Last week saw the publication of a study claiming that a wholesale shift to organic farming in England and Wales could lead to a 21% rise in food-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The study appeared in the journal Nature Communications. Laurence Smith of Cranfield University is the lead author.

The report concluded that a full-scale conversion to organic land management across England and Wales would reduce domestic agricultural greenhouse gas emissions compared to the present. This would be due to the replacement of artificial nitrogen fertilisers with nitrogen-fixing legumes, reduced fossil fuel inputs and improved forage production.

However, to make up for the significant predicted decline in the production of pork, poultry, oilseeds, wheat and milk, the authors argue that food imports would increase significantly, produced from previously virgin land. Largely as a result of the soil carbon released from this overseas land conversion, the authors estimate that overall greenhouse gas emissions would increase considerably.

The Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) acknowledged the rigour of the report, but believes the study design contains several major flaws which lead it to undervalue the full potential of a transition to more sustainable farming practices, such as those used by organic farmers. These include:

  • The authors of the report assume a ‘business as usual’ approach to farming despite the widespread recognition that we are currently farming in unsustainable ways and need to move towards more sustainable methods to stay within planetary boundaries. Failure to address these issues risks exacerbating soil degradation, biodiversity loss and pollution and may see a serious loss of productivity on conventionally managed land in future.
  • The report fails to acknowledge that farming is already changing, due to bans on certain pesticides and the adoption of less exploitative crop rotations by some farmers troubled with arable weeds increasingly resistant to in-crop herbicides. It also fails to recognise the extent to which proposed changes to agricultural support envisaged in the Agriculture Bill are likely to influence the future shape of conventional agriculture. This results in a starker contrast between organic and conventional models than is likely to be the case in future.
  • The report also assumes consumption patterns will stay the same and fails to acknowledge the widely accepted fact that to reduce our environmental footprint our diets need to change. This includes reducing our overall calorie intake from refined carbohydrates, with a higher consumption of fruit, vegetables and legumes and a reduction of animal products from grain fed intensive systems.
  • We currently waste one third of our food. SFT argues that food waste in an all-organic scenario would be greatly reduced as it is higher in some important micronutrients, often tastes better and costs more. Addressing this would decrease the need to maximise food productivity at the expense of all else, as at present.

Patrick Holden, SFT chief executive and former director of the Soil Association said: “It’s very useful to have this analysis of the impact of the application of organic farming practices across England and Wales. However, we do not accept the study’s main conclusion which is based on limiting the extent to which production types could change, for example from intensive cereals to mixed farming, and assuming that diets would not change at all.

“There is growing awareness that we need transformative changes to global food systems to restore degraded soils and keep within a range of planetary boundaries. To facilitate this we need big reductions in the consumption of intensively produced meat, fed on grain and soya and we need better integration between crop and livestock production generally. That is what more sustainable farming methods, such as those used by organic farmers, would bring about. Yet, instead of recognising the huge benefits this would bring, the study’s narrow focus and unrealistic constraints have turned these advantages on their head, resulting in negative media headlines.”