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May 09, 2010

Study refutes organic food environment claims

by Ben Webster

Birds such as the skylark and lapwing are less likely to be found in organic fields than on conventional farms, according to a study that contradicts claims that organic agriculture is much better for wildlife.

It concludes that organic farms produce less than half as much food per hectare as ordinary farms and that the small benefits for certain species from avoiding pesticides and artificial fertilisers are far outweighed by the need to make land more productive to feed a growing population.

The research, by the University of Leeds, is another blow to the organic industry, which is already struggling because of falling sales and a report from the Food Standards Agency that found that organic food was no healthier than ordinary produce.

Organic farmers who shun herbicides may also impose higher costs on nearby farms because the weeds that they have tolerated spread to neighbouring fields.

In the most comprehensive study to date of the impact of organic agriculture on biodiversity, the researchers studied 192 fields on 32 farms in central southwest England and the north Midlands. Half were organic and half conventional.

The research found that organic farms had, on average, 12 per cent more biodiversity in terms of the number and variety of plants, birds, earthworms and insects. But the yield from organic fields was 55 per cent lower than from conventional fields growing similar crops in the same areas. While there were more plants and butterflies on organic farms, there was no difference in the number of bees and there were 30 per cent more hoverflies on conventional farms.

Organic fields contained more magpies and jays but 10 per cent fewer small birds such as yellowhammers, corn buntings, linnets, skylarks and lapwings. The researchers found that the larger birds, which were attracted to organic farms by their denser patches of woodland, were scaring away the smaller birds and preying on their nests.

Tim Benton, who led the study published in the journal Ecology Letters, said: “Our results show that to produce the same amount of food using organic rather than conventional means, we’d need to use twice the amount of land for agriculture. As the biodiversity benefits of organic farming are small, the lower yield may be a luxury we can’t afford, particularly in the more productive areas of the UK.”

Professor Benton said that previous studies, which claimed that organic fields contained up to twice as much wildlife as ordinary fields, had failed to compare like with like. They had tended to study organic farms with small fields and lots of hedges and woodland and compare them with more open landscapes.

Professor Benton’s research, supported by the government-funded Rural Economy and Land Use Programme, also found that isolated organic farms made little difference to the level of biodiversity. Greater benefits were detected where there were clusters of organic farms.

The researchers concluded: “Organic methods may be a useful part of the land management mix for the less productive parts of the UK, particularly if policies can encourage farmers to co-ordinate activities to maximise the benefit to wildlife across a larger area. However, given the lower yield and the limited biodiversity benefit of organic farming, it isn’t sustainable to promote it as the best or only method of agriculture. To meet future demands of food production, we will need to keep farming our most productive areas in the most intensive way we can — and potentially offset that by managing some of our remaining land exclusively as wildlife reserves.”

Organic farms account for 4.3 per cent of all British agricultural land but their number is growing steadily. Sales of organic food, drink and other products fell by 12.9 per cent to £1.84 billion last year, according to the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report.

Lord Melchett, the association’s policy director and an organic farmer in Norfolk, said that the productivity of organic farming should be judged according to the total resources used per unit of output, including the oil consumed to produce artificial fertilisers, rather than simply the yield per hectare. He added that the decline in sales in 2009 was a temporary blip caused by the recession.


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