New study finds clear differences between organic and non-organic milk and meat

Science Daily – Monday 15th February

A new study has found clear differences in the nutritional value of organic and non-organic milk and meat, putting to bed the long-held assertion that there is no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic food.

The difference is most apparent in the amount of valuable omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk and meat – some 50% more than in conventionally produced products. Omega-3s play an important role in our health, cutting cardiovascular disease, and supporting our immune system and neurological development. However, western European diets are low in them, so increasing our intake with foods higher in omega-3 – and in particular improving the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids – is a good strategy for improving our health.

The study gives further support to the value of meat and dairy from pasture-fed animals, since the increase in omega-3 in organic milk and meat was linked particularly to the grass-fed, low concentrate diet of pasture-raised animals. There were also higher levels of fat soluble vitamins such as vitamin E in organic milk among other benefits.

An earlier study showed that organic crops have 60% more antioxidants, leading head researcher, Carlo Leifert to comment that “…the three studies on crops, meat and milk suggest that a switch to organic fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products would provide significantly higher amounts of dietary antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.”

UK on high alert for ‘phony peach’ disease

The Telegraph – Sunday 14th February

As the UK copes with the devastation of ash dieback disease, a new disease is rallying in the wings. Xylella fastidiosa, which has been attacking olive groves in Italy, could well arrive in Britain now that a new hardy strain has developed, able to survive the colder weather of the UK. The disease affects a wide-range of host plants, from trees to shrubs and herbaceous plants. This will make keeping it out of the UK very difficult. In North and South America, where it is often called “phony peach” disease, it has damaged coffee and citrus crops, along with many trees. Grape vines, lavender and many other species have also been damaged throughout Europe.

The disease arrived in Europe in 2013 in Puglia in southern Italy, where it caused terrible damage to centuries old olive groves and it is on the move again with this recent mutation. Should it make it across the channel, it would wreak havoc on UK trees and plants. The virus attacks by restricting or blocking the flow of water through affected plants, and it is not always immediately apparent that plants have the disease, making it harder to detect on imported plants. Head of horticulture at the UK Horticulture Trade Association, Raoul Curtis-Machin comments that “You may not see the symptoms and a year later [the disease] could be hopping out to the plane trees, and before you know it you’ve got the trees in the avenues of The Mall dying off.”

The virulence of plant diseases will increase with climate change in the coming century, and if phony peach follows on the heels of ash dieback, a frightening new era for gardeners and growers may start, that could forever change both the rural and urban landscape of the UK.

Farmers clash with police in Athens

Farming Online – Friday 12th February

As austerity measures imposed by Greece’s creditors push forward, farmers united in a protest which turned violent. The recent two-day protest ended with farmers throwing fruit and veg at the country’s Ministry of Agriculture and facing riot police armed with shepherd’s crooks and other implements.

Farmers are angry over the scrapping of tax breaks that they benefitted from and pension reforms. Their frustration and desperation is tangible in the intensity of the protests, with the measures further increasing the strain on Greece’s agricultural sector. The sector is one of the few that has shown promise in the Greek economy with employment rising in past years as a movement of citizens going back to the land has emerged.

Pavlos Georgiadis, writing for the SFT last week, argued that sustainable agriculture in particular holds a future for Greece in these tough economic times. However, this part of the sector must be supported by the Common Agricultural Policy in the face of austerity, with vital subsidies underpinning its development. He writes that, “Greece’s young farmers and food entrepreneurs have the potential to drive the country’s recovery. However, they have never been given the time, resources or power to take their fate into their own hands. In the absence of cash liquidity, bank loans and investment opportunities, this generation is still stuck in a continuous wait for investments, determined by the international creditors’ evaluations on how Greece’s deep austerity programmes perform.”

As things get harder for Greece’s agricultural sector, this burgeoning new back to the land movement may find the life crushed out of it by the weight of the country’s debt, closing yet another door on Greece’s future.

21st century US ‘dustbowl’ risk assessed

BBC News – Saturday 13th February

Scientists have modelled the impact of a 21st century equivalent of the 1930s Dust Bowl which caused agricultural devastation and drove millions to leave the land across the mid-west of the US.

The results are worrying. Similar weather to that of the 1930s would lead to 40% reduction in the production of maize, the region’s key crop. However, when the rising temperatures caused by climate change are included, this figure could rise to 65%.

Adjusting to extreme weather conditions will be a major global challenge this century and predicted temperature rises will further add to this. This may mean thinking more about the where crops are planted – will maize have to move northward in the US, for example, and should we stop concentrating the cultivation of most of the world’s calories in just 5 areas as we do now? How do we negotiate the global food shocks we will face as the weather intensifies? One suggestion from Tim Benton of the UK’s Global Food Security Programme is that we should stop “seeing bad years as something that’s rare and unlikely, we should go into each season with an expectation that ‘average weather’ doesn’t exist anymore. It’s either too hot, or too wet, or too cold or too dry.” Building resilience into global farming will demand radical action both economically and environmentally.

Government approves setting up of an exclusive research institution for organic farming

Times of India – Wednesday 10th February

The state of Sikkim in India is the first to declare itself wholly organic in its agricultural production with legislation banning the use of chemical-based fertilisers and pesticides. The government of India is establishing a new research institute, the National Organic Farming Research Institute (NOFRI), which will extend support for technological innovation in organic practices on a national level but with an emphasis on the north-eastern region where Sikkim is located.

Sikkim is the one of the smallest states in India and has long had a radical chief minister Pawan Chamling, who has been re-elected 5 times giving him a powerful remit in his government of the Himalayan state. He has been the force behind the state’s move to organic agriculture which is seen not only as environmentally sound but economically better for farmers with higher returns from sales.

The move to organic farming is spreading across India, as the worst effects of its ‘green revolution’ have left a legacy of soil degradation, extensive poverty and debt among farmers and poor regulation of pesticide use. Organic farming in Kerala has helped farmers get a fair price for their food with some 4,500 small- and mid-scale sustainable farmers in the state forming Fair Trade Alliance Kerala. The state is now looking at becoming fully organic by the end of 2016. Following suit, the chief minister of Rajasthan has just banned the growing of GM crops and taken a strong stance in favour of organic agriculture.

The country now leads the world with nearly 80% of the world’s organic farmers, according to the International Foundation for Organic Agriculture. India could well become a global test case for the viability of sustainable agriculture, as more of its states embrace organic practices.

Photograph: Michael Summers

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