Patrick Holden

The Soil Association director responds to a leading article that followed an Advertising Standards Association ruling against Tesco's promotion of its organic food range
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The Independent Online

I was disappointed to read your leader in which you argued in favour of ex-MAFF man, Geoffrey Hollis' challenge to Tesco and its organic food range. But I welcome the opportunity that this has created for a debate on the questions of price, taste and integrity of organic food.

Was the Tesco leaflet misleading? I don't think so. The offending phrase was, "Production is more expensive so the price may be a little higher." In reality, premiums vary between zero to more than 100 per cent but I do not think that Tesco had any intention to mislead.

I would go further and suggest that it is vitally important to communicate the fact that if the hidden costs of intensive chemical farming, including the damage to wildlife, environment and the growing evidence of cost to public health, were taken into account rather than camouflaged in the form of taxes, bills and NHS costs, we might find that conventional farmers would be the ones defending the high prices.

Does organic food taste better? Mr Hollis may not think so but a Mori poll commissioned by the Soil Association in 1999 indicated that 43 per cent of those questioned cited improved taste as a major motive for purchase.

Are chemical inputs used in organic farming? Mr Hollis is technically correct. A small number of "chemicals" are permitted for use in specific circumstances but only with the permission of the certification organisation. But these exceptions pale into insignificance compared with the array of toxic chemicals used in conventional farming.

I suggest that the majority of Britain being farmed organically within 20 years would be the best means of addressing the economic, environmental and social damage that agricultural practices have caused.

No doubt Mr Hollis would respond to my points with equal vigour, perhaps suggesting that the best way forward for British farming would be what I call food factories and parks - committing the most productive land to further intensification while paying farmers to protect the wildlife on the green fringes.