Monday, 8 January 2007

More heat than light in organic food debate

I wonder whether David Miliband leaked Ruth Kelly’s decision to send her child to a private school as a means of distracting people from the adverse reaction to his interview with the Sunday Times in which he argued that the consumption of organic food was nothing more than a lifestyle choice. If so it would be very “New Labour”, but to be fair I doubt it. He knew exactly what he was doing and will stick by what he said.

I have been kicking myself for not writing about this yesterday, when I had the chance. Today I have been at work and so unable to post, except with a brief intervention on Duncan's and Tristan's sites. Some of what follows incorporates those comments, but I have added further thoughts as well.

To start with, I cannot see why the question of whether organic food it better for the consumer, the environment or the future of farming should be incompatible with its consumption being a lifestyle choice. When I used to go to the gym five times a week (Oh halcyon days!) it was a lifestyle choice even though it was good for me. Similarly, a friend of mine is motivated to compost his own waste (and I do mean his own waste) for environmental reasons, but it is nonetheless a lifestyle choice.

The real controversy about organic food is the wealth of unproven claims made by those who oppose modern farming methods. One of these is that modern farming methods harm the environment more than the organic alternative. In fact, all agriculture damages the environment, if one’s image of the environment is one of natural habitats. Agriculture is inherently unnatural because “unnatural” is a euphemism for things done by man but not other creatures; we destroy “natural” habitat to grow “unnatural” crops that would not exist without our efforts.

However, this “unnatural” process was integral to the birth of civilisation, a process which began in modern-day Iraq and Egypt and has now spread to Brazil. I know some people think that man is just a parasite but most of us want to live in a civilised society. Most of us also want to feed the earth’s 6 billion people, though again I’ve heard a few (some among my own party!) who would like to cull the population of the earth by two thirds.

If we are to feed 6 billion we need to embrace the Green Revolution of the 1960s (that’s “green” because of all the crops in the fields, rather than because it serves a nature goddess). This entails the use of fertilisers and insecticides. Only modern agriculture can sustain the population of our planet; it is this kind of agriculture that has meant that the age of mega-famines in India and China (prevalent until only a couple of generations ago) is over.

Organic production cannot produce the yields necessary to feed the earth at all, let alone at an affordable price. Thus the (Hobson’s) choice is either to plough over more natural habitat – the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that we would need to farm an additional area the size of South America to produce the same amount of food organically as we do now by modern means – or watch billions starve.

In the UK, this is not the case. We are rich enough that we can always afford to pay a premium for produce that is grown by traditional (as opposed to by modern) means. This is a choice – a lifestyle choice. We can pay British farmers a premium so that they produce lower yields by methods that cause less harm to butterflies and song birds. However, if we do reduce the yields of British farmers, we will need to source more food abroad. We then have a mini-version of the Hobson’s choice: do we buy food that is intensively farmed or put more land (in the producing country, rather than our own) under the plough. To put it another way, do we export the use of artificial fertilizers and insecticides, or do we cultivate thousands of acres of foreign land.

The aim of this article is not to criticise those who wish to consume organically produced food. They are welcome to do so, and if they believe they are avoiding as-yet-unproven health hazards then that is a rational choice that they have made. I would not dream of curtailing their freedom to do so any more than I would expect them to curtail my freedom to eat food laden with 30 different chemicals.

The aim is to highlight the fact that many of the claims of the organic food lobby are spurious and probably have more to do with protecting their market share than the health of either their consumers or the environment. Meanwhile, many of those who have swallowed these claims (along with their organically produced tofu burger) react furiously when confronted with the (lack of) evidence. Many of these are in influential positions – as I have noted before, both organo-sceptic and free market arguments receive short shrift from the BBC.

What we need (domestically and globally) is free trade in agriculture (as in all things) and honesty in labelling, advertising and describing products. We also need a balanced debate about this important area of policy. Sadly, there is a lot of nonsense talked about food. David Miliband was right to point that out.


Duncan Borrowman said...

Hmmm. I think your enviro-facism tag may show a slight bias int his debate Tom. I agree with your final point, but the playing field has been far from level on this for ages, and of course all of the chemicals used in mass farming find their way into the whole ecosystem so remove a great deal of choice for those who wish to make the alternative lifestyle choice.

Peter Pigeon said...

A good article, Tom. I tend to buy organic produce and to support farmers markets. But I agree that there is no particular reason to think this is any more than a lifestyle decision.

Nitrate pollution in places like Britany and Denmark strike me as big problems, and the absence of free trade tends to mean our (European) agriculture is in fact more intensive than it would be in free trade conditions.

I think your friend is producing manure rather than compost btw.

Kit said...

Gosh. A LibDem being anti-organic. I think you have an uphill struggle to convince the rest of your party to be rational. It was a LibDem MP who blamed that North London tornado on global warming?

Tom Papworth said...

I can see your point, Duncan, so I should clarify.

"Enviro-fascism" is my label for those who would use environmentalism to force illiberal policies on others. It does NOT include those who care about the environment or wish to push environmental policies by liberal means.

They actually fall into two types: those who care about the environment and will pursue environmental policies in illiberal ways; and those who don't give a damn but are using environmentalism to push old-style socialist and protectionist policies.

There are plenty of liberal-environmentalists and I fully respect their position.

Astrofiammante said...

An informative piece, Tom, which I enjoyed reading. But I did wonder one thing about your argument, an issue which you don't touch on.

> do we buy food that is intensively farmed or put more land (in the producing country, rather than our own) under the plough. To put it another way, do we export the use of artificial fertilizers and insecticides, or do we cultivate thousands of acres of foreign land.

Is this not the dilemma of a society that is determined to recycle large amounts of its crops into animal feed in order to enjoy a meat-rich diet? And is this not a 'lifestyle choice' that the vast majority of us in the UK make?

Not that I'd dare suggest anything as illiberal as compulsory vegetarianism ;-)) But I do think this is an important factor to be considered in the argument you are making.