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Organic vs. conventional farming – perspectives. Illustrate your essay with specific examples.

Organic food is produced by a system of farming that eschews most or all synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, growth hormones and non-necessary pharmaceuticals.  In the UK, the Soil Association certifies food as organic if the method of production meets its organic "standards" (Soil Association, 2007).  From a low base, UK organic food sales were worth "£1.6 bn … [which represented] … a 30% growth in sales last year" (Milmo, 2007).  This represents not only substantial growth, but also substantial acceleration - 2004 showed growth of 11% (Soil Association, 2005).  Proponents of organic farming claim that it benefits both the environment and human health when compared to conventional farming.  Sceptics point to the lower efficiency (and hence need for more land) of organic farming; many also dispute the health and environmental claims.  David Miliband, the UK Environment Secretary, recently described organic food as a "lifestyle choice" (Milmo, 2007).

The Soil Association's Peter Melchett "says that environmental concerns, rather than health benefits, are now cited by British consumers as their main justification for buying organic food" (The Economist, 2006).  Despite this, the Soil Association (2005) does attribute strong growth in organic milk sales to "significant media coverage of the health benefits of organic milk".  Professor Sir John Krebs, of the Food Standards Agency claims that there is no evidence that organic food is healthier than conventional (Guild of Food Writers, 2001), in particular that it has not been shown to contain more nutrients.  However, another health aspect - pesticide residues on crops, and antibiotics and pharmaceuticals in animal produce - was highlighted by toxicologist Dr Vyvyan Howard: "everyone in the UK has in their bodies residues from a substantial number of some 200 farming chemicals which have only been in use for 50 years" (Guild of Food Writers, 2001).  Not only are these novel compounds not degradable by human enzyme systems, but the unknown "cocktail effects" of simultaneous exposure to many individually toxic compounds should compel use to take a precautionary approach.

The debate around organic farming includes topics that are seen as very important but are also not particularly simple - few other debates will include environmental concerns, human health concerns, eating habits, and how best to sustainably provide food for an increasing global population.  However, the certification of foods as "organic", with quite rigid standards being applied seems to make the debate one of "either/or".  Professor Trewavas (Guild of Food Writers, 2001) pointed to the concept of "integrated farm management", or taking the best bits of both organic and conventional farming to achieve sustainable food production in the future.  In the articles and discussions summarised here, his was quite a solitary voice.  The Economist (2006) notes that "the most environmentally benign form of agriculture appears to be 'no till' farming which involves little or no ploughing and relies on cover crops… Alas, shoppers look in vain for 'no till' labels on their food".  Issues of food quality and dietary choice are in danger of being artificially conflated with the organic/conventional divide - one can buy both organic processed food and conventional fresh vegetables.

The organic debate seems to be providing consumers with a false choice - "good" organic versus "bad" conventional, or "lifestyle choice" organic versus pragmatic conventional, depending on the view being expressed.  Further, the complexity of the issues involved may lend themselves to a selective use of facts and assertions, depending on point of view.  Organic farming can be a lucrative business, as well as an important political statement (or "lifestyle choice"?); but equally conventional farming does not want to be seen as bad for health or the environment.  Thus, many views are not disinterested and this needs to be taken into account when following the debate.

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