Is Organic Farming The Answer?
As the Government seeks new ways of farming that will deliver more public goods for the British taxpayer’s pound, one method - organic farming - has the ability to deliver almost every public benefit that the Government wants to secure through new agricultural policy.
For the first time ever, the Government has recognised that that the current state of farming is unsustainable; and, by revamping agricultural policy, future farming will need to deliver more public goods with every pound spent. These include improved access to the countryside, increased protection for our declining wildlife, securing a decent living for farmers, improving our soils and animal health and welfare, and tackling climate change.
It is high time for change
Farming policy across the developed world since the post-war era has favoured intensive systems while placing little value on nature and public goods. As a result, our environment has suffered: globally, we have lost almost a third of arable soils to erosion and pollution globally in the last four decades; full recovery is measurable on scales of not years or decades but rather centuries and even millennia.
Industrial farming has led to biodiversity losses on a massive scale, with once common species of birds, bees and invertebrates now under threat. The intensification of farming has also lowered animal welfare standards, as the vast majority of pigs, chickens and, increasingly, dairy cows, live their entire lives indoors, often in cramped spaces. And compounding our future farming challenges is the looming spectre of climate change. Things are likely to get worse before they get better: we can expect more flooding, more drought, and more extreme weather.
If the Government is serious about delivering public goods for public money, the state of British farming will need to change substantially - and fast
The good news: we already have some of the best methods at our disposal to deliver a better, healthier future farming system. We need only to look to nature to do so. Soil, plants, animals and humans are interconnected; reliant on each other for balance in the world both as individual elements and as a whole. These concepts are the cornerstone of a farming system which, while not perfect, is already up and running and achieving these goals: organic farming.
What are organic farming methods?
Organic methods are based on a whole systems approach which employs a broad range of ecological practices that work with nature. Rather than rely on artificial inputs, organic farming promotes nutrient recycling and biological nitrogen fixation. Instead of relying on antibiotics (including those critical to human health) to keep animals healthy, organic animals are given a life in a stimulating environment and are bred to thrive outdoors, able to explore and follow their urges to root and play. And by integrating diversity into the landscape through techniques like agroforestry, a climate friendly method of farming which mixes trees, crops and animals on the same field, organic farmers are already using the tools needed to make zero carbon farming a reality.
The result? Organic farms have more abundant wildlife and more species biodiversity
They have healthier soils with more microbes, better ability to mitigate climate change by storing carbon and protect against flooding and drought. Less nitrogen and no persistent pesticides are leached from organic fields, translating to cleaner water. Organic farms have lower pesticide use and antibiotic use than non-organic systems, which lead to healthier wildlife and people.
In short, organic farming has the ability to deliver almost every public benefit that the Government wants to secure through new agricultural policy.
The bottom line: rather than siloing farming challenges, we must address them as part of a whole systems approach. Organic farming is not perfect, but if the Government wants to improve the state of British farming, it would be hard pressed to find a simpler and more cost-effective way to deliver public benefits than targeting support at organic farmers and organic farming methods.