Dominic Lawson: Food miles are just a form of protectionism

Middle-class neurosis is being exploited to protect an archaic form of agriculture

Tuesday 01 April 2008 00:00 BST

Was Prince Charles' chum Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, expecting the Kenyan High Commissioner to fall to his knees in gratitude? It rather sounded like it yesterday morning, when the two of them met in a BBC radio studio.

They were there to discuss the Soil Association's proposals to discriminate against the "organic food" which is air freighted into this country, mostly from East Africa. "One option was to ban it altogether," declared Mr Holden, but instead he and his colleagues had decided that such food would only be banned if it was "not produced ethically" – whatever that means.

Of course, this is folie de grandeur on the part of the Soil Association. It cannot, fortunately, "ban" us from buying whatever food we wish to eat. All that Mr Holden really meant was that his organisation would withdraw its certification from foreign farmers whom it deemed to be "unethical". Needless to say, British organic farmers (like Mr Holden CBE) will be subject to no such extra conditions, over and above the standard requirement of not using pesticides or other man-made aids to enhance production.

In so far as this is not just old-style agricultural protectionism, it is all about the fashionable obsession with "food miles". The Soil Association, which evidently sees itself as some sort of global environmental organisation, has been agonising over the fact that the farmers of Africa are using aeroplanes – spawn of the devil! – to freight bona fide "organic" food into this country. Somehow it has convinced itself that this means that the food is not "organic", in the spiritual sense, and so must be "banned".

As the Kenyan High Commissioner, Joseph Muchemi, patiently tried to explain, the carbon emissions from his country's food producers are much less per vegetable than those of British "organic" farmers, even if you factor in the CO2 generated by flying the stuff halfway across the world. "Our farmers use manual labour, not tractors; we use compost rather than organic fertilisers," he said.

For some reason, Mr Holden did not want to address this powerful point; instead he asserted that there was really no case at all for "global trade in food", although he allowed that an exception could be made for "things like tea, coffee and bananas – things we can't produce ourselves".

This is the classic argument put by British landowners for the extortion of a monopoly rent from captive local consumers. The great Scottish economist Adam Smith delivered a withering retort to such selfish domestic agricultural interests over two centuries ago: "By means of glasses, hotbeds and hotwalls very good grapes can be raised in Scotland ... would it be a reasonable law to prohibit the importation of all foreign wines, merely to encourage the making of Claret and Burgundy in Scotland?"

This sort of thinking lay behind the recent creation of the Icelandic banana industry: the Icelandic government banned banana imports, as a result of which local landowners began to produce them in gigantic greenhouses. They were fabulously expensive, of course, which was not such good news for families who wished to feed their children healthily at a reasonable cost.

Similarly, there are tiny hobby producers of tea and coffee in Great Britain. In Patrick Holden's perfect deglobalised world, we could do with these products what the Icelanders did with bananas. Obviously this would mean that tea and coffee could be enjoyed only by the rich in this country, and Third World producers would suffer a dramatic loss of revenue and employment. This might seem a preposterous example of "self-sufficiency". Yet if we were to allow a fetish with the carbon emissions from airfreight to dominate agricultural policy, then this is the sort of mutual impoverishment that could result.

Let us, for the sake of argument, accept that the Soil Association's members are not merely acting as a trade union for Prince Charles' Duchy Originals and assorted other quaintly expensive British food producers. Let us accept, therefore, that in implementing some sort of discriminatory policy against long-distance air-freighted food, they really do believe that they are trying to "limit the damage of climate change".

Surely it ought to have occurred to them that they will only be hurting the very people whom they affect to be concerned about? After all, it is Africa, not Great Britain, which would suffer from a significant increase in average temperatures – whether caused by man or nature.

As Clare Malamed of the charity Action Aid has pointed out, the "banning of organic green beans from Kenya or mange tout from Zambia" will make no measurable difference to the UK's carbon emissions: "however, there are many poor people in Africa who depend on that trade so, for them, banning organic air freight means less development of the economy and more poverty". Mr Holden complained yesterday that many of the African food exporters are "multinationals"; but even multinationals employ locals.

There is something else quite odd about the Soil Association's position. Its members assert that "organic food" is healthier for the consumer than food which is produced with the aid of pesticides. If they are right, then if low-cost African producers can land such "good" food in this country at a price which is competitive with non-organic local producers, this ought to encourage more people to buy organic, to the great benefit of the public's health.

In fact there has never been any reliable scientific evidence that so-called "organic" food is actually better for you than food produced with the aid of pesticides. At the weekend, the former head of the Food Standards Agency, Lord Krebs, wearily reiterated that there was no such evidence. Thus last year David Miliband spoke nothing less than the truth when, as Environment Secretary, he described "organic" food as a "lifestyle choice".

On the whole it is a "lifestyle choice" limited to middle-class mothers in the South-east of England who are neurotic enough to believe the insinuations of the Soil Association that little Henry and Caroline are more likely to get cancer if mummy doesn't buy organic (at twice the price).

Now another largely middle-class neurosis – we are all doomed unless everybody stops flying! – is being exploited to protect an archaic form of agriculture which could never feed this country, still less the world. It is, at best, an exercise in self-delusion. At worst, it is a way of using food as the instrument of a deliberate policy of racial discrimination.

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