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Organic Targets: Potential positive effects

1. Introduction

The principle aim of the Organic Food and Farming Targets Bill (hereafter referred to as the Targets Bill) is to bring about a major increase in organic farming in the next 10 years. More specifically it aims to:

  • Ensure the development of a strategy for organic farming;
  • Ensure that 30% of land in England and Wales is organic by 2010;
  • Ensure that 20% of food marketed in England and Wales is organic by 2010;
  • Make organic food more accessible to more people.

The benefits that could be brought about by such an increase in organic farming could be substantial. They include major economic benefits such as the creation of jobs as well as reversing the decline in biodiversity, reductions in environmental pollution and reductions in the levels of pesticide residues consumed.

Using the target figure of 30% some of these positive outcomes have been quantified. It should be noted, however, that the projections are only estimates of the order of change that is expected to result, based on the limited research evidence available. Even so it is certainly useful to indicate what should occur if the targets are met. Research by Government on the impact of greater conversion to organic farming in the UK would be welcomed.

1.1. Summary of the findings

If 30% of land in the UK was farmed organically, changes could occur in the UK in the following areas:

  • Jobs: 16,600 new jobs created
  • Bird life: over 10% increase in the amount of birds
  • Butterflies: 25% increase in butterfly numbers
  • Pesticide usage: 11.5 million hectares of arable land would no longer be sprayed with pesticides

2. Agricultural employment

Farming is a crucial part of the rural economy. Whilst the national workforce in agriculture is small, representing 1.8% of the total work force (Rural Development Commission, (RDC) 1996) in deprived rural areas it is often a major employer. Amongst urban dwellers the popular image of the rural idyll remains, whereas in fact up to one in four people in rural areas are living on the margins of poverty. Changing farming practices and the related decline in the rural economy are major factors associated with this social deprivation.

2.1 The agricultural workforce

Table 1: Labour force on agricultural holdings in the UK (MAFF, 1998)

  • In 1998, the total labour force (including farmers and their spouses, seasonal and casual labour) was: 615,000
  • Of which full time regular workers were: 301,200

Agricultural employment has been steadily declining. In "full-time equivalents" the agricultural workforce of England fell by 22% between 1980 and 1994 (RDC, 1996) and has continued to drop. This downward trend can be attributed to:

  • Increased use of agro-chemicals
  • Farm mechanisation
  • Policy changes, most notably the operation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The 1992 CAP reforms will have reduced employment on farms by 3.7% in England (RDC, 1996). This is the equivalent of 5,400 full time jobs, and the number of jobs lost away from the farm was significantly higher. For example, an estimated 13,900 jobs have been lost in food processing alone.

2.2 Employment on organic farms

3% of agricultural land in the UK is currently under organic production or conversion (Elliot Morley MP, Hansard: column 411, 13 January 2000). However, figures are not available for the total people employed in organic enterprises.

A survey by the SAFE Alliance has suggested that conversion to organic farming results in an employment increase on farms of between 10% and 30% (Hird, 1997). Organic farms are characterised by less external inputs and more on farm activities creating a greater demand for labour through:

  • Livestock handling
  • Mechanical/hand weeding
  • A greater range of crops and livestock types on each farm
  • Increased need for on-farm marketing and processing
  • Smaller processing units.

2.3 Potential impact of the Organic Targets Bill on agricultural employment

Indication of job gains
Using a conservative estimate of 10% for the percentage increase in jobs on organic farms, extrapolations show that with an additional 27% of organic agricultural land, taking us to the target figure of 30%, there could be 16,6001 new jobs created, of which 8,100 would be regular and full time. [2 ] 

Whilst the figure of 16,600 new jobs is purely indicative, it is clear that just 30% of land being organic would have an important impact on rural employment. Organic farmers tend to buy from local suppliers and use local contractors, and their requirements means there is more demand for labour. In the context of the Rural Development Commission's study, these projected figures demonstrate how important an increase in organic farming methods might be in reversing the damaging effects of CAP reform.

3. Biodiversity

3.1 Declines in farmland wildlife

Covering 76% of the UK land area, agriculture is the predominant land use in the UK. However, it is widely recognised that the diversity and abundance of farmland flora and fauna has dropped significantly in recent decades. These declines have been attributed to fundamental changes in conventional farming practices such as increased mechanisation and pesticide use, as well as the increased specialisation of farms.

3.2 Potential impact of the Organic Targets Bill on biodiversity

There is now much evidence to suggest that widespread organic farming could help to reverse these trends and restore farmland biodiversity.

A recent Soil Association report, The Biodiversity Benefits of Organic Farming, reviewed 23 independent studies that compared the levels of wildlife on organic and conventional farms. (Soil Association, May 200) This found that in nearly all cases the levels and diversity of wildlife on the organic farms were substantially greater than those on conventional farms.

