Lord Krebs, self-appointed spokesman for industrial agriculture, used the Oxford Farming Conference to attack organic systems for causing more climate change – a claim as demonstrably false as it is ludicrous, writes Peter Melchett. But across the city, the upstart 'real farming' conference was showing the way to a cleaner, greener and healthier future.
In Oxford this week, two major farming conferences have been under way.
The newer, forward-looking Oxford Real Farming Conference is discussing innovations in technology that are needed for farming to face the challenges of achieving massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, tackling the horrendous problems of diet-related ill health, and restoring beauty, colour, wildlife and human cultivators to our farmed countryside.
Meanwhile, speakers at the much older Oxford Farming Conference seem stuck in a time-warp where for decades almost the only new development in agriculture worth discussing is GM crops, and where an annual attack on organic farming seems to be obligatory.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Liz Truss, did her bit in praise of GM – which is now just "one tool in the toolbox", having been demoted from the "future for all farming and food" that was heralded in the 1990s.
Under what seem to be strict instructions from David Cameron not to do any more damage, if that were possible, to his "greenest government ever" claim, Liz Truss steered clear of saying anything new about GM, or announcing any action that would bring GM crops in England any closer, or indeed doing anything which you might expect an allegedly pro-GM government to do.
However, now that the Scottish referendum is over, the English Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is happy to forget that agriculture is already devolved to Scotland and Wales, and that both those countries remain staunchly opposed to GM crops.
So Liz Truss talked grandly about GM crops coming to the UK, when she's actually only able to talk about England – 60% of the UK. Nor did she mention the commitment given by one of her junior ministers at the end of last year, namely that GM crops for England are, at best, "several years away".
Over to you, Lord Krebs …
It was left to Lord Krebs to mount the seemingly obligatory attack on organic farming and food.
That's the same Lord Krebs who made himself a figure of fun several years ago, when he was chair of the Food Standards Agency. On taking up his position, he announced, without any scientific evidence, that anyone buying organic food because it had nutritional differences with non-organic were "wasting their money".
In his own field, which does not include nutrition or farming, Lord Krebs is a very distinguished scientist, so it must have hurt somewhat when, last year, a major meta-analysis was published which looked at 343 individual studies comparing antioxidant levels, heavy metals and pesticides in organic and non-organic food, focusing on salad crops, vegetables, grains and pulses.
An international team of scientists, led by Newcastle University, pooled all the existing research, and showed unequivocally that there are significant differences between organic and non-organic food, with 18 – 69% more beneficial antioxidants and 48% less dangerous cadmium.
We need more and better research in this area, and the researchers said that more studies would be likely to confirm the significance of a number of other positive trends in the differences between organic and non-organic food that they detected.