Organic shift would drive healthier diets: report

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Organic agriculture Agriculture

A major shift towards organic agriculture in the UK would cause a shift in the commodity mix – and subsequently be accompanied by healthier eating options, concludes a new report.

The report, compiled by Reading University’s Centre for Agricultural Strategy and commissioned by the Soil Association and an independent trust, set out to examine the likely impact of full organic conversion on the domestic food supply.

While critics have argued that organic agriculture could not produce enough food to feed the world, the report concludes: “Food production losses would not be as great and increases in on-farm employment would be higher than might be supposed.”

It also says that for organic agriculture to vary systems of agriculture is limited, “so the ratios of commodities would necessarily change”.

But Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, said: “If we want to continue eating huge quantities of cheap chicken, pork and dairy products and other mass produced foodstuffs, organic faming cannot deliver. But continuing this diet, with its potentially severe consequences for human health, would saddle us with huge human, economic and environmental costs.”

Amongst the main findings, Reading researchers Philip Jones and Richard Crane said that chicken, egg and pig meat production would fall to about a quarter of current levels due to abolition of intensive systems under organic agriculture.

This would free up more grain for human consumption – even though lower yields would mean the amount of wheat and barley produced would drop by around 30 per cent.

Dairy production would drop by around 30 to 40 per cent, unless herds were re-established and dairies reopened in parts of the country that have lost them.

However Jones and Crane projected that wholly organic agriculture could produce more beef and lamb that at present – by 68 and 55 per cent respectively.

Other benefits would be reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution, a reduction in intensive energy and fertilizer use, more wildlife, and a massive increase in rural employment, with the creation of 73 per cent more farm jobs.

Not all the answers

Melchett said that organic agriculture does not have all the answers to climate change and diet-related ill-health issues, and added that there is still a lot of work to be done on improving agricultural systems.

But the report “shows the positive impact that organic farming could have”.

“To the extent that this study has shed new light on these issues, policy makers should now be better placed to decide how policies supporting organic agriculture should be amended or developed.”

The report represents a way of informing and “informed guess”​ at the future. Based in real organic farm data, it is described as a “unique examination of the likely impact on domestic food supply of full organic conversion”.

The researchers looked at a sample of 176 farms, classified as organic if more than 70 per cent of their area was organic or in conversion. These data were then raised to England and Wales level, to show hypothetical land use patterns.

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