Development of Organic Farming in the UK
The development of organic food production will be traced in the UK with emphasis on the more than 95% of organic farmers that belong to the mainstream movements of which the Soil Association remains prominent. The history of the Biodynamic Farmers group, which was founded after a series of lectures given by the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner in 1924 in Austria will not be considered because it is fundamentally a belief system concerning the benefits of farming according to a timetable and methodology that that aims to maximise the influence of cosmic forces on crop growth. Moreover there are relatively few Biodynamic farmers in the UK, possibly fewer than 150.
Main organic groups in the UK
Less than 2% farmers in the UK farm organically out of a total of about 300,000 farmers. About half the organic farmers are members of the Soil Association Certification Ltd. Bristol the other half are members of Organic Farmers and Growers Ltd. Shropshire, Scottish Organic Producers Association Edinburgh, Organic Food Federation Norfolk and Quality Welsh Food Certification Ltd. Cardigan. The rationale behind, and the subtle differences that may exist between the five organic certification bodies in the UK will not be considered.
Most organic farms are animal farms
Organic farming in the UK is dominated by animal production with grassland accounting for about 80% of organically farmed land; cereals account for about 8% and vegetables about 2%.
Value of organic matter
The history of the love affair with organic matter starts in India in the first half of the 20th century and with the people who unknowingly laid the framework for the organic movement in the UK. No inorganic fertilisers were then used in India. The reliance that was placed on the utilisation of all waste materials led to work on how to maximise the value of such wastes by composting.
There is no doubt that soil organic matter has several positive attributes including acting as a store of essential crop nutrients; applications of farmyard manure and of compost can improve soil structure and water holding capacity.
Crops can be grown without organic matter
Perfect disease-free crops of high nutritional quality can be grown without the help of soil organic matter or in fact without soil at all, for example in nutrient solution cultures. Cucumbers, tomatoes, courgettes, spinach and many of the bell peppers are produced without soil in many countries; most of the home-grown tomatoes in the UK are grown in rock wool and fed with nutrient solutions.
Piccolo tomatoes grown in rock wool and fed with liquid mineral nutrients.
140 million tomatoes are harvested annually, from February to November, in this 18 ha facility at the British Sugar nursery at Wissington.
Even some of the bananas from the Canary Islands and the early peaches from Italy are grown in gravel irrigated with nutrient solutions.
Plants are unable to distinguish between nitrate, phosphate, potash and other mineral nutrients derived from the dissolving in the soil of inorganic man-made fertilisers and those derived from the microbial breakdown of organic matter. Nitrate is nitrate no matter where it comes from.
There have been many attempts to demonstrate that organic matter confers benefits on crops other than those attributable to its mineral nutrient content and the improvement of soil structue and they have failed. One such experiment has now lasted 170 years at Rothamsted Experimental Station in Hertfordshire; identical yields of winter wheat have been obtained on plots given only manure (35 tonnes/ha) or only inorganic fertilisers.
Organic farming can be attractive because it is perceived to be a more natural way and one that is claimed to be sustainable
There is no doubt that conventional, so-called industrial, agriculture using inorganic fertilisers is sustainable over the medium to long term; however the question remains as to how many hundreds of years the minerals and oil will be available to make inorganic fertilisers.
In the meantime man will remain reliant on inorganic fertilisers. Without man-made fertilisers, notably nitrogenous fertilisers, it would currently only be possible for biological nitrogen fixation (symbiotic and free-living) to sustain a world population of around 3 billion. In other words on average half the protein in our own body contains nitrogen that was fixed by man in a fertiliser plant.
Absolute sustainability requires that all nutrients taken from the soil are returned, i.e. no crop or animal product is removed from the farm. This is only possible in subsistence farming where all the farm produce is consumed on the farm and all wastes, including human are conserved and recycled. When nutrients are removed in traded products it is inevitable that soil fertility will decline unless they are replaced by inputs of fertiliser or of animal feeding stuffs which will deplete soil fertility where they are grown.
It is not too difficult to imagine a future when scientific advances in chemistry and biology will be able to solve what appears to be the seemingly intractable problem of long term sustainability of food production. Non-leguminous crops that can fix atmospheric nitrogen symbiotically, crops that have the ability to solubilise minerals from powdered rocks and the use of renewable energy sources to generate hydrogen for use in the production of ammonia come to mind.
Questions and Answers
The development of organic farming will be traced by means of a series of questions and answers under the following headings;-.
1 Origin and Testing of Beliefs, 1920s to 1969. Diet, Health, Compost and Mycorrhizae.
2. The Accretion of New Ideas 1970 to date
3. Some Basic Aspects of Organic Farming
4. Legacy and Possible Future Scenarios.