particular pests or diseases and were uneconomic (although biodiverse).

  12.  In some cases, "organic" may not be an option because of the requirements for crop rotation. There can be inconsistencies between the apparently arbitrary rules laid down for organic production and local best practice for crop husbandry.

  13.  Any substantial expansion of organic farming in the fruit and vegetable sector is likely to arise through conversion of existing conventional production. In the fruit sector, it is difficult to convince conventional, intensive growers to convert to organic production largely because of technological problems including excessive pest and disease damage and nutrient availability. Growers feel that to sustain a healthy orchard over its lifetime under organic regimes is unrealistic. However, they are committed to reducing chemical inputs and wish to see more research into biocontrol and ICM programmes which have had, and continue to have, significant benefits for the whole industry. Over 90 per cent of organic apples are imported. Current methods of organic apple production are unsatisfactory; yields are low and erratic (typically 50 to 80 per cent of conventional) and quality is poor. The small number of organic apple growers in the UK (approximately 12 above 1 ha) rely on high prices (50 to 100 per cent above conventional) and the acceptance of a lower quality standard (classes I and II combined) to maintain economic viability.

  14.  Expansion of organic farming in the protected edible crops sector is likely to be limited under current organic standards, particularly those set by the Soil Association which, in many circumstances, renders conversion uneconomic.

MARKET TRENDS AND CUSTOMER DEMAND

  15.  There is an urgent need for a clear, defined understanding and pronouncement to producers, marketers and consumers of what constitutes "organic produce", both to a realistic UK national standard, and for acceptance of organic food produced overseas and imported (presently 80 per cent).

  16.  Although still a minority niche market, "organics" presents an irresistible economic opportunity to some sectors of farming; hence, most organic markets are growing rapidly. Growth in the organic fruit and vegetable sector is particularly rapid and UK organic producers cannot keep pace with demand, leading to large imports. Predicting the saturation point of the organic market is difficult. On continental Europe organic markets are more mature and premiums are much lower (10 to 30 per cent) than in the UK. In some specialist food sectors, for example the processed baby food market in Germany, organic products occupy over half of the total market.

  17.  Clearly organic markets are driven by a balance of perception and premium. In the UK, organic food is perceived by major supermarkets as an attractant for general shoppers and the range and quality of products in many major retailers increases weekly.

THE ROLE OF ORGANIC CERTIFICATION SCHEMES

  18.  There is consensus among scientists in HRI that certification schemes are essential for quality assurance and customer confidence. However, there is also a strong view that certification schemes should be based on rigorous science and not on philosophical dogma. It is in this context that there is an urgent need for more research and development into organic production and the impact of organic systems on biodiversity and the environment. There also needs to be research into the health and safety of organic food in order to provide the public with a more rational basis for choice and with genuine quality assurance.

  19.  There is a general perception among scientists, and some growers, that the Soil Association can be dictatorial, inflexible and illogical in certain instances. However, there is a general consensus that a "policing" organisation is needed to maintain standards and public confidence; but it too should be accountable.

ROLE OF ORGANIC CERTIFICATION ORGANISATIONS

  20.  It is becoming clear that the plethora of organic accreditation agencies, some trying to gain consumer confidence and hence a greater market share by ever-more stringent criteria, is a hindrance to the development of the sector from a grower's perspective.

  21.  These organisations could play a more positive and proactive role in facilitating "pull through" from strategic research in the public or private sector to producer-oriented protocols.

SETTING OF ORGANIC STANDARDS AND TOLERANCES

  22.  Organic standards and tolerances should be based on rigorous science. A logical, rational approach based upon sustainability, safety, quality and health should be adopted wherever possible. A single, national, independent charitable organisation should be responsible for setting and policing standards under UK government and EU guidelines. This organisation ideally should have a science base.

  23.  There is a growing view among the public in the USA, and now in the UK, that "organic" may not be as wholesome as it claims. In a recent study commissioned by the American Broadcasting Company, reported on prime-time TV during an interview with the head of the US organic organisation, independent food analysts found no significant differences in macro- or micro-nutrient composition between organic and conventional produce; however, the former were contaminated with up to 100-times more bacteria, including E-coli 0157:H7. This issue needs to be addressed, ideally by bringing organics into the fold of NFU/retailer protocols and quality assurance audits.

  24.  There are no clearly set-out protocols for organics in either the "Organic Farm Management" book or in the Soil Association Certification Ltd "Standards for Organic Food and Farming", although there is a lot about certification and registration. Among growers and scientists, there is a suspicion that protocols can be generated expeditiously and "on the hoof", and if there are serious problems of disease (eg potato late blight) or shortages of supply (eg organic seed), derogations can be given (eg on conventional chemical sprays or seed).

