4 January 2002
Organic farming in ‘moral’ battle

By Tom Allen-Stevens

THE era of “industrial farming” is over and should make way for organic systems, a debate at the Oxford Farming Conference was told.

But the motion – this house believes 30% of agricultural land should be certified as organic by 2010 – was denounced as “moral superiority”.

“Agriculture needs a bold image and a new structure in which organic farming plays a key role,” said the Soil Associations Patrick Holden.

He implored “the best conventional farmers” in the audience to convert, adding that the movement needed all the support it could muster.

“Organic farming is a little like sex: a lot more of you are thinking about doing it than actually practising it.”

But the Soil Association was accused of an “unspoken agenda” by opposition speaker and ex-minister of state for agriculture John Gummer.

“Organic farming is meant to be a theological position about farming, but it is wrong to say that it is morally better to grow in an organic way.”

He added that conventional inputs applied properly and precisely with new technology had more potential to make a cleaner environment.

Former Greenpeace director Peter Melchett, who is currently converting his Norfolk farm to organic, highlighted the benefits of the system.

“It is rewarding, exciting and wonderful to see the wildlife coming back again and enjoyable coming face-to-face with your customer.”

But Cambridgeshire farmer Oliver Walston asserted that organic farming may not be as “clean” as consumers think it is.

“You can apply six different potash fertilisers, seven different trace elements, eight fungicides and eight insecticides.

“How is that a conventional chicken fed for just six weeks on a diet of 80% organic feed suddenly becomes organic?”

Essex farmer Guy Smith called for co-operation and won the award for the most iconoclastic speaker from the floor at the debate.

“We cannot afford as an industry to have one side tearing strips off the other. We all produce safe, wholesome food and should unite to rebut any criticism.”

The motion was quashed by around a dozen votes for to several hundred against, but one delegate said it could have been carried if re-worded.

The Soil Association would have more success if the motion was this house believes that 30% of organic landowners should be certified, he said.

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