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Saturday 3 December 2016

Is organic farming immoral when millions are starving?

John Shirley

Published 25/01/2012 | 06:00

Is it immoral to practice organic farming? I was a little shocked to hear this opinion expressed at a lecture last week. I think of the organic farmers with whom I have come into contact. While some may be in the business primarily for extra profit (and nothing wrong with that), most are farming organically through conviction.

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For them, it reflects purity in food production and respect for the environment. Such organic producers may be a trifle eccentric but I regard them as very moral citizens.

Dr Keith Dawson, of the Scottish Agricultural College, the speaker who questions the morality of organic farming, does so from a perspective that differs from most people in Ireland or Europe. As an international consultant, he is involved in farming projects in Eastern Europe, Africa, Cuba and Australia.

He sees at first hand how the world's population is exploding, how food reserves are diminishing and how famine stalks much of the globe.

He said that the unrest that has spread across North Africa and the Middle East, has its origins in food scarcity and rocketing food prices. At best, the population in Europe is vaguely aware of the food deprivation being suffered in countries such as Libya, Tunisia, Syria and Egypt (the world's biggest wheat importer).

The solution to this turmoil and unrest is more food and better quality food. Dr Dawson regards farmers as potential global peacemakers on the basis of their food production activity.

He also pointed out that last year, for the first time, urban dwellers outnumber rural dwellers across the globe. All this is putting extra pressure on food production. His contention is that the world should be squeezing the maximum food output from every usable hectare, especially the developed economies. This is a proper and moral approach. In his opinion, the ultimate in global irresponsibility is to downgrade science and end up reducing animal and crop yields in our part of the world while rainforests are felled to grow extra food elsewhere.

He is also quite sanguine about climate change. "The fact that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are rising is to be welcomed. Crops use atmospheric CO2 to grow. The 7pc rise in CO2 levels will boost crop yields across the globe," he added. Given Dr Dawson's standpoint, it's no surprise that he is scathing of the EU plans for reform of the Single Farm Payment. He sees the 30pc 'greening' and the 7pc set aside measures as seriously flawed proposals for 21st Century farming.

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"The world has moved on. Having over seven billion people on the globe [double the number when Ireland joined the EEC in 1973] is new territory for all policy-makers.

"The EU should not be so inward looking. Food security is now the critical issue for the world. Intensive food production can be compatible with a clean environment."

Nature has a way of adjusting to circumstances, whether this is rotational farming or continuous cropping. Dr Dawson described how a field in Rothamsted Research Farm in Britain has been in continuous wheat for 125 years and the sky hasn't fallen on it.

Within Ireland and the EU, organically produced food is perceived as being safer and having more flavour. Celebrity chefs are big into promoting the organic angle.

It seems to be part of the human psyche to believe that everything 'natural' is benign and that synthetic/ artificial items are risky. Also, there is a perception of mass-produced food being bland.

These are powerful attractions to a population with high spending power and a growing interest in health issues -- people only want to do what is best for themselves and their families.

However, the jury is still out on the flavour issue. Trials testing organic versus non-organic food are inconclusive. On the issue of food safety, I have confidence in the Irish and EU regulatory and licensing authorities. If anything, they can be too cautious, especially when it comes to the GM technology.

There is also an argument that organic food can be higher in pesticides. In the absence of externally applied pesticides, the crop will create its own defences to fight off disease challenges.

Dr Dawson describes organic farming as "a hobby for the rich". Fair enough for those who can afford it, but at policy-making level, global food security is now the overriding issue.

The world's old food stockpiles and reserves are gone. Droughts and weather catastrophes are now the norm rather than the exception and we must plan for such.

The Incas of South America may not have discovered the wheel or invented writing but they had a sophisticated cropping programme which allowed for routine weather disasters.

EU Farm Commissioner Dacian Ciolos should take note.

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