Like local retail, farming is a sector of the economy that has fallen victim to the neo-liberal doctrine of efficiency and privatisation. The free market economics that have defined the last 50 years have consistently devalued agrarian produce, with supermarkets, farmers and consumers no longer paying the true cost of growing food.
I spoke with an organic farmer who has land just outside Iden village. This expense, he tells me, has been “externalised” to the environment. Polluted water ways from crop spraying, widespread supermarket litter and poisoned soils have become effects of a self regulating market fantasy, along with the dissolution of local economies and the remission of the rural way of life.
It is well acknowledged that conventional farming is in need of reform. The details are to be outlined in the long awaited and greatly amended Agriculture Bill. However, speaking with farmers it seems there is little confidence that the new system will guarantee an honest price for produce. Public goods, a term used in the bill to categorise what activities will receive funds, is an “ill-defined term”, one farmer tells me.
As a post-Brexit Britain looks beyond the EU for a semblance of economic stability, trade deals have been mooted that could further undermine UK grown produce – a deal to import Australian food has recently been in debate and it is feared this will provide supermarkets with still cheaper foreign grown food.
So if paying more for our food is the bottom line to restoring our bio-diversity and replenishing rural communities, is organic farming the answer?
Widely used in conventional farming, neonicotinoids are a class of pesticide that is absorbed by the crop plant, making it resilient to insects. They have garnered recent public attention for their contribution towards declining bee populations. Indeed, the humble bee has come to symbolise the ideological schism in farming that has become an ever more heated topic in the pubic domain.
Used to reduce insect populations and enhance growth processes, agrochemicals were the creation of the 20th century priority of food security; a righteous pursuit to extirpate post wartime privation. As an indication of its swift ascension, the global agrichemical industry is now valued at £200 billion, and it has been well documented how such ubiquitous application of chemicals to farmland has sent insect populations tumbling.
The industry is a loud voice in the ears of agrarian policy makers. The UK government recently overturned an EU imposed ban on the use of neonicotinoids after lobbying from the National Farmers Union (NFU). Furthermore, the investigation, carried out by Greenpeace’s Unearthed, found that the NFU had asked members not make the matter public for fear of reprisal.
Fewer chemicals, more insects.
Organic farming takes a holistic approach to growing food. The system is built on the founding principles of health, ecology, care and fairness, and recognises that these are achieved through a fundamental symbiosis between farmer and soil. The use of naturally derived sprays is only permissible under exceptional circumstances, and the application of nitrogen fertilizers, largely responsible for polluting water ways and the decline of wild flower coverage, is not allowed.
These factors combined are seen by the organic community as a sustainable compromise between the need to grow food and to maintain a healthy and productive environment. Research by Oxford University found that on average organic farms had “34% more plant, insect and animal species than conventional farms”. Interestingly the reported added – “We found that the impacts of organic farms on species richness were more pronounced when they were located in intensively farmed regions.”
The Soil Association is the representing body for the UK’s organic farmers, and it has been seeking greater provisions for sustainable farmers from central government.
There is a good argument for this. Net consumption of organically produced food has recently surged. The organic food market grew by a third during the coronavirus pandemic, with a 12.6% increase in sales driving the market value to £2.8 billion; still a pin drop in an industry worth nearly £200 billion. The non-organic food sector rose by 8% in the same period.
Driven largely by the pandemic, the convenience and safety of delivered vegetable boxes saw demand exceed supply. Riverford Organics, a food box delivery service, created an online waiting list to deal with the increase in demand, and Abel & Cole, another organic veg box delivery service, enjoyed a 25% jump in orders.
Independence from the hyper-capitalist mechanisms of big business has enabled organic farmers to set a price that will pay for the cost of production – what the farmer needs, they get. A more localised and direct passage of goods from fork to customer eliminates hammering costs such as global competition, virulent supermarket price wars and agrichemical expenses. A market that is willing to pay for its beliefs provides farmers with a more consistent and reliable income.
A study by The Centre For Rural Research conducted an in depth comparison between organic and non-organic farm incomes. Pooling data from a total of 505 respondents (246 organic and 259 non-organic), the report found that organic income was on average 30% higher per hectare (ha) then from non-organic, with spending also higher. Profits were at £1,164 per ha for non-organic and £1,243 for organic. Furthermore, it was found that both farming styles made significantly greater profits when produce was not sold through supermarkets, rather through direct channels fostered from community based marketing. Direct sales profits where at an average of £1,243 per ha and non-direct were at just £93 per ha.
