Organic food needs the supermarket vote: Leading article

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The Independent Online
Organic food and farming, like support for the Green Party, has the dated feel of Fair Isle pullovers and sandals. Despite the BSE scare, organi-culture produces a tiny fraction of our national food output. Yet there is a strong case for believing that a move towards organic farming is one of myriad changes needed to secure the long-term health of the planet. How on earth do we get from here to there?

We certainly don't start at Highgrove House. Very little is ever going to be altered by faintly eccentric princely tub-thumping or condescending radio lectures by royal amanuenses such as Jonathon Porritt. Of course Mr Porritt once aspired to political office and therefore engages in the political arts. The heir to the throne, however, needs to recognise that his occasional lectures should encourage and persuade rather than irritate people, by making him sound slightly dotty, or even arrogant. He should remember, when discussing sustainable ecologies, that he owns a fleet of Bentleys and a brace of Aston Martins, among other ecologically questionable items.

There is a depressing "statism" around much of the argument over these green fields. What Ulrich Beck has called an inevitable tension between ecology and democracy seems to be resolved by backing autocracy, as if people could be forced to change their buying and eating habits by fiat. The best way forward, in fact, would be for government to intervene a lot less. The reason why different methods of food production cannot now be costed on a level field is because of the regime of protection and subsidy. Even establishing a common basis for evaluating farmland is made well-nigh impossible by the distortions introduced by the Common Agricultural Policy. The organic camp is perfectly right to say that the economic case for crop rotation is butchered by the existence of subsidies for keeping land in production. Comparing the costs of producing apples in Worcestershire against the Auvergne (let alone in Appalachia or Western Australia) implies that we know the opportunity cost of ploughing the orchards up; government policies prevent that.

Rational analysis would require us to introduce time into calculations of costs and benefits. The case for doing so is not new but is no less strong for having been ignored by economists and compilers of national accounts for years. Like the use of roads by cars and lorries, the use of land by conventional farmers is rarely adequately costed. Privatisation of water has made it extra-ordinarily difficult to see, let alone control, real costs of water throughout the cycle. Polluter pays is a principle yet to be fully visited on farmers.

Policy should move to knock away the supports. Then see what competition brings. Does organic produce taste better? Is its superior taste worth the marginal cost? There is only one way to find out. Green lobbyists habitually underestimate the sophistication of consumers. Those trips down the aisles at the supermarket are, for most people, essays in multiple factors - cost, convenience, taste, appearance and the genuine concern many people feel about their planet and their peers. Of course choice is constrained by income: poor people tend to rate price over purity. Branding also matters. If Prince Charles were more of an entrepreneur he would be turning us all on to the beauties of his non-BSE, organic beef. He is quite right to point out that we might not have BSE at all if we had avoided feeding cattle with the mashed-up remains of their own kind. But lament is less effective than leadership - say, by encouraging the Epicurean temperament with a few organic banquets. Making grass-fed boeuf Wellington fashionable would do more for the planet than a royal wardrobe full of hair shirts.

But is this faith in market somehow naive or, worse, a recipe for exploitation of ecologies and societies which are being stitched into global production systems that benefit Us much more than Them? Kenyan beans, temperate fruit from tropical countries, seem to some to be unacceptable examples of how world trade is ecologically unsound; yet to others more trade seems the only recipe for prosperity in low-income countries, utilising their comparative advantage, which is the very basis of economic development. The arguments are not simple - but ultimately they will have to be presented to and acted upon by ordinary, everyday consumers.

The technological considerations which surround the use of pesticides and preservatives and, increasingly, the genetic re-engineering of produce are also complicated. Some of it may provide us with cheaper food, in a world where that may reduce the risk of starvation and disease. Equally it might be abused, and lead to BSE-type scares. All technological advance carries these different possibilities, threatening and optimistic. Doom- saying does not help sort out progress from folly.

What is at a premium in these circumstances is fact - much of it necessarily coming from the scientists and experts - but also example. People tend to live in the short term. The state of the planet demands a long view. Governments in democracies will only move when they feel people's opinions changing. The risks to us of environmental abuse only start to shift opinion when people register it in the detail of their daily lives. Consciousness cannot be bludgeoned into change. People will start buying differently, and so induce changes in retail and production markets, as and when they feel that it is in their direct interests to do so. This is the sort of issue where, even in our politicised media and politics, there is no party line. Here is one issue where people can and must vote with the contents of their supermarket trolleys.