Sunday, 7 December 2008

Awful Organic?

This is an article I wrote around a year or so ago, which I sent off to 'Spark*', the University of Reading student newspaper (fortunately for me they'll publish just about anything!) I was really embarrassed with how arrogant my first draft sounded (can't believe I sent it off sounding like that...) but I've now given it a few tweaks so hopefully it sounds a lot less preachy this time around!

Awful Organic?

It seems like these days we can’t so much as walk down the street without some kind of advertisement presuming to tell us what we should and shouldn’t eat. The British public seem to be obsessed with food and as symptom of this it appears new, weird and wonderful eating disorders are appearing on an almost daily basis. My new favourite amusing, food-related condition is orthorexia; a state where sufferers are obsessed with eating only foods which they see as ‘pure’.

But what do we mean by pure? I guess different people have different definitions: Foods with a low GI, low saturated fat content, foods which include whole grains and food which is certified organic – and there are others. It’s organic food that I want to talk about in this article however because – I’m going to go ahead and say it - I think it’s (at the very best) extremely over-hyped.

Firstly, organic food is only ever organic if an accredited body, the best known being the SA (Soil Association), say it is. The SA was set up by Defra (the government department for rural affairs) and is generally well respected. One of their more recent items certified as a faux pas for organic foods though are scientifically trendy nanoparticles. Their view however is that any synthetic nanoparticles are banned whereas natural nanoparticles (such as soot, for example present in foods grown next to a power station) are deemed fine. Is it me or does this just not conjure up a picture of purity and wholesomeness? The trouble is they can pretty much create whatever list of acceptable chemicals they like and these may then be used on organic crops. The key word is always natural – as long as something is natural is can pretty much go onto organic food.

My view is that this rule of thumb seems a bit dodgy to say the least. This may make me sound like a bit of a heretic, but let me explain using an analogy! We use synthetic medicines to keep human bodies healthy and in the vast majority of cases these days we have sufficient scientific knowledge to make these medicines safe. If we were to use natural remedies to cure our ailments they would be in general not as effective. This is they key, because the same is true of plants. In general natural pesticides and fertilisers are much, much less effective than synthetic types. Don’t forget, this is not the 50s and we don’t use DDT anymore; agrochemical companies spend literally millions each year testing their products and ensuring they will do us no harm and that they are so effective that the amount needed for several hectares of lands can be quoted in grams.

With the global credit crunch and the fact that in lots of regions of the world there are clearly not enough crops to feed the population, is such a wasteful method of farming as organic really ethical? The only advantage it appears to yield is a vague warm feeling that when we pay that extra 50p for our carrots we are somehow doing the environment good and getting healthier produce. Is it worth it?

Ok, so I’ve given a pretty negative view of organic farming, and it’s true that conventional methods aren’t exactly perfect either. The fact that they create monocultures which reduce biodiversity is clearly not their most redeeming feature. And of course it takes many a long year, and lot of money and a lot of energy to take a pesticide or herbicide from conception to market, so in the process of making farming more efficient in this way we are also stamping down with a large to, frankly, enormous sized carbon footprint.

Read more about organic food and see what the Soil Association have to say for themselves at

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