In depth studies have been undertaken to asses how plausible the relationship between organic farming and local employment value is; a relationship that is by no means straightforward. Organic farming methods require hands on work that brings opportunities, yet these positions are often temporary and casual. wwoof.org.uk (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) offers positions to farm workers worldwide that are often unpaid, though communal value is often measured by the social engagement that the workers bring.
However, by higher labour needs alone, the overall trend is that organic farming improves the viability of rural communities. The same study by The Centre For Rural Research found:
“The farms in the sample employed a total of 3,071 people, of which organic farm businesses accounted for 60%. On average, organic farm businesses employed 6.4 people per farm compared to 4.8 people on non-organic farms. One implication is immediately clear; organic farms ‘punch above their weight’ in employment provision. They account for less than half the sample but more than half of all employment recorded and despite operating smaller farms (in terms of area) organic farms employ more people per farm.”
Furthermore, independence from government subsidies liberates farmers to diversify their income into selling medicines, herbal products and so on. The addition of eco-tourism and education camps to ecologically sensitive areas can supplement good incomes for workers, whilst diversifying business models that prove to be more resilient to market fluctuations.
An interesting example of a successful rural investment program is the SEKEM movement that began in Egypt in the mid 1970s. The creation of Dr Ibrahim Abouleish, the movement is now a thriving example of how a grassroots initiative based on sustainable principles can revive rural communities. Since its inception the collective has grown to provide its members with medical and education facilities, and has garnered international attention for it’s commitment to both people and planet.
Many see the higher expense of organic farming it’s Achilles heel. During the 2009 recession, sales plummeted as consumers tightened their purse strings. As such, a view is being taken that the recent resurge is superficial, afforded by disposable cash from government coronavirus support schemes. However, further consumer research would suggest it is something more. A consumer survey by the Soil Association found that shoppers attitudes are responding to raised awareness of environmental issues and health concerns.
“Two emergent factors came through in the research: biodiversity has risen in people’s consciousness, with more people making the connections between agriculture and the loss of wildlife. Pesticides are growing in awareness, too – in particular, health concerns over residues left on or in food.”
When asked about sources of influence, participants included the BBC’s Planet Earth 2 series and the Netflix documentary Kiss The Soil, both of which discuss environmental degradation from human activity.
Similar observations are purported in other consumer trend studies.
A common view is that organic food is a luxury for the wealthy. Factors such as the need for more manual labour, slower crop growing and greater crop loss to insects and disease make produce on average 20% more expensive.
If organics are to be a viable contender in the UK’s food market, they need to become affordable to the many. This hurdle is ever more challenging with the disparity between the rich and poor growing, notwithstanding the change in consumer choices that have reduced food budgets in the way of spending on property, holidays and digital services.
The economics of scale that dominate UK farming present the organic sector with perhaps its greatest challenge. A catch-22, to reach more consumers the cost of produce needs to come down. To drive down costs there need to be more consumers of organic food. Incremental market growth is slowly eating away at the cycle, and there are supportive regulatory bodies and ethical investment banks that offer advice and finance to encourage the effort. Last year Tridos Bank financed the conversion of 80,000 acres of land over to sustainable farming.
The system also faces the common criticism that its yields are too low for modern demands. Due to slower growing times and lower yields more land will need to be farmed for growing a similar amount of food; one report purported up to 40% more. This would leave less land to natural habitats that help to sequester carbon and support biodiversity.
The counter argument to this is to change consumer habits. Reducing the net consumption of meat and dairy is seen by some as an effective compromise. Indeed, the Climate Change Committee recently advised ministers to encourage a reduction of meat and dairy in the national diet to help protect the environment, commenting further that the public and private sector is not sufficiently encouraged by the government to engage with such issues.
Ultimately it seems that a proliferation of factors is what is needed to take organic into the mainstream. The various components required are already active to varying degrees. Public understanding of organic practices and the benefits they bring is growing, fostering a willingness for consumers to pay more for food. Organic brands and distribution routes are well established and developing further, and supermarkets are acknowledging and catering to the change that is being ever more deliberated in popular media.
Encouragingly, despite little support from the government, the organic community is thriving. Many of those who partake see it as a philosophy for a better society; a tonic for the social and environmental degradation at the hands of centralised capital and power that successive governments only foster. It’s responsible and provident; it looks beyond the profit lines to consider the broader implications of it’s practices. It is a viable business model of self sufficiency. It strives for social inclusion, for opportunity through entrepreneurship, for good quality produce that sustain personal health.
Profits aside, that surely is reason enough why organic farming is indeed a model for the future.
Image Credits: Markus Spiske https://unsplash.com/photos/ZKNsVqbRSPE.