Sustainable food | Organic farming

Farming contributes under 1% to the UK’s total economic activity each year (1), but it takes up 74% of land in the UK (2) and has an immense impact on our environment (3). Industrialised agriculture has also caused environmental damage such as soil erosion, water pollution, and damage to wildlife habitats by using pesticides and other intensive farming techniques. (4)

Emissions by sector
Source: DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change)

The Soil Association*’s definition of organic farming recognises the direct connection between our health and how the food we eat is produced. Artificial fertilisers are banned and farmers develop fertile soil by rotating crops and using compost, manure, and clover. [*The Soil Association is the most qualified body for organic certification in the UK]

Strict regulations, known as ‘standards’, define what organic farmers can and cannot do – and place a strong emphasis on the protection of wildlife and the environment. Taking its name from the organic matter that farmers use as an alternative to synthetic fertilisers, organic farmers take a holistic approach that respects and harnesses the power of natural processes to build positive health across the ecology of the farm.

Organic farming methods offer the best, currently available, practical model for addressing climate-friendly food production. This is because it is less dependent on oil-based fertilisers and pesticides and confers resilience in the face of climatic extremes. It also stores higher levels of carbon in the soil, and as a result if organic farming was common practice in the UK, we could offset at least 23% of agriculture’s current greenhouse emissions.

In organic farming:

  • artificial chemical fertilisers are prohibited – instead organic farmers develop a healthy, fertile soil by growing and rotating a mixture of crops, adding organic matter such as compost or manure and using clover to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere
  • pesticides are severely restricted – instead organic farmers develop nutrient-rich soil to grow strong, healthy crops and encourage wildlife to help control pests and disease
  • animal welfare is at the heart of the system and a truly free-range life for farm animals is guaranteed
  • diversity of crops and animals are raised on the farm and rotated around the farm over several seasons, including fallow periods. This mixed farming approach helps break cycles of pests and disease and builds fertility in the soil
  • the routine use of drugs, antibiotics and wormers is banned – instead the farmer will use preventative methods, like moving animals to fresh pasture and keeping smaller herd and flock sizes
  • genetically modified (GM) crops and ingredients are banned

The area of land within the UK certified for organic production has risen dramatically in recent years: in 1998 there were under 100,000 hectares and by 2003 this had risen to 718,000 hectares in 2011 (7).

Would you like to visit an organic farm in Leicestershire?

The Manor is the place you’re looking for! Manor Organic Farm in Long Whatton, Leicestershire, is a family farm, farmed by Graeme and Vivienne Matravers.

The farm trail is open at all times. The old granary is now a classroom and visitor centre.     Call them on: 01509 646413 or email at shop@manororganicfarm.co.uk

What can you do?

The best way to support environmentally friendly farming is to ensure that you buy food accredited to a recognised standard, such as one of the schemes listed below.

Organic – these standards require farmers to protect the environment, primarily by severely restricting the use of pesticides, and avoiding the use of artificial chemical fertilisers. Instead, organic farmers rely on developing a healthy, fertile soil and growing a mixture of crops. There is a range of organic inspection and certification bodies, of which the Soil Association is the largest. The word organic is defined by law, and all certifying bodies must comply with European organic regulations.

Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF). A scheme in which farmers audit their production systems and examine soil management, fertility, pesticide use, and pollution control. It encourages farms to have an ‘integrated farm management system’, to reduce farming’s impact on the environment.

Assured Food Standards (AFS). An body for various different crop and meat assurance schemes. Standards require farmers to comply with UK laws about the environment, food safety and animal welfare that take them above the legal minimum. Member farmers can use the Red Tractor logo.

References:

  1. Sustain, Eat well and save the planet! A guide for consumers on how to eat greener, healthier and more ethical food
  2. Defra, Framework for Environmental accounts for agriculture – final report, (London: Defra, 2004)
  3. DECC, 2011, GHG inventory summary fact-sheet overview, http://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/statistics/climate_change/1217-ghg-inventory-summary-factsheet-overview.pdf
  4. Pretty, J., et al., 2001, Policy challenges and priorities for internalizing the externalities of modern agriculture, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 44 no.2
  5. Foster, C., Green, K., Bleda, M., Dewick, P., Evans, B., Flynn, A., Mylan, J. 2006. Environmental Impacts of Food Production and Consumption: A report to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Manchester Business School. Defra, London
  6. DEFRA, 2003, Agriculture in the United Kingdom. Stationery office, London
  7. Soil Association, 2012, Organic market report.
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