Organic Foods: A natural reaction

The revolution in our eating habits continues, fuelled by food scares and agricultural crises. Yet Britain lags behind Europe in the rush to go organic.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's harvest time in the world of agriculture, and in the infinitely smaller world of organic agriculture, it promises to be the best in living memory. The growing army of farmers, food manufacturers and retailers who count themselves among the UK's organic movement have nominated October as Organic Harvest Month and will be asking consumers to eat at least one chemical-free breakfast next month to "taste the difference". If recent experience is anything to go by, people won't need too much encouraging.

The organic food business is booming, in a way that would have seemed improbable a decade ago and inconceivable a generation ago. Industry reports tell a consistent story of accelerating consumer demand, rocketing sales, proliferating outlets, and new allies in powerful places - not least some of the big supermarket chains. They also give a remarkably uniform account of what has fuelled the boom - loss of confidence among consumers in what the Soil Association, the leading promoter of organic food in the UK, calls the "integrity" of the (conventional) food supply system.

But popularity has also brought problems, chiefly high prices and rising imports. It's all a question of supply and demand: in the UK at least - where the organic star has risen much later than in many of our European neighbours - our new-found appetite for organic food is not matched by our production of it. An estimated 70 per cent of the stuff we eat is, therefore, imported, mainly from Germany, Holland and Italy.

Organic food has been on something of a roll since the late Eighties, when Britain appeared to rediscover environmentalism and green consumerism was born, but the current boom is more recent in origin. Datamonitor, the market research firm, puts the take-off date at 1996, since when consumer demand and retailer investment have together produced a doubling in market size. Last year the UK market was worth around pounds 340 million; by 2002 it is expected to be 7-8 per cent of the total food market, with a potential retail value of over pounds 1bn.

But it's a European phenomenon too. Sales of organic food in Western Europe have grown by 70 per cent since 1994: the forecast this year is a total of pounds 3.3bn. Health-conscious Germany is the biggest market but Austrians, who grow the most, also eat the most - a pointer for Britain, no doubt, where we currently grow the least.

It's intriguing to speculate on why affluent, urban, industrial Europe has suddenly been seized by the same collective passion. Datamonitor gives four main reasons. First, organic food fits into the wider trend towards healthier food; it can be both low-fat and fortified with vitamins and minerals. It has a high level of natural nutrients that are often lost in the heavy processing of conventional food and drinks. Many consumers believe it's safer to eat because it is free of pesticide residues and definitively not genetically modified. And many also feel it's "morally correct" to eat organic food as the farming system that produces it is based on good ecology and animal welfare. One might also add that the controversy over genetically modified food, which has blown up over the past couple of years, has thrown new light on the whole question of food purity and environmental well-being.

A survey last year found that 78 per cent of us want to buy food grown without pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers, indicating, as the Soil Association argues, tremendous support for the organic food sector, in principle at least. Most consumers - 83 per cent, according to a poll by the Consumers' Association - buy organic to avoid pesticides. This is followed by 75 per cent who do so because it's kinder to the environment, 70 per cent who are worried about the intensive rearing of animals, 68 per cent who think it tastes better, 40 per cent who want to support local farmers and 36 per cent who are worried about BSE.

And health concerns also topped the list in a MORI poll, which found that six out of 10 people would buy organic food if it was easily available and cost no more than conventional food. Across Europe, in fact, the organic "premium" - the price difference compared with similar conventional products - averages out at 30 per cent, according to Datamonitor. For some products it rises to 100 per cent - double the conventional price.

Small wonder that the organic consumer is an affluent, professional type - typically an AB, aged between 25 and 34, and shopping at the upper end of the supermarket spectrum, notably Waitrose or Sainsbury's.

Moral correctness, it seems, can't be underestimated but takes second place, in an age of food controversies, to self-preservation, even when it carries a significant price tag.

The BSE crisis, which has now spanned more than a decade but has several years left to run, has imprinted itself on the national psyche but it was merely the most serious in a run of controversies about the state of our food chain.

Remember the Listeria-in-cheese and the Salmonella-in-eggs crises of the Eighties? And though it used to be fashionable to label all these episodes food "scares" - implying that they were examples of baseless consumer panic, driven by a sensation-hungry media - there are now clear signs that the tide has begun to turn. The apologists for conventional food production are in retreat and their critics are on the attack.

It's not just that organic farming, as espoused by both Tony and Pat Archer in the Radio 4 agri-soap and even more famously by the Prince of Wales on his Highgrove estate in Gloucestershire, has become suddenly high-profile. It's also that the facts, as they emerge, seem to be gradually proving the critics right.

To the BSE crisis, for example, one can add the epidemic of food poisoning, which has risen inexorably over the past three decades. Cases of salmonella, for example, are up from around 5,000 a year in 1965, and 25,000 in the late Eighties, to 40,000 today. In 1997 reported cases of food poisoning exceeded 100,000 for the first time - although the real, unreported figure is likely to be many times higher.

