The trouble with organics

Organic food is not necessarily the automatic choice for the ethical consumer

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Over the past two decades, the organic movement has made formidable progress in Britain. Organic food has gone from being seen as a slightly cranky obsession of an eccentric few and touched the mainstream. Most consumers now have some appreciation of the principles underpinning organic farming. Many people are fed up with having to shop defensively, trying to protect themselves and their families following unpalatable revelations about the provenance of our food. Organics have come to represent a safe house in a disturbing world where food quality and safety are constantly under siege.

Ten, even five years ago, I frequently defended organic food to the hilt. I would argue that organic farming was better for the environment because it used almost no pesticides. I would say it was better for human health, not just because you reduce your exposure to pesticide residues and additives, but because of the mounting body of evidence that shows that organic food can offer better nutrition than its conventional equivalent. I would point out that Soil Association organic standards represented the best animal-welfare practices around. On none of this do I feel any need to recant. What's more, I think that the organic movement has been a wholly positive force by giving anxious shoppers something to do with their concerns and by setting about building a reliable, trustworthy alternative to factory farming. I take my hat off to the Soil Association for framing and focusing the whole debate around food quality in Britain. Though Jamie Oliver has stolen the show on school meals, more credit should rightly go to those activists in the Soil Association who campaigned and tirelessly on this and many other fronts. But while organics once seemed like the nearest we could get to a total solution to our food ills, now it is being tested on several fronts. A growing number of people have reservations about its practicalities and how they overlap with other ethical concerns. Somehow,the old mantra if you're worried and want better food, then buy organic seems too glib. That was 'Understanding Food Stage one'. Now we need stage two, and that, inevitably, is more complicated.

The biggest challenge to organics currently is to do with local food and distribution. There is a persistent and growing feeling that it makes sense to buy locally, or at least regionally or nationally. The organic movement, of course, thoroughly approves of eating local food. It is one of its cherished goals. But in practical terms, it seems to struggle to make this goal a reality. An alarmingly high percentage of organic fruit and vegetables continues to be imported, clocking up food miles and contributing to global warming. The organic movement's solution to this dilemma is to recommend buying from a local organic box scheme. This I do faithfully. But there's no escaping the fact that such schemes are still heavily dependent on imports, or that some of those imports look rather jet-lagged, and that a lot of the locally produced stuff - items like carrots and swede - seems to have been stored for the purpose of padding the box out, thus robbing it of any true seasonality.

At my local greengrocer, in contrast, the seasons come and go vividly. A much higher proportion of what'son sale is British. In fact, there's been an explosion of labelling lately that underlines this virtue: 'Yorkshire-grown courgettes', raspberries 'grown near blackpool', Norfolk asparagus, and so on. Should we ignore such produce because it isn't organic? Or does it make more sense in taste and environment terms to deviate from organic orthodoxy and buy conventionally grown, fresh English coxes from a greengrocer in September, in preference to organic New Zealand galas that have been stored in a modified atmosphere for six months before being sold in a supermarket?

The organic movement has been seduced by the supermarkets: they have dangled before it the prospect of a mass market. The big chains are less idealistic. Organic lines let them studtheir corporate-social responsibility crowns with strategically positioned organic jewels. This apparently mutually beneficial liaison has spawned a portfolio of organic foods that consist overwhelmingly of 'lookalikes' for conventional food. Supermarket organic produce invariably tastes just as bad as its conventional equivalent, and costs more. Many big organic brands of breakfast cereal, pasta sauce, cheese and so on are little better. Why, I wonder, should I buy glutinous Seeds of Change pasta (a brand owned by a global food corporation) just because it's organic, when I could buy superior-tasting, traditional Italian pasta from an expert, but non-organic, smallerscale business like De Cecco?

Even within the organic movement, there is resentment at how the
supermarkets have muscled in on the organic message. And when pioneering organic brands like Green & Black chocolate are acquired by the likes of Cadbury, you can see why some organic home-delivery schemes and wholefood shops are murmuring mutinously about looking for smaller, alternative, possibly more principled brands. Then there's the dilemma at the farmers' market. I can buy local organic meat there, unlike my nearest supermarket, where the organic beef comes from Argentina and the organic pork from Holland.

But, whether it's down to bad butchery or lack of hanging, it just doesn't eat well. I have defected to the non-organic stallholders: small farmers who reliably supply me with well-hung Aberdeen Angus (a traditional breed, properly matured) and delicious rare-breed pork from pigs that I know spent their lives rolling in straw. There is no organic chicken on sale at my farmers' market at all. A friend told me that she tried buying hers from Marks & Spencer, but gave up because what was on offer was so tough and unyielding. Is this how organic chicken is meant to be? What is M&S doing to its organic chicken to make it eat so badly?

Dotted around Britain, there are many fantastic organic farmers and growers who make outstanding products. As well as embracing the ideology of organics, they also appreciate in a practical way what goes to make good food. It seems churlish, however, to turn one's back on other excellent small artisan producers just because they aren't organic. Part of the success of the Italian Slow Food movement's 'eco gastronomy' approach is that it is not doctrinaire; it shows respect to small-scale traditional foods that have evolved and developed over time, irrespective of whether or not they have organic certifi cation.

When it comes to wider ethical concerns, more consumers belatedly appreciate that an organic label does not guarantee that a product has been fairly traded. Obviously, if you want to help producers in the Third World, then relieving them of the health-and-safety nightmare posed by the over-use of pesticides is an important contribution; but a higher rate of pay would clearly help to put a smile on workers'faces, too. Some organic products are also fairly traded. This should be a natural pairing. Most are not, however, because pay and conditions are simply not addressed by current organic standards.

Soil Association food standards, (though not necessarily those of other less rigorous certifi cation bodies), are generally tight. But there is the odd serious lapse, most notably with fish. Organic standards were developed for and-based farming; they have been stretched unconvincingly to cover matters piscine. The very concept of 'organic farmed salmon' is a nonsense, one that has allowed the Dutch- and Norwegian-owned Scottish salmon farming industry to wriggle off the hook of consumer concern and stall for time with environmental critics. Fish farming has proven to be a disaster for the salmon and looks set to do the same damage to other splendid wild fish like cod. The organic movement compromises its integrity by having any truck with it.

What do I want from food these days? Like many other thinking consumers, I'm looking for really fresh, preferably local or at least national food from a diverse range of small to medium-sized producers who appreciate food quality - people whose products reflect the seasons and flag up some sort of geographical specificity. Whether it's at home or abroad (some food inevitably needs to be imported), I'd like to know that the people who produce my food were properly remunerated for doing so and enjoyed decent working conditions. I want to support localised food production and the independent sector - small shops, box schemes, farm shops and markets, not supermarkets. If I can get all this and it can also be organic, then that is my dream ticket. But when organic food doesn't fit that bill, excuse me for looking elsewhere.

Joanna Blythman is the author of Shopped: the shocking power of British supermarkets and The Food our Children Eat: how to get children to like good food (both published by Fourth Estate)

This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2005

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