Why do organic farmers have to pay for certification rather than farmers who use toxic chemicals?

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Posted Jul 10 2016 by Simon Fairlie of The Land Magazine

It’s always more expensive to do the right thing isn’t it? Like taking the train instead of driving or flying, or buying recycled products, organic food or natural building materials. If you want to do the environmentally-friendly or socially-just thing, it’s going to cost you more money. That can’t be right, can it?

So if you’re a farmer and you want to produce food without using chemical fertilisers or pesticides, you have to pay to be certified, putting you at an immediate disadvantage compared to farmers who do use chemicals. Below is an interview with Simon Fairlie about this subject, and what we might do about it.

Lowimpact: I know that chemical fertilisers are made using fossil fuels, and a lot of energy is required to make them and transport them around the country; and I know that they don’t add body to soil, and therefore cause soil erosion; but you also say that using chemical fertilisers turns manure into a waste product that causes problems – what do you mean? Wouldn’t farmers use the manure anyway, if they have it?

Simon Fairlie: Well, for example on large dairy farms, manure is used on the land, but it’s sprayed back onto grassland. Instead, fertility should be going to arable land. On mixed farms, dairy is the fertility importer. Land on mixed farms will spend some time under arable crops and some time under grassland/clover. Clover is a nitrogen fixer (i.e. it’s one of a range of plants that take nitrogen from the air and put it into soil), so will bring its own fertility, and then the manure from the animals can be used on the arable land. But because agriculture is moving towards monoculture and away from mixed farms, arable farms don’t have a source of manure, so they tend to use chemical fertilisers, resulting in the problems you’ve described. We shouldn’t be using artificial fertilisers until all the natural fertilisers have been used effectively – it’s crazy.

LI: What problems are there with organic certification?

SF: To be certified organic, you can’t use waste products that might be non-organic. But they’re waste products, and so they’ll just be thrown away if they’re not used. It makes sense to use waste products. Also, I couldn’t put my cows in a local field that isn’t certified organic, even though I know that it’s never had chemicals put on it; and I couldn’t use stale, non-organic bread to feed to my pigs, even though it would be wasted otherwise. Plus, having to order hay from miles away because there isn’t a local organic source might turn out to be worse for the environment. Small farmers are often struggling, and if they can use local inputs that are often cheap or free, even if it’s from land or businesses that are not certified organic (even though they are), then it can help them survive.

LI: What are the alternatives for farmers who want to farm sustainably?

SF: For small farmers who are known in their local community, it’s not so important to get organic certification, because their local customers know that they don’t use chemical fertilisers or pesticides, or even if farmers have more distant customers who know about their farming methods they might think ‘now that I’ve got a loyal customer base and they know I’m organic, why do I need the bureaucracy and cost of certification?’ So, official figures show that the area of land farmed organically in the UK is not rising, but in reality, it might be.

LI: What’s would an alternative labelling scheme look like?

SF: I think it would be much better if the burden of certification and labelling was on the ‘bad guys’ rather than the ‘good guys’. ‘Conventional’ farming has been organic forever – it’s only recently that we’ve started using synthetic chemicals in farming, and now chemical farming is considered ‘conventional’. Organic food would be considered ‘conventional’ and food grown using chemical fertilisers and pesticides could be labelled as such.

LI: What would be the role of the Soil Association?

SF: The Soil Association could still oversee the certification scheme, which would mean that their income would increase, as there are more non-organic than organic farmers. But better than that, instead of chasing after organic farmers that might have grazed their cattle on organic but uncertified land, they would be helping non-organic farmers to avoid the costs and bureaucracy of certification by turning organic – a much better use of their time.

LI: And what would be the benefits?

SF: If the burden of paperwork and financial cost were transferred from organic to non-organic farmers, then organic food would become cheaper relative to chemically-grown food. Also, it would mean that small-scale organic farming would become that bit easier, and the number of small farmers and the area of land that didn’t have chemicals sprayed on it would increase. There would be huge benefits for wildlife and diversity.

LI: What could non-organic labels look like?

SF: How about a little black tractor with skull and crossbones, like this:


LI: how could it be changed?

SF: We could build a network of small farmers that use organic or nearly organic inputs from their local area, and farm without synthetic chemicals to provide food for local markets based on trust. There are organisations that could oversee it – such as the Wholesome Food Association. Under this system, certification could be extremely cheap, and not so strict as organic certification – so small farmers could use some waste products that are not completely organic, and could graze their animals on land, or use fodder from land that isn’t certified organic, but hasn’t had any chemical fertilisers or pesticides for at least three years. Local customers and other small farmers could inspect local farms annually.

LI: what can individuals do?

SF: Buy organic, first and foremost. Then argue with people about this new idea. It will have its critics – chemical farmers, obviously, who don’t want the extra work and costs, but also perhaps some organic farmers who don’t want to dilute the ‘purity’ of their farming methods. But in the end, switching labelling and certification to non-organic farming, and allowing small farmers to be called ‘conventional’ – i.e. that they don’t use chemical fertilisers and pesticides on their land, should reduce the amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides that are used in the countryside, which is what we should all be aiming for.

NB: the little black tractor comes from a lighthearted fantasy called Little Black Tractor in The Land 12 which can be found here.

The logo is, of course, a spoof of the much criticised Red Tractor logo.