Research which has begun to emerge in the Nineties has also shown that many chemicals, including many of the pesticides and herbicides in common use, have a previously undetected capacity to act as endocrine-disrupters, upsetting our hormonal, reproductive and immune systems and, for instance, damaging our fertility. The main source of such endocrine disrupters is diet and they appear to cause damage even though they are present only at the smallest concentrations, often near the limits of detection. And most recently, the antibiotics and growth-promoters which are used routinely throughout conventional livestock rearing and battery farming have come under intensive scrutiny.

Last month, the first Government advisory committee to report on the subject for 30 years warned that there was now conclusive evidence that giving antibiotics to animals produces antibiotic-resistant bacteria which go on to infect humans through the food they eat. The overuse of antibiotics in the food chain, according to the advisory committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food, could soon leave doctors powerless to treat extreme cases of the UK's most common food pathogens, such as salmonella, campylobacter and E coli.

Yet this is precisely what organic food producers have been saying since the Fifties, when the practice first began, and why organic farmers are allowed to use antibiotics to treat ill animals, but are barred under Soil Association standards from routinely giving them to healthy ones. Organic farmers also have to practise husbandry that minimises the chances of illness - which in practice means better welfare - and to use alternative treatments, such as homeopathy, where these are known to be effective.

According to the association, the threat to human health posed by antibiotic resistance transferring from farm animals is "infinitely greater" than that posed by BSE. Six of the antibiotics in question have been banned by EU farm ministers this year. Sweden has gone even further, banning routine antibiotic use in farming. However, the association believes that conventional farmers will merely switch to other drugs. According to Richard Young, the author of a recent Soil Association report on antibiotic resistance, we face a "major epidemic" of drug-resistant diseases, at least four of which, those involved in food poisoning, "arise directly as a result of the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture".

Officialdom has now begun to respond to these concerns. The decision to establish an independent Food Standards Agency was a recognition that consumers needed reassurance about the quality of the food chain and no longer trusted Government to provide it. And both Conservative and Labour have introduced new packages of aid to encourage farmers to embark on the lengthy and uncertain business of converting from conventional to organic agriculture, a process which takes between two and five years. The organic aid scheme was launched in 1994 and improved most recently last April. It has been backed up by an organic conversion information scheme introduced in 1996.

Unfortunately, in the views of many campaigners, it's not only very late - it's much too little. As might have been predicted, given the current crisis in British farming and the boom in organic markets, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has been trampled underfoot in the rush for conversion money and funds for this year have already run out.

About 10 per cent of all farmers have called the Organic Conversion Information Service in the past three years. And since Government funds were already fairly meagre - pounds 8.5m, compared with the pounds 52m spent last year by MAFF on research into genetic food - the organic lobby argues that it has once again been the victim of the anti-organic bias that has characterised MAFF policy since the 1945. Only recently have the organic conversion payments been jacked up to the levels paid to farmers for conversion in the rest of Europe. When the scheme was first introduced in the UK the levels were a third of those in Europe. And very little is being spent by MAFF on organic research - just pounds 2.2m a year in the Nineties.

According to Helen Browning, chairwoman of the Soil Association, the inadequate funding of the conversion scheme means the Government has lost a "crucial opportunity to revitalise the beleaguered farming industry in this country in a sector where the potential is obvious to everyone". She finds it hard to understand the disparity in funding between biotechnology and organic research. "Surely the public have made it clear by now that they want organic food not GM technology?"

Hence, although land being organically farmed or under conversion to organic farming has shown a dramatic leap over the past year, it is still, at 1.5 per cent of the total agricultural area, a tiny proportion and much less than in most European countries. More than a tenth of the agricultural area of Austria is organically farmed, for example.

Yet there's little doubt that we wouldn't have achieved even this much if it had been left to governments. As it was, the success of hundreds of organic entrepreneurs in setting up direct links between producers and consumers - through doorstep deliveries of organic fruit and vegetables, for example - showed that there was a demand. And consumer concerns then persuaded the big supermarket chains to respond with their own organic produce - turning a niche market into a mainstream one.

The story of organic food and farming is not merely a battle against the odds but, in one sense, a revolution from below. As far back as in 1946 Lady Eve Balfour, one of organic food's pioneers, wrote in the first issue of the Soil Association's journal, then called Mother Earth, that people had "begun to see life on this planet as a whole, and Nature's plan as a complicated system of independence rather than one based on competition".

Lady Balfour's words have a peculiarly modern ring today but in the aftermath of war, when governments were increasingly obsessed with self-sufficiency and British agriculture was heading down the road of cheap food, they would have struck the farm and food establishment as irresistibly crankish. That most people would now regard them as eminently sensible is a telling illustration, you could argue, of how yesterday's cranks have become today's consumers.