Letter re organic targets bill

Text of a letter sent by SGR to Members of the Scottish Parliament; 2 February 2003


Dear Member of the Scottish Parliament,

This letter is written on behalf of Scottish members of Scientists for Global Responsibility, an organisation of some 650 British scientists who are committed to the ethically, socially and environmentally responsible use of science and technology.

We find clear evidence that organic farming is beneficial to the environment and to domesticated species and human beings, while conventional farming degrades the soil, lowers the biodiversity of our environment and results in adverse effects on the health of plants, animals and, ultimately, human beings. Closer examination of the costs of organic foods as compared with conventional food reveals that the differences are not as they appear at first sight.


Conventional farming methods have unsustainable effects on soil structure.1 All topsoil on farms that are managed non-organically is being eroded and may be lost in 50-100 years.2 Soil quality is damaged by the application of chemicals3; and the use of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides can inhibit the microbiological life in the soil.4 Fertility is then diminished. In a Swiss field study that compared organic and non-organic farming over 21 years, ‘dramatic’ differences in the mass of soil micro-organisms was found. On the organic land, the mass of micro-organisms, which provide delivery of nutrients to the roots of crops, was as much as 85 % greater.5


Under a regime of conventional chemical agriculture, wildlife suffers directly from the effects of herbicides and pesticidebs and also indirectly, through a decrease of the available food supply when insects, weeds and other species are much reduced. Comparison of wildlife on organic farms and on conventional farms reveals that there are much greater numbers of birds (25% to 220% more), invertebrates (one to five times as many) and wild plants (five times as many, with 57% more species), but fewer aphids, on organic farms.6


More than 450 active ingredients for pesticides are licensed in the United Kingdom for use on conventional farms.7 Even individually, many of these chemicals have been insufficiently tested8; and their combined effects are largely unknown9. In organic agriculture, no herbicides and only a half-dozen pesticides are allowed10; and these are applied only on rare occasions. Evidence is emerging that chemicals used on conventional farms have harmful effects on individuals exposed at the levels occurring during spraying.11,12 It is difficult to assess the effects of dietary exposure, although some evidence of harm to health exists.13 Organically-produced food, on the other hand, has been shown to have beneficial effects for animals14 and human beings15.

Nearly half of the fruits and vegetables tested in the United Kingdom in 1999 contained pesticide residues.16 The quantities are sometimes well above the allowed limits17, and more than one pesticide residue may be present on a single fruit or vegetable.18 Little is known about the combined toxicity of two or more pesticides.19 Although peeling removes some of the contaminants, it also removes valuable nutrients. Peeling cannot counter the presence of chemicals that have been taken into the body of the growing plants through the roots.

Content of minerals and certain other nutrients (for example, vitamin C and phytonutrients) tends to be lower in conventional crops.20,21 Plants extract a wide range of minerals from the soil but artificial fertilisers replace only a few principal minerals.22 Between 1940 and 1991, some fruits and vegetables have lost 60%, 75% or even more of certain minerals.23, 24

Many doctors and nutritionists believe that the decline in dietary nutrients is partly responsible for the increase in common ailments such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes and obesity.25

The very need for pesticides is promoted by conventional farming practices, because of the excessive nitrogen fertilisation.26 Organically grown plants are much better able to resist diseases and pests, and animals reared on organic farms enjoy the same health benefits.27 Organic rearing can also prevent unforeseen problems: no animal born and raised on an organic farm developed BSE during the epidemic in the United Kingdom.28 (Whether this was true also of foot-and-mouth disease is not known, because even healthy animals in a suspect region were required to be slaughtered.) Examples can be cited of improvement in human health through the consumption of organic food.29


Direct comparison of a given kind of conventional food and the same kind of organic food shows that the organic product is usually more costly. Such a comparison is deceptive, however, as it does not take into account various hidden costs. Firstly, consumers pay indirectly towards their food through taxes that subsidise conventional farmers (£2.7 billion annually in the UK); organic farmers receive no such payments. Water companies must be paid for the removal of agricultural chemicals that have seeped off the land, and other costs must also be covered. An estimate of the hidden costs of conventional agriculture for 1996, not including subsidies or factors difficult to quantify, is £2.343 billion; for organic agriculture, the price is only one third of this amount.30,31 If hidden costs were taken into account, conventionally produced food would prove more expensive than organic food.32 Moreover, avoidance of the BSE epidemic through organic farming would have saved £4.5 billion.33

A little-known fact is that chemical fertilisation of soil results in a higher uptake of water by plants than does the normal manuring of organic agriculture.34 Conventional produce tends to contain more water than does organic produce, which contains more dry matter (on average, 20% more) for a given total weight; thus, the higher cost of an organic fruit or vegetable is at least partly offset by the fact that the purchaser of conventional produce is paying for the extra weight of water and getting only 83% of the nutrients, on average, available in the organic product.35 This fact is also relevant to the argument that organic agriculture yields less than chemical production.

Consumers in rapidly increasing numbers are choosing organic food; but the large majority of the organic food consumed in the UK is imported. More of this growing market would be captured locally, to the benefit not only of the local farmers but also to the entire community, if organic farming were seen to be supported by the government and more farmers were thereby encouraged to convert to the organic sector.

