I’m rather pooped today: I got back from the two-day 2013 Organic Producer Conference last night, held by the Organic Research Centre at Aston University. These conferences are usually brilliant: sessions are held by researchers or producers, or other relevant people involved in organic agriculture in some way; and the horticulture sessions in particular are very practical, looking at new varieties, tools or marketing developments.
This year was no exception; and I was invited to speak at the opening plenary (eek!) to give a grower’s perspective on the challenges and benefits of organic production. It’s fair to say that 2012 was a ‘challenging’ year (I’m sure we used to say hard/difficult/impossible), so no trouble finding something to talk about there: weather, weather, weather; but also the recession coupled with the organic bashing in the press following the Stanford and Oxford University reports in September (respective conclusion: organics are no better for health; and no better for enviroment).
Anyone involved in organic food would not recognise these conclusions of course, and I tried to make the point that media want a story, and going against consensus is what makes a story: so if organics are in, organic bashing will sell papers; if organic bashing is in, pointing out the benefits of organics will sell papers. Simple really. So producers need to take media coverage with a pinch of salt and ride out these cycles (sometimes easier said than done).
Overall I think the sessions I went to were pretty positive: how we can prepare for further extreme weather/market activity; swapping ideas on how to build customer loyalty; and how DIY marketing and encouraging customers onto your farm can be as useful as unique DIY tools.
Perhaps most positive was the closing plenary presentation by Nadia Scialabba from the FAO (Food & Agriculture Organisation of the UN); who showed the soon-to-be-published results of a study by the FAO looking at whether organic production can meet the expected food demands of the growing population by 2050. Interestingly, the conclusion was: YES. One modelled system using concentrated organic feeds instead of concentrated non-organics feeds showed the system hitting 116% of the target by 2050, but needing more land to grow the feed for animals. The conclusion, which many of us know already, is that globally we cannot all eat as much meat as the Western world currently does; but this conclusion is also true whether we convert to organic or not (and we eat more meat than is healthy anyway). So the positive message is: if we all convert to organic systems, we’ll feed the world (as long as we all eat a bit less meat – or some of us eat a lot less – than predicted). Not to mention the fact that we’ll also reduce global warming risks, conserve wildlife, avoid water and fuel shortages etc etc. I tried to explain how difficult I found it sometimes when asked why I grow organically – I feel like I’m being asked why I’d go out to sea with a boat not full of holes. Why on earth would I go to sea with a boat full of holes? Why on earth would I grow ‘conventionally’ or chemically? It simply doesn’t make sense; yet we have to somehow turn our thinking around in order to communicate why we don’t have a death wish, and demonstrate why the question starts from the wrong place. So keep calm organic growers, and carry on!