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Is organic farming really ‘greener’?

With Europe’s organic regulations under review, two EU Parliament members debate the environmental sustainability of organic and conventional production systems.

Negotiations that could lead to an overhaul in the way organic pigs are produced in Europe must make sure that farmers are properly supported for their work in enhancing the environment, says a leading agricultural Member of European Parliament (MEP).

Dr. Molly Scott Cato of the Greens and European Free Alliance group said discussions between the European Commission, Parliament and member states on how organic farming should be regulated need to ensure farmers have incentives to farm organically.

Without such incentives, farmers risk not having the support needed to continue to grow the organic sector and meet the growing demand for organic food, she told EurActiv.com.

In a debate with Dutch MEP Jan Huitema, Alliance for Liberals and Democrats of Europe, on organic farming’s role in sustainable agriculture, Scott Cato said more needed to be done to make sure organic producers were financially compensated for their work.

She said she was concerned the direction of the current reforms meant that the needs of organic producers and consumers of organic food would not be met, and that the environment could lose-out as a result.

“Organic producers are doing good things for nature,” she said. “We think all of the measures should be shifted so those environmental benefits are rewarded more strongly.

“It would encourage more people to move into organic, it would meet the demand [for organic food] and ensure farmers have a premium price which helps their livelihoods.”

No silver bullet

But Huitema said the focus of policy had to be on developing competitive and sustainable agricultural systems across Europe — which did not necessarily mean offering more financial support to organic farmers.

He said there was little evidence to suggest that organic systems were better for the environment and that more research needed to be carried out before major policies were agreed.

“Per kilogram of product the ecological footprint of conventional production is actually much smaller,” he said.

“For example, per kilogram of product [conventional agriculture] produces less green house gas emissions and uses 25% less land than organic.”

Rather than encouraging farmers to adopt certain production methods, he said policy should focus on the results being achieved across the whole industry.

“There’s no silver bullet on this, we need to learn from each other,” he added. “It shouldn’t be based on the form of agriculture, but on what’s sustainable and how it’s measured. [Sustainability] can be achieved through organic and conventional systems.”

Greenest way of farming?

Scott Cato said the simplest way to achieve sustainability was to encourage more organic agriculture, because “that’s the greenest way of farming.”

“Conservative estimates say organic agriculture can produce 80 per cent as much [as conventional agriculture] on the same amount of land,” she said.

Studies had also indicated that organic systems were 34 per cent richer in biodiversity that conventional ones, she added.

But Huitema rejected the comment and said the argument for organic farming risked being led on ‘gut feelings’.

“We have seen before with biofuels that it was supposed to be the silver bullet for climate change, but now the argument is completely different.

“We should be looking to the facts and not just the gut feeling. I believe organic farming as a lot of gut feeling it it.”

Watch the full debate here.

Is organic farming really ‘greener’?
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