English Nature has explained why organic farming encourages and protects farmland biodiversity (House of Lords,1999):

  • No synthetic chemicals are used which can a), reduce botanical diversity; b), help simplify cropping patterns; c), restrict the base of wildlife food chains and d), reduce wildlife populations directly or by restricting their food supply.
  • Organic farms are more mixed and less specialised. Supporting both arable and livestock means there must be arable/grassland rotations, which are good for nutrient cycling and pest control.
  • Organic systems tend to use more spring sown crops compared to conventional systems that have now moved to mostly autumn sown crops. This has significant disadvantages to species which benefit from bare ground in spring or late harvested crops.
  • Under organic standards it is required or recommended that farms be managed in sympathy with wildlife concerns and include infrastructure benefits such as hedges and ponds (House of Lords, 1999).

At present organic agriculture occupies such a small percentage of UK agricultural land that the benefits for wildlife on a national scale are small. However should a target of 30% agricultural land under organic production be reached, the biodiversity benefits could be enormous, particularly as declines in biodiversity have been so dramatic and directly related to developments in conventional farming. Many species are associated particularly with farmland and these have suffered the worst declines. While a small proportion of farmland is managed sympathetically under agri-environment schemes or by concerned individuals, a large proportion of land is dependent on a farming system which is itself responsible for long term declines in biodiversity and the overall trends continue to be downwards.

3.3 Farmland bird life

Farmland birds have declined by 40% since the mid-1970's (RSPB, 1999). Individual species have declined much more steeply. For example, according to the Common Birds Census, the numbers of breeding skylarks on farmland have declined as much as 75% between 1972 and 1996 (Crick et al, 1997). Farmland birds have been shown to be declining faster than birds in other habitats (e.g. woodland birds) which points to a direct link between increasing intensification of conventional farming and a drop in biodiversity. A series of birds strongly associated with farmland such as the skylark, song thrush, linnet and corn bunting are now on the list of species in danger of extinction as part of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

3.3.1 Potential impact of the Organic Targets Bill on bird life

A study comparing distribution and breeding success of skylarks on organic and intensive farmland in southern England found that there were 2.2 times as many breeding skylarks on organic cultivated land (Wilson et al, 1997).

A three year study of 22 organic and conventional farms by the British Trust for Ornithology comparing the populations of a wide range of farmland bird species found 25% more birds at the field edge and 44% more birds in-field on the organic farms, resulting in a 40% increase in bird populations overall. (Chamberlain et al, 1998). Other studies show similar increases (For example Brae et al, 1988).

Indication of increase in bird life
Assuming that the figure of 40% can be extrapolated to the whole of the UK, if 27% more land in the UK was organic there could be a 10.7% increase in bird life in the UK. [3] 

3.4 Butterflies

Currently the UK's butterflies are in steep decline with 40% of the UK's 59 butterfly species under threat (Barnett & Warren, 1995). This includes species such as the High Brown Fritillary and the Heath Fritillary which have both suffered declines of over 90% in the last 50 years and are in grave danger of extinction. 5% of our butterfly species have already become extinct this century. (Pretty, J, 2000) Many of the declines can be blamed on the breakdown of traditional agriculture, driven by misguided agricultural policies (Van Swaay C, & Warren, M, 1999).

3.4.1 Potential impact of the Organic Targets Bill on butterflies

Research has shown that twice as many non-pest butterflies 4 are found in organically farmed crop areas, as in conventionally farmed crop areas (Feber et al, 1997).

Indication of increase in butterflies
If the area of land devoted to organic farming in the UK rose from the current figure of 3% to the target of 30% there could be a 25% increase in the number of butterflies in lowland areas. [5]

The targets in the Organic Targets Bill would therefore help to reverse the extreme decline in some species seen over the last century. It is important to note also that the research example here found that increases in butterfly numbers does not necessarily involve an associated increase in pest butterflies (Feber et al, 1997).

3.5 Biodiversity conclusions

Birds and butterflies are more abundant under organic farming systems. The research used may even underestimate the actual benefits that would result from 30% of agricultural land being organic in England and Wales. In many of the studies used, conventional and organic farms were paired by farm type for comparison. This means that many of the particularly large, specialised conventional farms would not have been included because to get a match with organic farms, atypical mixed conventional farms would have had to be used. Also, at present most organic farms are currently isolated patches. With an increasing mosaic of organic land, biodiversity benefits are likely to be amplified.

4. Pesticides

4.1. Current levels of pesticide usage in the UK

Currently, just under 43 million hectares of arable crops in Great Britain are treated with pesticides (Pesticide Usage Survey Group, 1999). 6 Around one billion gallons of pesticides are sprayed on crops each year (Friends of the Earth, 2000).

