Farming News - Organic farmers challenge EFRA Committee findings

Organic farmers challenge EFRA Committee findings

03 Jul 2014


Organic farm advocates have questioned certain recommendations made by a committee of MPs, who this week advised Defra to show more leadership on national food security issues.


The EFRA Committee has given controversial advice in its report, which does not deal with the social aspects of food security

The EFRA Committee report, released yesterday makes a number of recommendations, including acting to address the UK's dwindling self-sufficiency and rebalance the ageing demographic in the food and farming sector.  


The Committee, which oversees Defra's work and policy, also made more contentious recommendations, including dedicating an entire chapter of its report to discussion of controversial genetically modified crops. EFRA MPs concluded that "The Government must lead a public debate to counter food safety fears among consumers about GM foods."


Responding to the committee's emphatic support for GM crops, Peter Melchett from organic food and farming charity the Soil Association said, "This is bad advice to the Government. There is probably no better way of ensuring that people remain suspicious of GM than to have the Government trying to 'counter food safety fears', rather than giving a straightforward, honest and even-handed account of the disadvantages as well as the advantages of GM crops and food, spelling out who exactly would benefit (mainly chemical companies and possibly some large-scale arable farmers) and who would run any risks (consumers, and any farmers who want to remain non-GM, including organic farmers, and their customers).


"It must also be the case that it is quite difficult for a government to try and reassure the public that GM is safe and well-regulated, while at the same time arguing for a significant slackening of regulation."

Sustainable intensification: Different meanings to different people


Although the report's authors said that a second inquiry into food security, to follow Tuesday's report in the autumn, will look into the social aspects of the situation in the UK, including access to food, waste and people's relationship with food, the Committee expressed support for framing future food and farming developments around 'sustainable intensification.'


Sustainable Intensification is a loosely defined concept; in essence it holds that, in light of the problems the world faces, more food must be produced without negative environmental impacts and without turning more land over to agriculture. However, there is no agreement on exactly how this will be achieved, and the approach has been dismissed as an 'empty signifier' – a buzzword that doesn't actually signify any real object or agreed upon meaning.


It has been suggested that the 'floating' term seems to have been filled with industry narratives on food production and security in recent years, so that its use sits comfortably with current power dynamics and the techno- and proprietary fixes recommended by current industry leaders. In contrast to industry support for sustainable intensification, agroecology – a similarly loosely defined concept, but one which tends to have more of a focus on ecological and social issues – has gained the backing of environment and anti-poverty charities, as well as key UN investigators.


Soil Association Policy Director Peter Melchett commented, "Sustainable intensification is a pretty vague concept, so it is not difficult to get people to say they support it. If sustainability in this context means using far less or no non-renewable inputs like mined phosphate and manufactured Nitrogen fertilisers, and not using pesticides at all, then we would be in favour of it."


However, though he added that, the Soil Association welcomed the EFRA committee for appreciating the environmentally beneficial aspects of organic farming, the organic group felt its focus on yields as the only outcome of farming is too narrow.

Measure of desirable outcomes from farming too simplistic


Melchett said the Association was pleased that the committee had something positive to say about organic: "Organic production uses fewer pesticides and inorganic fertilisers and, in so doing, makes an important contribution to environmental stewardship," but questioned its subsequent statement: "However, organic yields—certainly for extensive crops such as cereals and also for potatoes and some fruit—are generally lower than those for conventional agriculture."


Echoing Soil Association policy officer Louise Payton's comments, made on Tuesday, he said, "We argue that rather than measuring agricultural output as yields per hectare, we need to measure how efficiently we produce our food. Currently looking just at yields masks the high levels of inputs with subsequent impacts on greenhouse gas emissions."


Responding to the report upon its release on Tuesday, Payton said in a statement, "We agree wholeheartedly with the EFRA Select Committee food security report when they say we need a 'significant shift in how we produce our food' – however we think this also means we need to shift the way we currently measure food security.


"When it comes to agricultural emissions, we strongly welcome the report's call on the Government to produce a detailed plan for how the agriculture sector should reduce its emissions. This must be a plan for orderly progress in cuts to meet the Government’s target of 80% cuts in emissions by 2050."


Payton continued, "We also welcome the recognition from Select Committee that food security requires more funding for farm-scale research – it will be innovation at the farm level, led by farmers, that will yield the next agricultural revolution. Cutting-edge technologies are all very well, but they usually only provide generic solutions that too often do not fit the specific, practical needs of farmers."


Responding to the EFRA recommendations, Defra said it is already investing in food security measures, pointing to its agri-tech strategy.


When the strategy was launched in January this year, sustainable farm advocates at the charity said , "While we welcome government backing innovation in agriculture, the real challenge will be to make sure the Agri-tech Strategy supports working farmers, not just for the agri-input and big food businesses that are upstream and downstream of farming. This would mean giving farmers and consumers a direct say in decisions about research funding, and investing much more in agroecology - approaches like organic that help farmers buy fewer inputs and make best use of the renewable resources they have on their farm."