We urge you to vote in favour of the Organic Farming Targets Bill on 6th February. The entire spectrum of the Scottish environment, economy and health would reap the benefits of its adoption.

Yours sincerely,

(Dr) Eva Novotny Joanna Clarke
Co-ordinator for GM Issues Scottish member of SGR

* This is a corrected version of the letter sent to MSPs.



(The Soil Association publications cited below provide references to the original sources.)

1 Myth and Reality -- Organic vs non-organic: the facts, 2001, Soil Association and Sustain, p.23.
2 ibid.
3 ibid.
4 ibid.; also Organic farming, food quality and human health, 2001, Soil Association, p. 10-11.
5 Organic farming, food quality and human health, 2001, Soil Association, p. 10-11.
6 The Biodiversity Benefits of Organic Farming, .Soil Association, May 2000.
7 Organic farming, food quality and human health, 2001, Soil Association, p. 13.
8 John Humphreys, 2001, THE GREAT FOOD GAMBLE, Coronet Books, Hodder & Stoughton, Great Britain, p. 89, 91 and preceding and following pages.
9 Organic farming, food quality and human health, 2001, Soil Association, pp. 14-15.
10 Myth and Reality — Organic vs non-organic: the facts, Soil Association, p. 16.
11 ibid, pp. 7, 15.
12 Organic farming, food quality and human health, 2001, Soil Association, pp. 16-19.
13 ibid., pp. 19-20.
14 ibid., pp. 49-50.
15 ibid., pp. 64-65. See also Note 29.
16 ibid., p. 14, 59.
17 ibid., p. 14.
18 ibid., p. 14-15.
19 ibid.
20 ibid., p. 37, 44-45.
21 Living Earth, No. 209, Jan.-Mar.2001, p. 9.
22 Organic farming, food quality and human health, 2001, Soil Association, pp. 63.
23 R.A. McCance and E.M. Widowson, 1940 to 1991, commissioned first by the Medical Research Council and later by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and the Royal Society of Chemistry, as reported in What Doctors Don’t Tell You, Dec. 2002, p. 2.
24 Organic farming, food quality and human health, 2001, Soil Association, pp. 32-37, points out that, although the Food Standards Agency declares that organic food is no more nourishing than conventional food, of the 99 studies on which it based this opinion, 50 trials included ‘organic’ produce that had not, in fact, met proper organic standards; and 20 more studies were not useful, either re-publishing parts of other studies already included or testing for qualities not relevant to the review; only 29 studies remained as valid. Even these studies form a heterogeneous group and cannot properly be compared. However, if the comparison is made, the results show that at least 50% of those studies that made analyses of minerals or vitamins indicate higher content of both minerals and vitamins in organic produce, while (with the single exception of one study showing lower content of minerals) the remaining studies showed inconsistent or insignificant results. Other factors also need to be considered, such as the length of time required to rebuild soil fertility after conversion to organic methods.
25 ibid., pp. 11.
26 ibid., pp. 59.
27 ibid., p. 65.
28 ibid., p. 60-61.

29 Further evidence of the superiority of an organic diet comes from the medical sector, and three such examples are given below.

The British Society for Allergy, Environmental and Nutritional Medicine states: ‘We have long believed the micronutrient deficiencies common in our patients have their roots in the mineral-depletion of soils by intensive agriculture, and suspect that pesticide exposures are contributing to the alarming rise in allergies and other illnesses.’ (Organic farming, food quality and human health, 2001, Soil Association, back cover)

An ‘experiment’ on the effects of eating organic foods was made at a school. ‘There are reports of positive health effects in humans resulting from the consumption of organically grown foods. A report published in 1940 tells of the improved health of students at a New Zealand boarding school that began serving almost exclusively organically grown produce. After three years a report was submitted that made the following observations of the pupils: a period of detoxification upon arriving at the school, lower incidences of catarrhal conditions, a “very marked decline” in colds and influenza, more rapid convalescence, excellent health generally, fewer sports injuries, a greater resilience to fractures and sprains, clear and healthy skin, and improved dental health.’ (ibid., p. 47)

‘More recent clinical evidence comes from doctors and nutritionists administering “alternative” cancer treatments who have observed that a completely organic diet is essential for a successful outcome. Nutritional cancer therapies involve avoidance of pollutants and toxins as much as possible, the exclusive consumption of organically grown foods and increases in nutrient intakes, and have yielded good results. The Nutritional Cancer Therapy Trust reports “the overwhelming number of patients following alternative cancer therapies are those who have been declared terminal, with minimal life expectancies following initial allopathic treatment The ability of these patients to gain remission from all clinical evidence of cancer is therefore very significant.”’ (ibid., p. 48)

‘[T]he United States Department of Agriculture reported, 30 years ago, that the highest death rate areas in the US generally corresponded to those where agriculturists had recognised that the soil was depleted.’ (ibid., p. 11)

30 Living Earth, No. 208, Oct.-Dec. 2000, p. 4, ‘The True Cost of Intensive Farming’, by Prof. Jules Pretty.
31 Myth and Reality — Organic vs non-organic: the facts, Soil Association, p. 19.
32 ibid., p. 20.
33 ibid., p. 19.
34 Organic farming, food quality and human health, 2001, Soil Association, p. 11.
35 ibid., p. 38