A Conversation for Organic Food in the UK
Straw Walker Started conversation Jun 21, 2001
I'm not totally convinced by any of the organic arguments, particularly with the practicalities of producing enough organic fertilisers if everyone is eating little or no meat?
My other problem lies in the last paragraph of the entry referring to 'more labour intensive'. Where are you going to find enough people who are prepared to do hard manual labour for peanuts, or are you prepared to pay two or three times as much for your food so that farm workers can have a decent wage?
Muppet Posted Jun 26, 2001
I'm not sure I'm with you on the organic fertilizer point. Organic farming uses crop rotation in such a way as to help the soil, so in theory the fertilizers added to soil in conventional farming aren't required. Compost would be added to improve the soil, and I can't see shortage of compost being a problem in the near future, since there is a lot of compostable waste which could be composted that currently isn't. And even then there are 'green fertilizers' - crops which can be grown simply to benefit the soil.
And your idea that it depends on how much meat people eat is also a bit strange to me. Producing meat is very crop expensive - it takes far more crops to feed an animal to produce enough meat to feed a human than it would simply to feed us all on crops. So if we all stopped eating meat we would need less crops...
You also mention the labour intensiveness of it all. This is one of the things which makes organic food more expensive, as you point out, but people are willing to pay it because they believe it brings benefits. I don't know how much people on organic farms get paid to be honest, but I would think that their skills are currently very muich in demand, so I doubt it is peanuts. And there are a lot of people who would choose an outdoor lifestyle over a 9-5 office job, and who would give up the rat race to do something which they feel is helping the environment.
But there's also a feeling in the organic movement that at the moment people's value judgements have been skewed by conventional farming. So that they see the cheap price of conventional food without seeing the hidden extras that go into it - environmental cleanup and subsidies for farmers which come out of the tax payer's pocket.
If you readjust your value judgements to the way the pro-organic people see things - the price of the food is the full price, with no hidden extras - then it doesn't look so expensive.
Anyway, its quite a complex subject to cover in one post and I'm not an expert. I'm very happy to discuss it all you want, but if you want indepth answers you might be better getting some literature from the Soil Association, as they are the experts.
Straw Walker Posted Jun 28, 2001
The reference to animals was intended to be slightly jocular and referred to the traditional organic fertiliser they produce as a by-productand crop rotation is necessary in any type of horti/agriculture. I'm not sure where all this lovely compost is coming from as one basic law still applies to crops in that you only get out what you put in. This means you must replace the nutrients taken out of the soil to maintain it's fertility so where are we to find the millions of tons of compost necessary? Some say that household rubbish could be composted but think of the awful chemical residues in that!
I have been a farm worker for over thirty years and though sympathetic to the ideas of organic farming I really cannot see that it is sustainable as the major system of food production. I believe very strongly that the chemical residue argument is grossly overstated and that wildlife conservation would be better served by a permanant set-aside scheme that allowed field boundaries to become conservation areas. (See the farm link on my home page and the 'manhandling' thread)
I could go on at length about the current pay and conditions in farming but I really can't see many people giving up their new car every 3 years, their 2 or 3 weeks foreign holiday or any of the other small luxuries to work in freezing, dirty, wet conditions for fifty hours a week! No I'm not exaggerating, it's not all sunny days with a pitchfork of hay or cruising up and down a field in an air conditioned tractor.
Many efficient farmers in this country would like to see the end of subsidies so that they could compete in a free market, but this would not work unless it was worldwide so we have to do the best we can in an essentially unfair system. There are not many businesses who would attempt to continue production, subsidies or not, with the price of their product halving in three years. Many forget that farming is a business and an average thousand acre (400 hectare) farm has about £10 million capital tied up in it.
Sorry this is getting all too long and heavy but it is a huge subject, and as one who is at the sharp end of a business in decline,(we've just had a couple of redundancies in a local farm) I feel a bit vulnerable.
Muppet Posted Jun 29, 2001
I didn't realise you worked in the industry . You have my sympathies for the things you're going through at the moment, belive me.
I'm relatively new to this subject, so my understanding is currently limited. But according to what I've read, there are some crops whose roots have nodules which fix nitrogen into the soil rather than taking it out - hence the reasoning behind crop rotation (as well as cutting down on pest buildup).
But I've been reading about soil lately and its fascinating stuff, and it would seem that the conventional view that crops take stuff out and fertilizers put that stuff back in is a bit simplistic.
I don't pretend to have all the answers - I sit at a desk all day in an air conditioned building and know nothing about the countryside - but mixed organic farming makes more sense to me, since the waste products go back into making new products.
Straw Walker Posted Jul 4, 2001
Sorry I've been a bit slow replying, I'm a slow thinker and I have thought a lot about the organic bit. At this time of year, I sympathise with you. Air conditioned or not, I would rather be out in the beautiful Kent countryside than shut in a concrete and glass office but I'll swap around Michaelmas
I'm new to the organic argument and perhaps a bit unwilling to learn new tricks (Old ) but my experience keeps finding holes in the reasoning. To much of it I want to say, "We do that anyway." About a sixth of our arable crops are combineable peas and beans, grown as a high protein food additive. These are both leguminous crops which 'fix' nitrogen from the air and reduce the nitrogen requirement of the following wheat crop. All nitrogen applications are made in very small doses, based on soil analysis and crop requirement, over the growing life of the crop to ensure that as little as possible is leached out before the plant can use it. It's expensive so no sensible farmer wants to flush it down the drain! We stopped burning straw 5 years before the legislation banned it and this has made a huge difference to soil humous and worm content.
I am beginning to think there may be some middle ground and some farms are moving to a less chemical based system. I have no doubt at all that todays agrochemicals are less toxic than they were twenty years ago and most farmers will not spray unless they are sure that it is not just safe but economically viable.
In my first few years as an Agricultural Craftsman (Posh farm labourer) when the going got tough I would comfort myself, with the thought that I was doing a useful job, even pompously think I was helping to 'feed the nation'. Now it seems I've just been poisoning the nation and doing irreparable damage to the environment. Perhaps British agriculture just needs a really good PR man. They've missed out on a really good opportunity with the little red tractor logo!
Muppet Posted Jul 5, 2001
Yes, British agriculture has had serious bad press lately, which is unfortunate. Especially since there are things to shout about. I believe that the British standards for pig farming are much higher than in most other countries, for example, giving the animals a much better life. The trouble is, if no one knows that then they will keep buying the cheap imports....
I have to admit, I don't know much about conventional farming - only in the sense of how it differs from organic farming, so we're coming at this from different sides of the fence
I did read something recently that I thought might interest you, though - apparently the organic standards actually take worker welfare into account as well, so that if you grow crops using organic methods but pay your workers a pittance, then they still can't be considered to be organic crops as they don't meet the standards. I didn't know that before.
I read it in a copy of "Organic - A new way of living" which is by Sophie Grigson and William Black. The first half of the book (and I've only flipped through it) is all about the history and beliefs of the organic movement, and the second half is Sophie's recipe book for cooking all organic stuff. The first half looks to be more interesting
You may well be on to something with the bad press comments. We all know how media interest sqews things a lot. They're only interested in doom or gloom or new stuff, and if there's nothing of that they move on. Look how little press the foot and mouth outbreak is getting these days, even though the disease is still around and could well come back seriously in the autumn. Ho hum
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