4.2. Effects of pesticides on wildlife and the environment

English Nature (the Government's advisers on the nature conservation) recognises that there are direct and indirect problems for wildlife arising from agro-chemical use (House of Lords, 1999). One such indirect impact is that which they have on birds. Pesticides reduce the availability of food sources for birds by destroying the habitat of invertebrates and the abundance of plants and seeds (Pretty, 1998). Pesticides can also damage soil structure, causing increased runoff and reduced soil fertility by destroying organisms within the soil. Pesticides have been shown to reduce earthworm populations by 60-90%, with effects lasting for at least 20 weeks (Porter 1990 cited in Greenpeace 1999). Over the last 53 years Britain has lost over 50% of its honey and bumble bee population. An estimated half of this figure has been caused by modern agriculture, specifically through direct exposure to pesticides and loss of habitat (Pretty et al 2000).

4.3. Effects of pesticides on human health

While it is accepted that many agro-chemicals have the potential to cause neurological disorders, certain cancers and reduced sperm count (Morgan 1992), the health risks they pose to pesticide users and those consuming products containing pesticide residues is not fully understood. Analysis of the latest MAFF report on pesticide residues shows that about half the fresh fruit and vegetable samples contained pesticide residues (MAFF, 2000). The UK Government currently advises consumers to wash and peel fruit and vegetables before feeding them to children to reduce the risk of pesticide residues being consumed (MAFF, 1998), and the EU has introduced stringent regulations that effectively ban pesticide residues in infant food (Pesticides News, 1998). Several pesticides are suspected of being hormone disrupters and there are increasing concerns about the potential effects on the developing foetus if pregnant women are exposed to these chemicals. The Royal Society recently urged caution and recommended that "it is prudent to minimise exposure of humans, especially pregnant women, to endocrine disrupting chemicals" (Royal Society, 2000). Furthermore, it has been shown that herbicides can negatively effect the nutrient properties of crops and, in particularly, reduce levels of Vitamin C (Clancy, K, 1996).

A correlation between pesticides and ill health is more evident for pesticide users. An estimated 20,000 unintentional deaths occur worldwide each year from pesticide exposure (World Health Organisation (WHO), 1990). The UK's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported that over a twelve-month period 5% of agricultural pesticide users holding certificates of competence reported having visited their GP at least once with symptoms thought to be caused by pesticides. A further 10% reported symptoms but did not consult a doctor (HSE, 1998). These reported incidents represent immediate ill-health following pesticide use. There is further concern that there may be long term health implications of pesticide exposure. Research on Dutch fruit farmers has shown an apparent connection between pesticide exposure and delay in pregnancies, along with a shift in offspring sex ratios (Beekman, Luijk, and Muilerman, 1998).

4.3. The costs of pesticide usage

It is difficult to assess the true costs of pesticide use because many are not fully understood, and those that are understood are often met outside the agricultural economy. Pretty et al (2000) has made the following conservative estimates for costs of pesticide usage in the UK:

  • pesticide contamination of sources of drinking water costs an estimated 120 million annually;
  • 1.73 million in losses of Bee Colonies annually;
  • 1.05 million in costs borne by farmers and the health system annually.

4.4. Potential impact of the Organic Targets Bill on area sprayed by pesticides

Indication of reduction in pesticide usage
If 27% more land was organic in the UK, giving a total of 30% organic land the area sprayed with pesticides would reduce by 11.5 million hectares. This is equivalent to the combined area of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. [7] 

5. Conclusion

The Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food has recently selected a series of indicators for sustainable agriculture, one of which is the area converted to organic farming (MAFF, 1999). Key farmland bird populations, agricultural employment and pesticide levels in rivers and groundwater as well as pesticide residues in food have all been designated as indicators too. This briefing has demonstrated that increasing the area of organically farmed land could lead to substantial improvements in all of these indicators. If the 30% target recommended by the Organic Targets Bill was taken up by the Government major progress could be made towards a more sustainable Britain.



[1] This figure assumes that the relative proportions of part time, seasonal/casual and full time workers is the same for organic as it is for conventional farming methods.

[2] Calculation: 27% of the total number of agricultural jobs (615,000) is 166,050. With an increase in the number of jobs on organic farms of 10%, 10% of 166,050 is 16,605.

[3] Calculation:[(40% increase in bird life x 27% increase in organic farming) / (100 + 40 x 3% of land already organic)] x 100 = 10.7%.

[4] Non-pest butterflies form the majority of the UK butterfly population. There are only two pest species in the UK, the Large White and Small White.

[5] Calculation: [(100% increase in butterflies x 27% increase in organic farming)/ (100 + 100 x 3)] x 100 = 25%

[6] This figure includes many repeat pesticide applications and includes an extremely small proportion of naturally occurring pesticides that could be used in organic farming.

[7] Total arable area sprayed with pesticides in 1998 was 42 million hectares and 27% of this figure is 11.5 million hectares. This assumes that the 27% increase in organic land would be spread evenly amongst all crops and that the same pesticide reduction would occur in all crops.



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