Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 20

Memorandum submitted by CWS Farms Group (F26)

FOCUS OF FARMING PRACTICE—ORGANIC FARMING EXPERIMENTS 1989-1997 A SUMMARY OF KEY FINDINGS


INTRODUCTION

  In 1989, CWS Agriculture decided to investigate the technical feasibility and economic consequences of organic farming. The experiment was begun at a time when there was little credible information about organic systems and against a background of rising demand for organic produce. CWS Agriculture wanted to discover if organic farming was a profitable option for the organisation.

  Since establishing the trial, CWS Agriculture has also set up an integrated farming experiment in conjunction with the international fertiliser company, Hydro Agri and the national crop protection distributor, Profarma. This includes an extensive environmental monitoring programme which has now also been extended to the organic farm, allowing comparisons across all three farming systems: organic, integrated and conventional.

OUTLINE OF THE TRIAL

  A total of 270 acres were converted to the Soil Association Standard over the period 1989-1991 at CWS Agriculture's Stoughton estate, near Leicester. Three separate systems were established:

    —  A mixed organic system;

    —  A stockless all arable farming system;

    —  A horticultural enterprise.

  The whole farm was converted simultaneously and each field has followed a different rotational sequence. This has allowed a great deal to be learnt from the first full seven year rotation.

  The land proved unsuitable for organic horticulture and the decision was taken to discontinue this enterprise in 1995.

  In setting up the experiment, great care was taken to ensure that the organic system was not put at any disadvantage. For example, the best land at Stoughton was chosen for the experiment and appropriate advice has been taken throughout. The result is that the CWS Agriculture organic farming results compare well with national averages. In fact the price now regularly achieved for organic beef is amongst the highest in the country.

KEY FINDINGS

  This extensive experiment has produced a huge volume of data from which many fascinating conclusions can be drawn. The key results are summarised here under the headings: economic performance, practical issues and environmental effects. This summary, however, cannot hope to explain the details behind the conclusions. It is recommended therefore that anyone who requires an in-depth analysis should obtain a copy of the full report which is available from: Alastair Leake, Project Manager, CWS Agriculture, The White House, Stoughton, Leicester LE2 2FL. Telephone (0116) 271 4278. Fax: (0116) 272 0640.

Economic Performance

  Organic farming can be as profitable as conventional farming. The margins after variable costs and cultivations are:

  
Organic
Conventional
  
Mixed
All-arable
Mixed
All-arable
No subsidies
£263/ha
£320/ha
£303/ha
£343/ha
Area Aid Payments (actual levels)
£441/ha
£473/ha
£477/ha
£482/ha
Area Aid (1996 levels throughout)
£513/ha
£656/ha
£507/ha
£679/ha


  There is a slightly greater risk of total crop failure.

  The economic viability of organic farming relies on the achievement of price premiums.

  Yields are consistently lower than under the conventional system:

  
W Wheat
W Oats
W Beans
Organic (CWS Agriculture)
4.82 t/ha
4.87 t/ha
2.60 t/ha
Organic (Standard)
4.30 t/ha
4.30 t/ha
3.70 t/ha
Conventional (Standard)
7.12 t/ha
5.75 t/ha
3.60 t/ha


  CWS Agriculture's organic farming results compare favourably with national organic standards.

  Contrary to expectations, the all-arable system has proved to be more profitable than the mixed system.

  Agricultural support is an essential to organic farming as to conventional. Set-aside has been particularly valuable to the all-arable organic system. It allows some payment to be received during the vital fertility building period when green manure crops are grown and ploughed in to provide sufficient nutrient for the following cash crop.

  Conversion payments set by Government are at an appropriate level. When the current organic conversion payments are included in the figures, the organic and conventional systems achieve a similar level of profitability.

  Wheat is the main cash generating organic crop.

  Overheads are generally lower but the requirement to convert land in stages reduces the potential to spread overhead costs over a broader acreage to least initially.

  Organic farming is viable on a small scale provided premiums can be obtained.

Practical Issues

  Yields have tended to improve over time as the organisation has gained practical experience of growing organically.

  Pests and diseases have not proved to be as big a problem as predicted — just two crops have been lost; a crop of peas to an aphid attack and a crop of wheat to slugs. This is because:

    —  Delayed sowing reduces the likelihood of Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus infection;

    —  Reliance on mineral derived nitrogen reduces the lushness of the crop which in turn reduces disease pressure;

    —  Crops senesce earlier because of the lower nitrogen levels and lack of fungicide sprays which means that aphids seldom reach yield threatening levels

    —  Greater weed numbers attracts more aphid predators into the crop.

  Those fields which didn't have a major weed problem prior to conversion have remained relatively weed free.

  Weeds, however, have caused complete crop failure on several occasions. Drastic weed control measures have been necessary in those fields where weed problems were inherited from the previous conventional management. For the past two years one field which was badly infested with wildoats has had to be cut before maturity to prevent weed seed shed. Wild oats remain a problem.

  Weed control options are:

    —  Stale seedbeds. Stubbles are cultivated after harvest to stimulate weed seed germination. These weeds are then removed by mechanical cultivation. Removing all the seedlings has however proved difficult.

    —  Delayed drilling. Delaying drilling to late autumn reduces weed germination in the lower temperatures but higher seed rates need to be used to help establish a competitive crop.

