Rose Prince: Beware the hidden costs of cheap food

Organic producers may have failed to make themselves competitive, but its wavering adherents should keep the faith

Related Topics

Was the organic movement that meaningless? Was the cult so shallow that families made the switch from buying organic to buying conventionally produced products without a second thought? Book the holiday, keep the gas guzzler, invest in a new autumn coat ... but carry on buying organic milk and eggs? Nah, too expensive.

Good food seems to be an early victim of the credit crunch. Sales of organic goods fell last month by 19 per cent, down to £81m from an all-time high of £100m at the start of the year. Consumers are tightening their belts and making their most recently acquired habit the first redundancy. Organic sits at the top of a landslide of change. As one supermarket boss pointed out to me the other day: "Waitrose is losing customers to Sainsbury's, Sainsbury's to Tesco, Tesco to Aldi." At the same time, farmers are voluntarily opting out of organic certification, unable to afford expensive, imported organic feed and fuel, or cope with the lower yields and the slowness of it all.

We know that former organic shoppers have their hands over their ears. "La-la-la-la, I'm not listening," they sing. However, the high price of organic is the truer cost of food. Abandon organic and we can expect the built-in cost of all the ills that industrialised, low-grade food brings us. Just keep in mind the billions that taxpayers have paid for the fall out from BSE/ new variant CJD, the foot and mouth epidemic, and reduced immunity to disease in humans as a result of the residues in meat from drug-treated, intensively reared animals. And that is before calculating the cost of cleaning pesticides from the water supply, as well as lost diversity and soil erosion. Organic food exists as the counter-culture to all this. It is simple. Ultimately, you pay for the way the industry screws up.

But before the British organic sector hectors shoppers, who are in no mood for attack, it needs a slap. It has had a decade to make organic competitive enough to withstand a recession and to convince the public there is no alternative – a period during which the shopper has been consuming like the tiger who came to tea. On the first point there has always been a problem. While organic purists have wanted to keep organic small, adhering to original principles, others have been saying, "Go big – let's feature in the big four supermarkets, water down the rules a little."

The latter way is the path now adopted by the organic industry in the US, where organic sales are reported to be "up", despite the economy, and where the green transformation is expected to be permanent. In the UK, it seems that "big organic" has lost the race against the forces of fiscal swing. Chains of organic supermarkets have not mushroomed and London's first organic supermarket, Whole Foods Market, part of the US chain, lost more than £10m in its first year. The organic range in the big four remains limited.

The difference between British and American consumers is that over here organic is the target of doubt. Can organic vegetables be air-freighted and remain organic? Can organic pork that has been fed imported soya be green? British consumers are beset by suspicion. They also suffer a lack of self-esteem, believing organic food to belong only to the rich. This is not surprising, perhaps, when its patrons include the Prince of Wales, Zac Goldsmith, Sting and others who can buy their way out of nourishment trouble with ease. In America, however, self-improvement is the second religion and those who are not eating themselves to death make up a large number of shoppers determinedly eating their way to a better life.

The biotech firms are taking full advantage of the anxiety gripping shoppers and are tapping at the door, tempting us with their promises. They claim that they have the cure for an impoverished world, that genetic modification can replace organic with the invention of food plants that resist disease, and that they can grow food that is famine proof. Consumers need reasons to keep the faith – to understand why they should make sacrifices elsewhere in their lives and not abandon organic.

This is a good moment to assess which organic foods will be missed most if the sector's balloon bursts. I will not miss organically grown, air-freighted produce, though I believe sea-freighted organic tea, coffee, bananas and chocolate, often linked to fair trade initiatives, to be worth the extra cost. I can go without much of the processed food which seems to be developed in the name of ethics rather than flavour and because some rogue ingredients are permissible (palm oil, for example) – though I exclude organic bread from this list. Organic wheat is vitally important, because it is a means to preserve the pre-war wheat breeds that grow well without chemicals and which, while low yielding, are proving to have higher quality proteins and other valuable nutrients. Shoppers: think less bread, but better bread. This is the argument for diversity; the need to preserve as much variety in the food-species world as possible, to stave off sickness in both the environment and humans – and above all to stave off boredom.

My daily organic essentials include milk. The organic dairy system is substantially kinder to cows, and emissions and effluent from organic farms are lower than those of other dairy farms. As for pork, pig farmers are rapidly giving up certification because of the increasing costs of cereal feeds. This would be unnecessary if the Government allowed the reintroduction of pigswill, so reducing Britain's food waste problems. Pigs, which are omnivores, always ate swill. They are natural recyclists.

In the case of beef and lamb, I am ambivalent. I know many great beef farmers who are not organic yet will not graze their animals on anything but grass. Likewise lamb, which are often put on hills where they eat vital wild plants. I would choose meat from these traditional systems over many organic equivalents. These farmers often operate at such a small scale they cannot afford the cost of organic certification – and this is another area where the sector has been slow to act, and so has let itself down.

The halt in the growth of organic is a giant step backwards. Sixty years ago, farming reinvented itself, using new technology to quadruple yield. British shoppers, traumatised by years of food shortages, welcomed the brave new agriculture. But 60 years later, and the effects and abuses of that irresponsible industry are known. Britain's low-income groups are suffering an endemic of obesity, with high rates of cardiovascular diseases and cancers – both food-related illnesses. Natural evolution has been turned on its head and we have lost tens of thousands of species in the space of a few decades, with hybrid fusions that grow successfully only in conjunction with chemicals introduced. Methane gas, emitting from millions of intensively reared livestock produced to supply an unhealthy demand for a meaty diet, has contributed to climate change. Topsoil has been eroded, and the water supply rendered uncertain. Meanwhile, mountains of food waste – the cheaper sort that shoppers are now switching back to buy – clogs landfill.

Abandon organic? Not me. Organic must tackle its conflicts, fight the doubters and survive. And it needs shoppers to support it. If not, we will emerge from the downturn to find a world we like even less. Uncover your ears then tighten your belt. You cannot do both at once.

Rose Prince is the author of 'The New English Table: Over 200 Recipes That Will Not Cost the Earth' (Fourth Estate, £25)

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'