EU agricultural policies must be based on knowledge, not on ideology

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The European Commission's investigation of organic agriculture provides an opportunity for long overdue critical scientific scrutiny, so that agricultural policies can be based on knowledge and not on ideology, writes Professor Anthony Trewavas of the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Edinburgh in a May commentary.

This commentary was sent exclusively to EURACTIV by Professor Anthony Trewavas.

''EU officials say organic farming may be worth a closer look. I agree, but only if the scrutiny is performed by those who can provide a balanced assessment and not one borne by assertion. There seems at present to be a lack of factual scientific knowledge in this debate.

Research commissioned from the University of Reading by the Soil Association indicates that organic yields of major crops are nearly half those of conventional agriculture. Production costs are also higher. Organic food is on average much more expensive and thus does not represent a viable solution to world food problems. And it is the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) that has assessed the need to increase world food production by 70% to prevent the worst of all human tortures: slow starvation.

Given the strict regulations adopted by organic organisations it is difficult to see this situation changing. Published findings by Professors Goulding, Giller and myself and in the Proceedings of the International Fertiliser Society indicate that organic agriculture cannot feed the projected world population of nine billion even if the entire 1.3 billion hectares of globally available arable land are used. More arable land could be obtained by cutting down rainforest but the effects on global warming would prohibit such an approach.

If the intention is to make climate change an agricultural priority then the Commission should be constructing policies to encourage farmers to use no-till agriculture. Greenhouse gas emissions on no-till farms are currently assessed at one third those of organic farms and their soil structure, wildlife diversity and water relations are equal to or better than those of organic farms.

An exacting study recently published by the University of Leeds indicates that farmland bird biodiversity is clearly higher on conventional farms; it also again confirmed low organic yields. Previous scientific studies indicate that no general conclusion of biodiversity improvements in favour of organic farms can be made. The primary claims of improved biodiversity hinge almost solely around the higher levels of weeds in the crop of organic farms, not the margins.

All methods of farming, including organic, employ pesticides that must be used with care from both the safety and environmental perspectives. All water has to be cleaned and purified before it can be drunk; there is no special category of expenditure that details only pesticides. Rigorous peer-reviewed scientific analysis of the nutritional qualities of food indicates that organic provides no benefit to conventionally produced produce. In fact the insistence that nitrate reductions in organic produce are beneficial to health has recently been overturned by evidence that nitrate protects against both food-borne pathogens and gastric malignancy.

If policies are not based on scientific knowledge and understanding where such approaches are applicable, then using ideological assumptions can only spell future disaster. A balanced scrutiny of organic agriculture performed using the best available knowledge would undoubtedly conclude that the most productive way forward is by assessing all agricultural technologies without ideological bias and performed by those with the necessary scientific qualifications to do so. What is needed in this debate is scientifically-established information, not assertion.''

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