Viewpoint: It’s time for transparency How promoting the supposed benefits of organic food misleads shoppers and undermines our agricultural system

RMore predictable howls from organic lobbyists greeted this year’s recent decision to allow temporary use of neon dressings on sugar beet crops to protect against yellow virus disease.

It is not credible to say that an exemption is temporary or emergency when used year after year. For how many years will the bans on these harmful chemicals be lifted?

People in glass houses was the saying that immediately came to mind.

Perhaps he had temporarily forgotten that similar exemptions were given year after year to organic growers for spraying copper rust fungicides on potatoes? Or that only in 2020 did the Soil Association urge members to lobby Defra ministers to ignore the scientific advice of the Pesticides Expert Committee that such products pose serious environmental problems because of their acute aquatic toxicity?

But, in truth, this is not the half.

A far greater hypocrisy, undermining conventional growers and misleading organic buyers, lies in the organic industry’s routine use of non-organic seeds, a practice which now appears to have reached record levels.

Under an emergency waiver, where no equivalent organic seed can be sourced, organic growers can use 100% non-organic seed grown using the same herbicides, fungicides and synthetic fertilizers that are prohibited by organic regulations and against which the organic lobby fights incessantly.

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The resulting crop is then marketed at a premium price as organic.

A couple of years ago, Cambridgeshire arable farmer Martin Jenkins, co-author of this article, took issue with this practice after a report by the Soil Association titled Organic Farming and Growing Stack Up? claimed to show how much more profitable organic farmers are than their conventional counterparts, with organic growers receiving a net income of 690/ha compared to 288/ha for non-organic.

In a letter sent direct to Defra ministers and other leading agriculture MPs, he expressed concern about the dubious practice of non-organic seed derogations, highlighting the case of organic OSR trials in Aberdeenshire, where growers have used F1 hybrid seeds that were not 100% organic but still pocketed a £520 per tonne premium over conventional for their organic OSR.

This prompted Julian Sturdy MP, also a farmer and chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, to describe the practice of using 100% non-organic hybrid seeds by organic growers as a kick in the teeth for conventional growers rapeseed farmers grappling with pest-ravaged crops following the loss of neon seed treatments, as he called for an urgent investigation into growers’ practice of using non-organic seed organic.

At the time, there appeared to be some confusion about the legality of this practice, after a written response from Kimble’s former Defra minister Lord Gardiner in response to a parliamentary question suggested that crops grown with 100% non-organic seeds would not could legally be marketed as organic:

There are no certified organic farmlands that use totally non-organic seeds, as the use of organic seeds is a requirement for certification. Hansard, November 30, 2020.

When Organic Farmers & Growers protested, however, Defra later issued a correction to confirm that organic growers can, under very specific circumstances, be allowed to use wholly non-organic seed, adding that the government was keen to work with the organic sector. to reduce the need for such permits by improving the availability of organic seeds.

This is clearly an important issue and the organic sector has recognized that the continued use of non-organic seeds risks creating two tiers of seed costs for farmers which could undermine public confidence and that advances in breeding, production and use of organic seeds are important to enable the organic sector to comply with regulatory requirements, protect public integrity and trust in organic food.

So how is this effort progressing?

Organic sector entities are required to produce an annual report detailing the organic industry’s use of non-organic seeds. The most recent report, covering 2022, was quietly released last month.

For the first time, the 2022 report covers just Britain, rather than the UK as a whole. It shows that, despite a declining trend in the UK’s total organic area, which has fallen from over 700,000 hectares in 2008 to just over 500,000 hectares in 2021, the total number of non-organic seed permits issued to organic farmers has increased by a record high of 17,259 in 2022. The previous high, which also included data for Northern Ireland, was 17,101 in 2011.

Surely most buyers who pay a premium for organic produce would be blissfully unaware that much of it has been produced from non-organic seeds? One wonders how they would perceive this seemingly routine use of non-organic inputs and the obscene profit taking place at their expense?

Conversations with seed industry contacts also revealed more about the practical challenges and obstacles that apparently stand in the way of the UK organic sector in achieving its stated target of 100% organic seeds for organic production.

Whilst it is often suggested by Defra that the organic seed sector is not sufficiently developed to supply 100% organic seed, it turns out that the UK seed and plant breeding sectors have previously held very detailed discussions with the industry that date back more than a decade in an effort to meet the seed needs of organic growers.

But those talks appear to be hitting the bearings, mainly because organic growers are reluctant to pay the higher cost of producing certified organic seed estimated by the seed trade to be two to three times that of conventional.

And is it any wonder, when emergency waivers to use cheaper conventionally produced seed are easy to obtain and issued to tens of thousands of organic farmers each year?

Let’s be clear. No agricultural system has a monopoly on the solution to sustainably feeding a hungry and warming planet, and it usually doesn’t help pitting one type of agriculture against another.

But something needs to be done to address the hypocrisy and double standards at play here, and the gigantic scam that is taking place not only at the expense of conventional farmers, but also those unwitting consumers who pay a hefty premium for the supposed integrity of organic food. .

On behalf of farmers and consumers, therefore, we would like to echo Julian Sturdys’ calls for an urgent review of how compliance with rules on the use of non-organic seeds is independently controlled, monitored and enforced. Because it seems that the organic sector has marked its tasks for too long.

Matt Ridley is the author of several books on science. He was a journalist and businessman and served nine years in the House of Lords. He lives on a farm in Northumberland.

Martin Jenkins is a Cambridgeshire farmer who throughout his 45-year career has been passionate about protecting and improving the environment, and equally passionate about applying science to improve productivity and efficiency while reducing the environmental footprint of the ‘agriculture.

Daniel Pearsall is an independent consultant specializing in communication and policy development in the agriculture, food chain and agroscience sectors. He runs a small cattle farm in southwest Scotland.

A version of this article was originally published in Science for Sustainable Agriculture and has been republished here with permission. Any republication should credit the original author and provide links to both the GLP and the original article. Find Science for Sustainable Agriculture on Twitter @SciSustAg

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