LEADING ARTICLE:An organic but lonely furrow

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The Independent Online
Living the Good Life isn't easy. Recycled loo paper is unsavoury enough. Then there's sorting refuse into the degradeable and non-degradeable. Inevitably, you remember too late and have to plunge hands into the unspeakable to separate it from the untouchable. The conscientious find themselves living with a stinking compost heap at the bottom of the garden, a haven for rats and heaven to the children. And that's all before tackling the horrors of reusable terry nappies.

But the best of us carry on with organic ways because we know they are a Good Thing whose time has come. We push the trolley unflinchingly past those lovely shiny vegetables in the supermarket, drenched in pesticides and covered in layers of plastic. Not for us the temptations of fruit that blooms thanks to being dipped in wax. No. We go for the muddy carrots and slightly shrunken courgettes that may look past their best but are guaranteed to be free of the nasty pesticides whose dangers the Government recently warned against. Never mind the extra cost of buying apples with so many worms that they are unsuitable for vegetarians. We know that our food is free of chemicals blamed by some for falling sperm counts and rising cancer rates.

That, at least, is the theory. The signs are, however, that even the best-intentioned are not quite up to the demands of organic life. New York City, which built a mountain with its garbage that nearly sank Staten Island, broke ecological ground by ordering citizens to separate their rubbish. But recently the city authorities dropped the project because it cost so much.

And this week, we learnt that the Co-op has abandoned organic fruit and vegetable growing because the mass market for produce simply has not developed. Shoppers have yet to be converted in sufficient numbers to the new faith to make the business worthwhile. Meanwhile, Marks & Spencer recently closed their organic food section.

The reasons for this trough in the fortune of organic production are easy enough to identify. A carousel of subsidies for large-scale, capital- intensive, chemically based farming still makes it hard for smaller concerns to compete. The Government's agriculture policy - apart from "set-aside" - still largely reflects the post-war imperative of maximising production, lowering costs and making Britain as self-sufficient in food as possible. And the big supermarkets are half-hearted about buying and promoting organic produce. Their purchasers - men and women in suits - prefer to buy in bulk from other suited sellers in large agri-businesses. They don't want to be bothered with piffling producers of small quantities. The smallholders - "twilight" or "hobby" farmers keen to combine a bit of organic farming with another job - still cannot take on the big farmers.

But the real problem is probably all of us. We have been quietly seduced by packaged, apparently perfect food. Most of us have, in reality, yet to be persuaded that the benefits of pesticide-free food are worth the effort. And until we are convinced, Britain's organic farmers will continue to plough a lonely furrow.