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Organic-v-traditional farming: time for a truce?

Friday 05 July 2005

Organic -V-traditional farming. Can we really have a "win-win" situation for farmers, wildlife and the British food consumer?

Some of Britain's most distinguished scientists last week proved beyond doubt that organic farms are a huge benefit for wildlife. But, as our countryside commentator John Sheard reports, a return to traditional farming could have similar results.

MY ALLOTMENT was in full fruit this week but, as ever, there were winners and losers. My shallots have done well and are ready for lifting but my red onions seem pretty miserable. In a similar vein, the asparagus was poor this season - but the artichokes are busting out all over.

Farming: back to the future?

Now what, a reader might ask, has that got to do with the long simmering row between organic farmers and their more traditional colleagues? The answer is simple: variety.

In my allotment, every year brings some gluts and some failures the natural swings and roundabouts of growing anything in weather conditions which can swing from the sublime to ridiculous. But if you have variety, there is always something good to eat, both for me and my resident wildlife.

As we reported on Wednesday (see News), a survey by some very distinguished scientists has proved beyond doubt that organic farms are much better breeding places for wildlife in a vast range from bats to beetles, with plants and flowers doing particularly well.

Frankly, this did not surprise me at all: anyone who has followed closely the growth of the organic food movement has taken this as read for years. But what did raise an eyebrow was the statement by a senior official of the National Farmers' Union saying that the same results will be achieved as new CAP rules persuade more and farmers to switch back to traditional mixed farming.

For years now the NFU has been scoffing at organic farming as being incapable of producing enough food to feed Britain. At the same time, many of them were switching to what was virtually monoculture - huge fields of a single crop, vast pastures for homogenous livestock.

This was backed by widespread spraying of artificial fertiliser, insecticides and weedkillers which killed off almost everything on that land except the crop in question (which would have been grass for grazing or silage in the case of livestock farms).

As far as I can remember, the NFU have never publicly confessed to this environmental damage, saying their were just "obeying orders" from the old and unlamented Min. of Ag. It was the politicians' fault, you see.

Yet this week, the NFU backed the move back to traditional mixed farming as a "win-win" situation brought about by revised CAP rulers which will offer them extra subsidies for environmentally friendly schemes. Could this, at last, have been a tacit admission that unfriendly farming had been the norm this past 20 years or more?

Now I have been a friend of the farming industry for years, even though this was not always accepted when I praised organic methods. I understand that it was the farmers and their forebears who created and still husband the British landscape, work that until now has gone unthanked and unrewarded.

But even more significant this week was the NFU's reference to a change back to "traditional" mixed farms, with a bit of arable land here, cattle or sheep there and - vital this - rotation of the fields so that livestock muck enriches the soil for next year's arable crop.

This was the simple practice invented by the so-called "improvers" of the 18th Century who led the first British agricultural revolution and made our farming the best in the world - a lesson lost on MAFF in the bad old days of two centuries later.

If the NFU have really taken up the traditional reins, I can even see free ranger poultry scratching about in the fields, perhaps a few pigs being fed with cabbages and potatoes or whatever the arable crop is this year. In other words, farms just like they were when I was nobbut a lad. Fingers crossed...

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