    —  Photo control. Some weeds need light to germinate so night sowing trials have been conducted. Whilst this technique seems to be very successful at reducing the germination of those species, no yield benefits have ensued because other non-light responsive weeds thrived instead.

    —  Inter-row cultivations. By precision drilling the crop, a front mounted hoe can be run through to remove inter-row weeds. This can be successful, but it is a time consuming technique which requires great accuracy.

    —  Harrowcomb weeding. This is a quicker, cheaper alternative to the inter-row hoe. It's effectiveness depends on timing, weather and differential rooting habits of the crop and weeds. In practice, deep, tap rooted weeds are more resistant to the action of the weeder. There is some evidence that perennial weeds such as docks, couch grass and creeping thistle are generally increasing on the site.

  Nutrient levels have been successfully maintained under both systems although an application of rock phosphate had to be made to the all-arable fields in 1994.

  Quality is difficult to achieve with any consistency. Peas and beans grown at the site have never produced the quality required for human consumption due to pest damage, weed seed contamination or disease levels. Milling premiums have been achieved for wheat throughout, but in some years, these have been reduced because of low protein levels.

  Marketing is the major practical problem. To obtain adequate premiums for organic beef CWS Agriculture joined with a number of local organic producers to set up a local co-operative and had to persuade local butchers to stock organic meat.

  The all-arable system is simpler to manage than the traditional mixed system.

Environmental Effects

  Measuring the environmental effects of organic farming is much more difficult than assessing the economic performance, not least because the environmental consequences of changes in management practices take a long time to become apparent. In addition there is very little baseline data available against which to measure any change. The CWS Agriculture organic farm is no different to most other organic farms in this respect. Professor Roy Brown from Bishop Burton College is responsible for the monitoring programme at the site and is also involved in several other organic projects. The following conclusions are drawn from his overall experience.

  The perception that organic farming is per se better for the environment because it relies on natural processes does not always hold true. Natural processes are variable and outside the grower's control. This can cause problems. The natural breakdown of mineral nitrogen, for example, can occur at the wrong time for the plants, increasing the chances of nitrate leaching. The ploughing in of green manures has also been shown to result in increased nitrate leaching.

  It is the way that the uncropped areas, the hedges and edges, are managed rather than the farming regime itself which appears to have most influence on species diversity. Wildlife likes the "unkempt bits" and organic farms are not necessarily likely to have more untidy areas than conventional farms.

  Looking in the crop itself the organic system has a much greater density of weeds/wildflowers.

  Statistically, there is little difference between the two systems in the total numbers of small mammals living in and around wheat field, but the number of recaptures of the same individuals within the wheat crop is much higher under the organic regime. This suggests that wood mice are able to move around organic fields more easily than conventional fields.

  There is little difference in the numbers or the species diversity of birds between the two systems, however, there are generally more potential nesting sites on the organic farm.

  Mechanical weeding and the mowing of set-aside covers can have a devastating effect on ground nesting birds.

  Earthworms seem to thrive better in organic fields.

  Populations of carabid beetles are more stable throughout the year under integrated regimes than either organic or conventional system.

WHERE NEXT?

  The organic experiment will be continued for at least one further seven year rotation with a further 700 acres of land placed into conversion to include a dairy enterprise.

  The trial has proved that the organisation has the technical expertise to farm organically and that organic farming can be profitable but, there are practical problems. Generally, yields are much lower. On the basis of the CWS Agriculture results, a complete switch to organic farming would result in a 44 per cent drop in UK wheat production. At average UK consumption that translates into an annual shortfall of 5.1 million tonnes, although other products other than wheat are grown in the organic system.

  Data from the experiment is already proving extremely valuable in the further development of the Focus on Farming Practice integrated farming project.

  Many of the weed, pest and disease control practices used in the organic trial have been adopted by the integrated project. Varieties are chosen for their disease resistance and standing power. Stale seedbed techniques are extensively used although under the integrated system, a little help from a low dose of contact herbicide ensures that weed control is much better and ploughing is no longer necessary.

  Delayed drilling, another organic practice, means that crops do not become so lush as they head into winter and, hence, are not so susceptible to disease. Late drilling also reduces competition from weeds and decreases the chances of an aphid-borne Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus infection. Under the integrated system such biological and cultural controls are combined with modern crop protection inputs to reduce the risk of total crop failure. Together with the targeted use of fertilisers, this allows yields to be maintained at levels where premium prices are no longer a fundamental requirement. Indeed, input costs are much reduced compared to conventional systems and that has a major positive impact on overall profitability when grain prices are low.

  CWS Farms Group has concerns about the development of organic farming in the UK in two specific areas.

    1.  The level of subsidy afforded to other EU states exceeds that of the UK which has encouraged more farmers to convert to organic production. This has resulted in over supply and a consequential reduction in price. However, the additional subsidy enables these farmers the potential to export to the UK at below the cost of UK production.

    2.  The maintenance of demand for organic food and the public confidence in the production methods employed is essential to the success of the sector. We are concerned that unsubstantial claims are made concerning taste, vitality and environmental benefits of organic products and furthermore certain practices fall short of those utilised in conventional agriculture. Of particular note is the continued use of toxic, inorganic pesticides such as the copper based fungicides and the lack of adequate auditing in the areas crop storage and hygiene. If the public perceive that organic food is "purer" and safer the systems should be in place to ensure that it is.


 
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