  25.  As far back as the 1920's, in Switzerland, the so-called "bio-dynamic agricultural movement" began, based on "spiritual science" and the application of small amounts of up to eight different manuring substances (six composted solids or two field sprays), so-called "preparations". Out of this the Demeter movement and (deep) organic certification body emerged today in the UK (with 50 symbol holders). These "preparations" allegedly work on homeopathic principles and can be bought; however, new bio-dynamic growers are encouraged to make their own. Scientifically, one can only ask: how does one standardise such a scheme?

ROLE OF FARM ASSURANCE SCHEMES

  No comment.

AVAILABILITY AND SUSTAINABILITY OF PUBLIC AND PRIVATE ASSISTANCE FOR ORGANIC CONVERSION (INCLUDING THE ROLE OF TRADE ASSOCIATIONS, FOOD PROCESSORS, SUPERMARKETS AND THE GOVERNMENT)

  26.  MAFF wishes to promote organic farming, as do the proponents and potential beneficiaries of organics, but there is no "new" money on the table for research and development, despite there being a clear need to understand and underpin systems and protocols for production. Some of this will require new research, but there is also a need to appraise the organic industry of the vast amount of information generated for conventional production which they could legitimately use within their self-defined regulations (eg adjusting sowing dates to reduce the incidence of carrot root fly attack).

  27.  The MAFF organics R&D budget (currently c £2 million for all sectors) is, and will continue to be heavily focussed towards environmental impacts. This does not provide much scope for strategic, production-targeted R&D aimed at improving yields, quality, efficacy of disease control and overall efficiency. It is somewhat counter to the stated policy of Government of increasing organic production in the UK.

  28.  In much of the fruit and vegetable sector, the economic burden of the conversion period is the major economic constraint to organic production systems. An official "in conversion" category, with modest premiums to balance substantial yield and quality reductions would assist many growers alongside additional government subsidies. Retailers find it difficult to market such fruit alongside a plethora of other quality assurance schemes.

OUTLETS AND DISTRIBUTION SYSTEMS FOR ORGANIC PRODUCE AND RETAIL PRICING

  29.   "Hard-line organic growers", who are interested in organic production primarily as a lifestyle, often prefer to market produce locally through box schemes, local shops and farmers markets. This approach should be encouraged to increase local, often rural employment and reduce food miles. However, it would be difficult to satisfy the large national demand in this way. Hence selling to major retailers is likely to be important for larger-scale organic producers. This can be difficult as the culture of large retailers is often counter to the organic ethos; cosmetic quality is very important as is consistency of supply. These problems may be overcome by supermarkets perceiving and marketing organic produce as a speciality product. Appointing an individual, as Sainsbury's have, for example, with responsibility for sourcing and marketing all organic produce may be an effective way forward. It is likely that supermarkets will have to adopt a more flexible economic approach to organic growers, perhaps developing partnerships through conversion periods, for example.

  30.  It is important that organic produce retains its premium price in order to pay for the increased cost of production. However, the current premium of over 100 per cent in some cases for fruit and vegetables must ultimately limit the market. Premiums of between 10 per cent and 30 per cent, as on continental Europe should increase sales and meet additional production costs.

LEVEL OF IMPORTS AND EXPORTS OF ORGANIC FOODS

  31.  Prices for organic foods are under pressure due to imports (80 per cent) allegedly grown under less stringent criteria, hence achieving higher yields, better disease and blemish control for transportation, and greater shelf-life. Will it continue to be profitable for UK producers in the future, without further subsidies?

  32.  It is important to bring down the current level of imports of organic fruit and vegetables for two reasons: import substitution and reducing food miles. With the application of appropriate research and development to organic production systems, there is no reason why the UK could not ultimately export certain commodities.

  33.  In some crops, such as hops, it is considered by experts that the UK will be unable to convert to organic. Hence hops for UK organic beer are being grown in South America where climatic conditions and certification standards permit. Will the organic lobby and media effects on consumer opinion thus signal the end of the UK hops industry?

INTERNATIONAL COMPARISONS

  34.  There is not a level playing field throughout Europe. There are wide ranging levels of grant-aid support for conversion in different European countries. In addition, European organic standards differ between countries. For example, plant extracts used to deter insect pests such as pyrethrum and Quassia, are permitted in several European countries, but not approved by the PSD in the UK. Granulosis virus, again for insect pest control, although on the Soil Association's approved standards list is not approved by MAFF PSD, and is therefore unavailable to UK growers. There may also be implications for UK importers of organic produce from other European states; organic produce may not conform to UK organic standards.

  35.  Regulations and definitions for organic certification are clearly not consistent throughout Europe, or elsewhere. The UK seems to set the "gold standard" for extreme intolerance, inflexibility and regulatory zeal, once again. Plant extracts and field steaming are permitted for weed, pest and disease control in some countries in Europe, but not in the UK. (For possible implications on environmental biodiversity of these techniques and soil-flaming in the UK, see "Further Research" below.) In the UK, plant extracts must be tested and approved in the same way as other pesticides by the Pesticides Safety Directorate. Funding is a problem; but one possible way to raise money for efficacy testing and PSD registration could be to levy a tax on those who profit by promoting organic produce.

