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Organic food is selfish

10-Jul-2006

The rise of organic food is a knee-jerk reaction to consumer health fears, and threatens to unhelpfully steer us away from improving the quality of food generally.

Everyone in the food supply chain has a responsibility to put all consumers back in touch with real food.

Organic food sales soared by 30 per cent in Britain last year, according to newly released figures from the pro-organic Soil Association.

 

Its research showed that consumers were increasingly switching to organic food in the wake of food scares, such as the discovery of illegal Sudan 1 dye in several foods in 2005, nutrition concerns and the continued use of pesticides.

 

The association also proudly announced that more than half of people on lower incomes in Britain 'sometimes' bought organic food, 'putting to rest' the myth that organic food is the preserve of the better-off middle classes.

 

But, we are missing the point here. If organic food sales are rising then surely that only suggests that people are dissatisfied with the quality of food they ate before.

 

And if that is the case then running off to the organic food aisle looks rather selfish.

 

For a start it threatens to create a two-tier system. A walk around some of the poorer areas of Britain alone reveals how a lot of people still cannot afford to buy significant amounts of organic food on a regular basis. Picking up the odd organic yoghurt is very different from buying significant amounts of organic food every week.

 

And there is still not enough organic food around to feed everyone in any case, despite a 14 per cent rise in organically managed land in England last year.

 

As for the future, I always remember a high-ranking representative of the Soil Association telling me they thought organic food could only ever grab around 30 per cent of the UK food market.

 

Organic food then is pulling our attention away from the real problem, which is that the whole food supply chain needs to reconnect with its roots.

 

It is hard to believe, for example, that we live in a society where sliced white bread is almost as unhealthy as sugary fizzy drinks. Yet that is the conclusion the UK Food Standards Agency arrived at with its proposed nutrient profiling system last September.

 

White bread sales have admittedly fallen over the last few years as consumers trade up to more wholesome varieties, but this still represents a strange state of affairs when one considers bread has been part of the human race's staple diet for thousands of years.

 

The rise of organic food is partly a consumer reaction against this 'dumbing down' of real food, a plea for tastier, healthier and more locally sourced products.

 

Today's supermarket-led food chain is still messing with reality. Rows and rows of uniform, shiny fruits and vegetables sit perkily on the shelves; with strict supermarket selectors having weeded out anything resembling variety.

 

Studies by campaign groups have shown this policy induces farmers to use more pesticides to ensure their products meet the strict specifications set by supermarkets.

 

There have been flickers of a change recently, although not yet on the scale needed. The decision by upmarket retailer Waitrose to sell wonky vegetables, albeit at knock-down prices, should be applauded as a move in the right direction.

 

So too should plans to review pesticide use, like the one launched recently by Britain's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The final report will be published in 2008.

 

Both of these examples serve a greater purpose than organic food because they seek to change the system without opting out of it.

 

The organic food movement may have unlocked growing public support for changes in the food supply chain, such as more variety, more local products and more nutritious foods. But it is these core values, not organic food itself, that should take the food industry forward in the 21st Century.

 

Chris Mercer is editor on BeverageDaily.com and DairyReporter.com. He has also worked as a freelance writer and researcher for the BBC, Sunday Telegraph and other media. Send any comments to chris.mercer@decisionnews.com .

 

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