The House of Commons Agriculture Committee has, at last, confirmed what many people, including the Chair of the Food Standards Agency, have been saying for some time. There is no evidence to support claims that organic food is any better for you than food produced by other means. In their report they also note:
"It is a common perception that organic means pesticide- and chemical-free but in fact it simply means farming without artificial pesticides: those produced from natural chemicals may be used. In the same way, there is a significant list of non-organic processing aids which may be used in manufacturing organic products and a tolerance level of five per cent non-organic ingredients in processed products labelled as organic . This is not to accuse the organic movement of misleading the public but it is perhaps true that the public has a perception of organic farming that is, at least partly, mythical. We believe it important that the claims can be tested and verified in order that consumers know what they are really buying."
Such 'sensible' conclusions have, of course, upset campaign groups such as Friends of the Earth. Predictably, their spokesperson Sandra Bell said: "We are disappointed that the committee's report falls short of recommending targets for organic farming." Their disappointment is understandable since organic farming, in the medium- to long-term, is extremely profitable, generating funds which in many cases end up in donations to FoE itself. Eastbrook Farm near Swindon, for example, has been described by Friends of the Earth as 'a good example of an efficient, lucrative business.' The farm is run by Helen Browning OBE who, among other things, is a member of the Government's Panel on Sustainable Development and the Scottish Meat and Livestock Commission. She is also Chair of the Soil Association – a body which receives substantial fees for certifying organic standards.
Mrs Browning's role at the Soil Association, however, has not been without incident, A couple of years ago she was involved in a row over 'adulteration' of organic food by the supermarket chain, Sainsbury's. The company wanted to increase the shelf life of its organic bacon by adding yet another chemical to the list of over 30 that are permitted by the Soil Association, in this case sodium nitrate. Helen Browning argued a strong case for this 'dilution' of organic standards at the Association and elsewhere. What really upset many in the movement, however, was not just the way in which the supermarket giants were able to influence policy in this way but by the fact that at the time of the debate Helen Browning was allegedly also negotiating with Sainsbury's to supply 'organic' bacon, cured using sodium nitrate.
The Commons Committee makes specific reference to the role of supermarkets, noting some overstatements of the benefits of organic food in some of their marketing campaigns. Despite the contribution of the big chains in driving up demand for organic produce, the report suggests that:
" . these efforts have not removed all suspicions within the organic sector of the motives of the multiple retailers and of their ultimate impact upon the development of organic production in the UK. The basis of these concerns is both specific to the organic sector, in that the whole concept of multiple retailers sits uneasily with the "purist" organic ethos of local food for local people, and general in the perception of many in the farming industry – organic and conventional – that the power of the supermarkets is detrimental to the interests of producers."
This suggestion that selling organic food in large stores sits 'uneasily with the "purist" organic ethos' is a little hard to swallow given the profitability of the industry itself and the active 'courting' of the major retailers by leading figures in organisations responsible for upholding the ethics of organic production itself.
In this debate, as in any on food issues, there are vested interests on all sides. The manufacturers and retailers clearly have profit as their major, over-riding concern. But organic food is also now big business. What might once have been regarded as quaint, nostalgic, idealism is now the basis of lucrative enterprise. The cynical exploitation of people's fears over GM crops – fears nurtured by the very people who stand to gain most from a switch to organic food – has substantially swelled the coffers of this agricultural nouveau riche.
But perhaps a level of sanity is gradually being restored. The recent failure of Malcolm Walker and his Iceland chain to convince customers of the merits of organic vegetables, grown not in rural British fields but imported from the other side of the planet, is a timely warning that the organic gravy (or should that be 'jus') train might be coming off the rails. People may still be worried about GM and BSE, but they are not quite so gullible as some people might have believed. A shrivelled carrot from Peru is still a poor product, even if it is 'organic'.
Lest anyone conclude that we at SIRC are 'anti-organic', let us put the record straight. At a personal level, most of us here buy organic food from time to time, particularly meat. We buy it because we know where it comes from and because it is of high quality and worth the extra expense. (We draw the line at vegetables which have spent the last few weeks losing most of their nutrients on a container ship somewhere in the Atlantic.) We feel that there is a very positive contribution that organic farming can make to the variety of food products available to us.
At the same time, we are concerned that calls for up to 30% of all farming in this country to be converted to organic methods hold promise only for the better off in our society – those who can easily afford to pay for the increased costs of production. We are also concerned about attempts to 'export' the organic ideology to countries such as India, as proposed by Dr David Barling of the Centre for Food Policy at Thames Valley University. 'Traditional' methods of agriculture are at the root of India's dependency on grain imports from other countries to stave off famine. Mostly, however, we are alarmed by narrow, ideology-based prescriptions of what people should or should not eat. And while proselytising zeal is used to mask blatant hypocrisy, we will continue to oppose it.
January 26th 2001