  36.  The degree to which EU governments promote organic farming is not uniform. Several European countries have well funded research establishments with programmes dedicated to organic research and promotion, eg at the Louis Bolk Instituut in the Netherlands and FiBL in Switzerland. The effects of these differences selectively disadvantage the UK organic producer and provide less incentive for conventional producers in the UK to covert.

  37.  Multiple retailers are increasing pressure to reduce the premium prices enjoyed by organic produce to the levels of conventional foods, as seen in the Netherlands. The standards and protocols applied in other countries should be studied more closely as little information seems to be available and speculation prevails.

FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS (HORIZON SCANNING AND AREAS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH)

  38.  There is an urgent need to look at safe composting, the use of animal manures and the potential spread of disease.

  39.  It is fallacious and incredible to promote the notion that organic is chemical/pesticide free. Although obviously little publicised, organic production permits the use of pyrethroids, crystals of Bt toxin in killed bacterial sprays, toxic copper compounds, sulphur, potassium soaps, rock phosphate and lime, but curiously not nitrates—even if they are nitrate ores from the Peruvian desert!

  40.  An issue of particular concern to plant pathologists, and epidemiologists, is the likely increase in inoculum pressure of fungal and bacterial spores, viruses and their invertebrate vectors if (or when) the balance between organic and conventional farming shifts towards the former. Lack of appropriate and effective disease control inorganic crops will require increased pesticide usage on neighbouring conventional farms. Mathematical modelling and scaling in non-linear algorithms could be applied to predict the critical threshold of organic field areas and patterns, crop types and genetics, pests and pathogens, and prevailing climatic conditions that would give rise to major epidemics of old (and new) agricultural diseases.

  41.  The approval, by organic certification bodies, of large-scale soil sterilisation by flaming, using large methane burners to control weed seeds gives serious cause for concern. First, the creation of large pulses of CO2 (a greenhouse gas) not only derived from the fuel burned, but also from the cremation of all organic matter (living organisms and dead humus) in the soil, to an unknown depth. Second, the effect of this process on overall soil biodiversity, beyond effects on the weed seed bank. Insect larvae (beneficials as well as pests), nematodes, earthworms, fungi, and micro-organisms (there are estimated to be millions of bacteria, representing tens of thousands of species in every gram of good soil) will be killed. What is the recolonisation profile and process? It is therefore deeply misleading to say that organic production necessarily assists biodiversity. It may increase weeds, pests and pathogens above ground, but the chemicals and protocols approved for extensive use in commercial organic production systems clearly have detrimental effects as well. Yet, in a recent MAFF call for proposals to undertake an "Economic Evaluation of Organic Farming Schemes" (RU0102/3), paragraph 2 of the background text states: "Organic farming provides benefits to consumers in the form of food which is perceived to be of higher quality. There is some evidence to suggest that, through the virtual absence of pesticide use, it also benefits wildlife and biodiversity by allowing more plants and invertebrates to flourish, thus providing food for birds and mammals."

  42.  When combined with higher labour inputs, lower yields (as low as 50 per cent for wheat, for example—Boarded Barns Project) and more extensive land requirements, the balance sheet for organics should certainly be more thoroughly researched and transparent.

  43.  There is no evidence that organic produce is more "wholesome" or of better quality than that grown conventionally. Indeed, the former often has a greater incidence of pests and diseases and a shorter shelf-life than the latter. There is some evidence that organic produce is sweeter, but this is almost certainly because it has been grown under nutrient-limiting conditions, when plant assimilates (including sugars) are used to sustain turgor pressure. There is nothing special about this. Similar observations apply when inorganic fertilisers are reduced or withheld in conventional production. It would seem therefore, that investigations are needed to evaluate such claims by organic practitioners and supermarkets to determine whether organic produce is indeed of better quality.

  44.  Further research funding is needed to evaluate fully the environmental impacts of alternative production methods. Advocates of organic farming generally claim that it is kinder on the environment than conventional methods. On balance this may be true in the long-term, because crops are often grown with lower (although less benign) inputs, but this assertion has yet to be proved. In fact there are particular times in organic rotations which pose potentially high environmental risks. For example, the large release of nitrate following re-incorporation of a fertility building crop (or green manure) into the soil.

  On behalf of my expert colleagues who provided much of the text above, may I wish the Agriculture Committee well in its study of "Organic Farming". We believe that only facts, knowledge-based regulations, specifications and protocols can provide a safe, profitable and transparent future for this sector of farming.

9 June 2000


 
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