Say no to factory farms, return to the soil

Related Topics
THE PRINCE of Wales is no follower of fashion. "Organic" may be the flavour of the age, but his decision to become patron of the Soil Association, a coup for us, has far greater significance. His own roots in the movement go back at least two decades - long before the term "sustainability" became a buzzword for politically correct.

Until very recently the word "organic" conjured up the image of a back- to-basics cult, the membership of which was overly excited by the prospect of Doomsday and liable, in the meantime, to grow dog-eared vegetables for like-minded obsessives. Prince Charles was himself mocked and vilified for his environmental preoccupations. Undeterred, he had the vision, obstinacy and courage to defy conventional opinion and to convert his estate at Highgrove into an organic farm. Today it is an ecological - and commercial - showpiece.

Eighteen months ago, on the 50th anniversary of the Soil Association, the Prince made the keynote speech in which he honoured an "immortal line" of its founder, Lady Eve Balfour, that "the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible". That sensibility has always been his - and the organic movement's - lodestar; today it is one of ecology's truisms.

The side effects of treating agriculture as an industrial process - the BSE nightmare, the nitrates that pollute soil and water, the pesticides that infest produce, the antibiotics that accelerate livestock growth, the genetic tampering with crops to increase yields - are no longer accepted unquestioningly as a price worth paying for cheap food. The multinational conglomerates may still hold the international food chain in an armlock but they are now on the defensive. Their implicit assumption that food production entails a chemical war of attrition against nature itself is under ever sharper scrutiny. Although the consumer is not yet in revolt, the evidence of revulsion is evident.

The organic movement believes that our species is not only dependent on the natural world but is also part of it. Accordingly, we are committed to producing food in ways that avoid treating any other organic matter - from fungi and bacteria to insects and mammals - as an "enemy" to be destroyed. We therefore forbid the use of chemical fertilisers and we regard antibiotics as a treatment of last, not first, resort and we set standards for animal welfare that are even higher than those recommended by the RSPCA. For all these reasons the arable deserts and the factory farms which now disfigure so much of rural England are incompatible with our farming methods.

For those, like the Prince, who champion the cause of rural communities, organic production - which is labour intensive and committed to local markets - also offers a real prospect of economic regeneration and social renewal. But, for most consumers, the main attraction is clearly the character and quality of the food we produce.

This weekend, the Soil Association has had to disappoint hundreds of applicants eager to attend its annual conference at Cirencester because there was space for only 500 participants. As if to confirm that the organic movement is no longer on the fringes, the keynote speech yesterday was delivered by Dino Adriano, the new chief executive of Sainsbury's, one of the co-sponsors of the event.

The supermarkets are not in this just for the fun of it but because their customers are in earnest. The polls tell us that the majority of the British public would "go organic" if they could afford it and if they could find the produce. At the moment, though, demand for organic food in the UK so far exceeds supply that more than 70 per cent of the organic produce sold in supermarkets has to be imported from the continent. Although the proportion of Britain's farmland that is now either fully organic or "in conversion" has doubled over the past year, this still represents a mere one per cent of the potential acreage - and lags behind the rest of Europe, which is projecting 10 per cent organic by 2007.

This predicament owes much to the attitudes of a clique of senior civil servants at MAFF who, until recently, chose to treat the organic movement as an irrelevant cohort of idealistic muddletops with no understanding of the "real world". In this "Yes, Minister" habitat even politicians who were sensitive to the organic voice (like William Waldegrave and John Gummer) were never in the department for long enough to override the narrow but implacable certainties of these officials. In thrall to the voice of the big battalions in the farming industry and deaf to the environmental entreaties of competing lobbies, the narrow vision of these officials held sway for a generation.

But in the past 18 months there has been a distinct shift. Battered by their part in the BSE debacle, these obdurate bureaucrats found themselves answering to Jack Cunningham, whose smooth demeanour barely concealed the instincts of a political bovver boy with nothing to lose. Although his reaction to the collapse in agricultural prices veered towards the brutal, he was canny enough to detect the political attractions of our totems and sharp enough not to sneer at them.

Instructing his officials to take the organic case seriously, he required them to divert existing funds into organic research; he established a free "organic" advice service (administered by the Soil Association) and, after tortuous negotiations, he doubled the "conversion" payments for "conventional" farmers who chose to take the organic plunge. Not enough, but not bad. Last autumn, soon after he moved on to become the cabinet "enforcer", Cunningham followed in Prince Charles's footsteps to deliver the Soil Association's annual lecture.

Declaring that the principles of the organic movement coincided precisely with the agricultural, environmental and social priorities of New Labour, he became the first cabinet minister of any government to pay his pounds 20 and sign on as a member himself. His successor, Nick Brown has - so far - followed in his footsteps.

Albert Schweitzer wrote "man has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end by destroying the earth". The Soil Association believes otherwise: that we can foresee, we can forestall, and therefore that the earth can be saved.

Jonathan Dimbleby is president of the Soil Association.

React Now

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

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?