Leading article: A matter of choice

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The Independent Online

No prizes for guessing why David Miliband should have decided to deliver some pretty waspish remarks about the organic food industry, joining the chorus of scientists at the Food Standards Agency who insist organic food is no healthier than food grown with the aid of fertilisers and pesticides.

As minister for food, among other things, Mr Miliband is playing to the gallery of farmers, the vast majority of whom use non-organic methods and are irritated by the great surge in demand for organic food products.

As sales rose by 30 per cent last year and as buyers defy the logic that has underpinned food production for the past century - which is constantly to drive down prices of foodstuffs at whatever cost to the environment - no wonder farmers are scratching their heads and looking for a champion to slay, or at least wound, the organic dragon. Whether official attacks like the minister's will have the slightest effect on this boom is doubtful, however. The growth in demand for organic food is linked in part to ideas about purity and health and concern about the alleged dangers of chemicals in the food chain. But it also reflects much wider and deeper societal concerns than a narcissistic obsession with "health".

The organic movement is flourishing because it is in tune with the zeitgeist, which favours the small and the local and hankers for alternatives to industrial-scale farming and what is an over-cosy relationship between big producers and supermarkets.

The idea, often put about, that only the rich, the overly squeamish or the comically eccentric buy organic food is twaddle; the sandal-wearing vegetarian, frightened of anything that comes wrapped in cellophane, is a cliché.

Anyone seeking proof of that need only look at the broad spectrum of people flocking to Britain's street markets, many of which are popular because of the high percentage of organic products on offer.

Instead of mocking this trend as unscientific, or jeering at it as a "lifestyle" choice, which makes it sound like a slightly silly, magazine fashion, Mr Miliband would do better to praise it. The people who make, and consume, organic food have shown great resource in overcoming the tedious obstacles put in their way by the supermarkets, who have only very lately and grudgingly begun admitting there is any market at all for such products.

Organic farming is never going to displace the standard variety anyway, so Mr Miliband should stop all the carping. It is just going to add to the mix and create more choice and diversity. Isn't that what New Labour says it's all about?

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