Scientists challenge ‘green’ claims of organic farming lobby

A group of scientists has challenged the claims of organic certification body Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G) that trebling the area farmed organically will deliver significant climate change and biodiversity benefits.

The claims are contained in a new report, Growing organic – a multifunctional component of English land use policy, which says a targeted shift towards organic farming can help the government meet its climate change and biodiversity goals.

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OF&G calculates that if 10% of English farmland was organic, ammonium nitrate use would fall by around 179,000t, leading to a greenhouse gas reduction equivalent to the carbon sequestered by 135,000ha of broadleaved trees.

The report also claims that organic systems are associated with a 21% increase on the number of field margin plant species, a 35% increase in farmland bird species, and a 26% gain in pollinator abundance, linked to the absence of pesticides.

“Underwritten by clearly defined and auditable legal standards, organic is proven to provide significant improvements in public goods delivery and natural capital gains,” said OF&G chief executive Roger Kerr.


But pro-science think-tank Science for Sustainable Agriculture has challenged these claims.

“The scientific evidence increasingly indicates that optimising food production on as small a land area as possible is the most sustainable way to feed a growing population, while leaving space for nature and carbon sequestration,” said a spokesman.

“OF&G’s 10% target for organic land use is relatively modest, but the fact remains that any increase in organic farming will inevitably reduce yields, requiring more land elsewhere to make up for the loss in production.

“This could have significantly worse environmental and climate impacts at a global level. It would also drive up prices to consumers, many of whom cannot afford to pay a premium for organic food. These factors do not appear to have been accounted for in the report.”


But Mr Kerr dismisses these claims, saying the conventional approach to food production doesn’t offer any assurances of self-sufficiency.

“Recent events arising from the invasions of Ukraine shows how febrile and volatile markets can be,” he said. 

“To deliver food security (nutritional, economic and environmental) we must explore approaches that reduce dependency on fossil fuel energy and are integrated with climate mitigation and adaptation, and biodiversity restoration.

“Organic has a positive part to play in this and within a wider land use framework.”

With regards to food prices, Mr Kerr points to evidence elsewhere in Europe. “Where organic food is integrated in the mainstream offering, food prices are comparative with non-organic. However, in the UK, retailers position organic as premium,” he said.

OF&G wants to see greater government support for organic farming within the upcoming Land Use Framework, both through Defra’s Environmental Land Management schemes and with more public investment in organic research and development.