My Name is Clive, and I Used To Be an Organoholic...
The Daily Telegraph
May 20, 2010
By Clive Aslet
But I'm all right now... After years of chemical-free eating, Clive Aslet admits that he has given up organic produce in favour of cheaper, local and even (whisper it) intensively reared food
Oh dear, what a world we live in. I don't know what to make of it. Just as I am getting used to a (partially) Tory government declaring war on the middle classes with its proposal to increase capital-gains tax, along comes disturbing evidence that a cherished totem of the better sort of shopper may be toppled. It is not the government that is doing the toppling this time, but birds. Researchers from Newcastle University have found that, given a choice, our feathered friends will reject organic bird seed in favour of the conventional equivalent. They're not fools (the birds, that is). Their beady eyes have spotted that conventional grains contain 10 per cent more protein. Whisper it: organic is not all it's cracked up to be.
Earlier this month, the University of Leeds was telling us that, in a like-for-like comparison, organic farms did nothing more for wildlife than conventional farms. The very foundations of my universe have been rocked. I feel like a Victorian clergyman, forced to confront the fossil record. Organics are as much an article of faith as of science. My belief is wavering.
To be truthful, the (non-organic) seeds of doubt were already there. A few years ago, we used to have an organic food box delivered to our Pimlico door. The random selection was, of course, seasonal and I enjoyed the surprise - ooh, a yam! - but you had to move fast. The produce shrivelled before our eyes, but we still ate it. We found ourselves carrying the boxes with us when we went to Northamptonshire for the weekend, piling onto the train with pushchairs and an indiscriminate assortment of stewpot ingredients priced beyond rubies. As the children began to grow, we stopped our order.
We were typical organic adopters. Feeling reasonably well off in that halcyon era before school fees and the credit crunch, we were determined that our young family should eat only the best. Or rather, I was. My wife was more circumspect, even then. And now I find myself veering away from the organic section of the supermarket and settling for economy ranges.
It seems that I'm not alone. For several years, organic sales, although less than 2 per cent of the total market for food, showed Jack-in-the-Beanstalk levels of growth. The area of land under the organic regime bolted from under 50,000 hectares in 1997 to more than 680,000 a decade later. Last year they fell into a cowpat. No prizes for guessing the reason. During the Gordon Brown boom, consumers felt that they could afford to shop ethically. These were the Jamie Oliver years, when we wanted to feel good about ourselves and our school dinners.
That balloon burst on the sharp end of the recession. Now it's all family meals for a fiver; only Zac Goldsmith can afford to pay the organic premium. Even Marco-Pierre White, whose restaurants had never been a byword for economy, has become a champion for Bernard Matthews' intensively-reared turkeys.
The Twizzler is back. "Not everyone can afford to be choosy," he has been quoted as saying.
Why not eat mass-produced food, so long as it's cheap? All right, Marco-Pierre has sold out. But having visited a state-of-the-art poultry unit not so long ago, I can see a smidgen of truth in his position. Unit is perhaps the wrong word; it suggests something small. This was not small; when I say that every hour 14,000 chickens were turned upside down, electrically stunned and decapitated, before being plucked, trussed, garnished or jointed, you'll have a measure of the place.
It was fanatically clean - it had to be, because the least infection would decimate the flock. The chickens, during the six weeks they were alive, may not have read Spinoza or been taught to water-ski, but they appeared to live the physically comfortable, brainless existences that may well be chicken heaven. Efficient agriculture of this kind produces an awful lot of food, at low prices; and as a nation of 60 million souls, we do eat an awful lot of food. That includes 15 million British chickens a week.
Not that everyone would feel happy to confront the process. "If the veil of secrecy that shields many forms of intensive food production were to be drawn back, we'd hate what we saw," says Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, custodians of the organic brand.
I would personally prefer not to buy one of those 14,000-an-hour chickens; birds that grow so fast are unlikely to taste of much, in my view. I am choosy about beef. But it is not the "basics" end of the supermarket that has seduced lapsed organoholics like me. The quality offering has been refined. While the organic label is strong (and vigorously policed), it represents a ragbag of standards. Supermarket definitions may be as slippery as a wet-fish counter, but they pull the right levers. Food miles are an issue to the rightthinking, environmentally committed consumer. People also want to support their own areas; they believe that food grown on the doorstep will be fresher. Localism is not part of the organic standard. We are offered organic bananas, dates and salad crops that could have been grown in the UK but come from faraway countries (where some may wonder whether organic certification is taken as seriously as it is here).
We pick up a Tesco Finest or Sainsbury Taste the Difference packet of pork chops, and there is a picture of the smiling farmer who reared them. We make a day of it and go to a farmers' market, where we can meet the farmer himself. Grassfed, slow-maturing meat is what we want. If we trust the supplier, it doesn't have to be organic.
The University of Leeds report also showed that even the ecological benefits of the organic system may have been overstated. Here, though, we have to be careful. There may not be so very much difference if you compare a small or medium-sized organic farm, which will generally have small fields and animals to provide the manure, with a conventional equivalent; but there are few such conventional farms left. Conventional farms are getting bigger and bigger. Efficiency means that crops grow without weeds. Without modern pesticides, organic farmers can't get rid of their weeds, leaving, by accident, something for the bugs - and the birds that feed on the bugs - to feast on. There is, however, a price to be paid. The organic farm yields about 50 per cent less.
The Leeds academics have now begun to examine another question: can Britain afford to support the organic system, which could be viewed as an increasingly luxury as the world population grows ever bigger and more hungry? With 9 billion people on the planet by the middle of the century, we are going to need more food, not less.
Holden looks through the other end of the telescope. A world of depleting resources, which is anxious to limit the quantity of carbon it emits, may not be able to sustain the intensive levels of agriculture taken as the norm in the West. You have to burn huge quantities of fossil fuel to make nitrate fertilisers. By contrast, organic systems capture carbon and lock it in the soil. "Farmers will have to rely more on their own resources, in the shape of sunlight and soil fertility." If food becomes more expensive, then we must change our diet: kick the addiction to cheap white meat - chicken and pork - which gobbles up extravagant quantities of grain. My mind tells me that we could solve the problem by adopting GM technology, which is anathema to the muck-and-mystery brigade. My conscience nags that Holden has got a point.
And so, yes, it may be that I have lost the faith.
I shop promiscuously. Aisles of perfectly formed, caterpillar-free cauliflowers make eyes at me. Chiller cabinets of non-organic delicacies beckon flirtatiously. I succumb. But oh my goodness, the guilt. Part of me feels that food shouldn't be this cheap, that some aspects of conventional agriculture are the equivalent of the credit boom that delivered short-term profits for the banks but ruined the economy.
But no, I can't resist. Another packet of overpackaged Extra Special Parma ham (from an intensively-reared pig, probably trundled across Europe from Denmark to Emilia-Romagna) goes into the trolley. Look, there is Mario, who produced it, beaming at me from the packet. Perhaps I shall return to the organic fold one day, when I can afford it. I fear it is a question of St Augustine's prayer: Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.