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
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The Independent Online

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)